Alumni turn dreams into goals into careers
From any early age, children are constantly asked “what do you want to be” and sometimes the answer comes easily and is unwavering. For others, it evolves as they grow into themselves — first as teenagers and then as adults. But the journey our students take from the wide-eyed freshmen to the senior-turned-alumni as they cross the stage at graduation is only the first leg of their journey, one that our colleges feel privileged to help shape. To recognize that, we’re calling attention to some of our alumni success stories.
Here are five impressive young alums, with excerpts from stories the colleges have shared about their early successes.
- Mengyuan Sun ’15, Gustavus Adolphus College
- Jesse Phenow ’14, Bethel University
- Courtney Benson '14, Hamline University
- Dawit Endale Alemayehu ’11, Concordia College
- Ann Macarayan ’14, Minneapolis College of Art and Design
When Gustavus Adolphus College senior Mengyuan (MJ) Sun [crossed] the stage to receive her diploma on May 31, she [was] more than 7,000 miles from her hometown of Sichuan, China. Her decision to attend Gustavus has paid off in more ways than one as she will leave the College with degrees in nursing and biology along with offers to attend eight different colleges of veterinary medicine.
Schools that wanted Sun to join their veterinary medicine program included Cornell University, University of Minnesota, University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Georgia, Michigan State University, Colorado State University, and Ohio State University. When it came time to make a decision, Sun chose Cornell University—the No. 2 ranked vet school according to U.S. News & World Report.
“The compelling reason for me to choose Cornell was not its sheer ranking, but something more personal,” Sun said.
When she was seven years old, Sun recalls watching a documentary about elephants. At the end of film, Cornell was credited for the research in animal science. From that point on, she says she wanted to attend the school in Ithaca, New York.
“I also really like how they use a problem-based learning approach,” Sun said. “Traditionally, vet students attend lectures for two or three years and then do clinical time for a full year at the end. Instead, Cornell has the problem-based approach that encourages students to put their lecture learning to case studies. This type of teaching better suits my learning style.”
Around Bethel, Jesse Phenow ’14 is well known for his intense football skills. As running back, Phenow played an integral role in the Bethel football team’s success during his four years at Bethel.
Off the field, however, Phenow is best known for his humanitarian heart. Raised in Richfield, Minnesota, Phenow was surrounded by diversity—ethnically and economically—from a young age. According to Phenow, his upbringing played an important role in his desire to engage varying cultural groups. He grew to care about the forgotten. He grew to root for the underdog. He grew to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.
At Bethel, Phenow studied relational communication as well as biblical and theological studies. It was during his intercultural communication class in 2012 that Phenow and his classmate and friend, Kellen Kersten, were introduced to a family in St. Paul with whom they were to spend time with as a part of the course. The family of nine—father, mother, and seven sons ages 1-14—were refugees from Burma, now called Myanmar.
Both Phenow and Kersten took the assignment far beyond the course requirement and developed a strong, lasting bond with the family, who were part of the Karen people group. “It really just started as showing up and hanging out and kind of amazingly has evolved into our lives being intertwined,” Phenow explains. “We are continually becoming more invested in the many facets of each others’ lives.”
The fact that Courtney Benson '14 was a nationally-recognized athlete during her four years at Hamline is impressive enough. Pair that with dual degrees in finance and economics and a GPA nearly touching 4.0, and you have a superstar.
“Benson is a clear-cut example of what we desire in our student athletes at Hamline,” Athletic Director Jason Verdugo said. “She was one of Hamline's all-time greats—an elite in her sport and equally accomplished in the classroom. We were very fortunate to have her be a member of the Hamline athletics family.”
One of the most prolific gymnasts in Hamline history, Benson earned a national championship and several All-American honors, was a two-time Capital One Academic All-American, and was named the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association’s Senior Gymnast of the Year in 2013. To cap off her impressive college career, the National Collegiate Athletic Association named her one of 30 semifinalists for their annual Woman of the Year award.
“It’s rewarding to win titles,” Benson said, “but at the same time, I don’t go in to win, I go in to do what I love.”
A global studies major can take you away from home – or back home, as in the case of Ethiopia native Dawit Endale Alemayehu ’11.
Alemayehu likes coffee, but it’s his passion for his work that motivates him to rise each morning and take to the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In addition to his coursework in global studies and business, Alemayehu sought out opportunities to participate in student organizations. He got involved in Concordia’s Hip Hop Summit, International Student Organization and Invisible Children. Participating in the organizations showed Alemayehu that he wanted to take his passion to a community where he can engage with people.
“The sense of belongingness and international communality that I got from the International Student Organization and Invisible Children meant the world to me,” Alemayehu says. “This aligned with my passion for global studies and global activism.”
Alemayehu’s involvement and his academic studies shaped and broadened his worldview while building valuable critical thinking skills.
“Concordia inspired me to be a learner,” Alemayehu says. “To seek knowledge and to better the lives of people in my immediate and non-immediate circles.”
What do you currently do for a living?
I am an illustrator/designer at a stationery company called Gartner Studios in Stillwater, Minnesota.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
Even though I work in product design and make things for mass retailers, my job really encourages its designers to work by hand in order to make original and fun art. We are a small team and each one of us has a unique skill set, so projects tend to be assigned to us based on our style and aesthetic. It's very nurturing to us as artists—we can utilize our talents and excel at what we do best!
Why did you choose your major and what were your major classes like?
I chose illustration because I've always loved every aspect of it; whether it be in magazines, or as posters or prints, or on product. Luckily, classes in my major covered each one of those. I took Editorial Illustration with Tom Garrett, and he's great when it comes to telling a detailed story in a single illustration. Product Design was so much fun; it allowed me to really find my visual aesthetic and work it into objects like toys, stationery, or apparel. Now that I've graduated I work in product design full time, and I do editorial freelance at night. It's a great way to shake things up and keep my illustrations fresh!