Striding Into the Future
by Elizabeth Renfro
Under the lights of New York City, along the cyber-highway, beside mass graves in Kosovo, and yes, even on the streets of Indianapolis—recent CSU, Chico alums are working, innovating, and defining what it means to be a successful college grad in the 21st century.
The nine alums profiled here are thriving on the challenges of the new millennium, from growing award-winning organic wines to speaking with Today Show audiences about living simply; from launching new technology companies to helping humanitarian organizations grow. They represent a wide variety of fields, but each was inspired by teachers and mentors inside and outside the classroom. The support they received inspired their passion to give back, to share the joy they have found in their work by becoming mentors themselves to aspiring humanitarians, scientists, entrepreneurs, writers, growers, students, and athletes.
These grads are forging new paths. They share certain characteristics typical of many 21st-century Chico State grads: They are confident, connected, passionate, creative, and open to change. How will their moment in history shape them? And how will they, in turn, shape the world around them? It will be interesting to watch their futures unfold.
The work is emotionally demanding, politically charged, often dangerous—and exactly what Renée Kosalka (MA, Anthropology, ’06) has wanted to do since she was an undergraduate in Toronto. As a forensic anthropologist, Kosalka has taken her recovery and identification expertise all over the world to put names to victims of natural disasters, war, and terrorism.
In 1999, Kosalka was a senior at the University of Toronto, taking Professor Jerry Melbye’s forensic anthropology course, then the only one of its kind in Canada. One day her eye caught a flyer posted outside his office: a call from the International Criminal Tribunal for field workers to aid in genocide victim location and identification in the Balkans. Kosalka immediately asked Melbye how she could get on that team. After he told her she needed to get a master’s degree in physical anthropology, she “thought about it on a 15-minute stroll” across campus to meet friends, sat down, and announced she knew what she would be doing with her life.
Less than a year later, she was enrolled in Chico State’s program, working with internationally recognized forensic anthropology professors and fellow graduate students who would become both mentors and friends, among them Professors Turhon Murad, P. Willey, and Eric Bartelink (MA, Anthropology, ’01). By 2001, in only her second year in the program, Kosalka was volunteering at the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in New York City, helping identify and analyze victims’ remains from Ground Zero.
Since then, Kosalka’s fieldwork has taken her all over the world, from various locations in Canada with the Missing Women’s Task Force to Thailand after the 2004 tsunami disaster. She is a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice, Interpol, and international agencies in the Caribbean and South America and has taught classes in cutting-edge forensic practices such as computerized skeletal and DNA analysis, site mapping, and surveying.
Much of Kosalka’s fieldwork, however, has been in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina with the International Commission on Missing Persons, doing what that 1999 flyer described. She works on teams applying “a multitude of scientific disciplines” to finding answers in the aftermath of horrific violence. Since 2004, Kosalka, now a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, has taken part in more than 100 forensic investigations in the Balkans, including 13 mass graves, in sites ranging from burned-out buildings to “backyards and open fields, forests and ravines, caves and swamps.” She works with local commissions and courts assembling evidence not only to identify victims but also to aid in prosecuting those responsible for the atrocities.
“There is great reward in knowing that I’m contributing in a small but meaningful way to the lives of individuals, families, and public safety within societies,” says Kosalka, adding that the work gives her the privilege of laboring alongside “some of the brightest and most dedicated scientists in the world, who are willing to risk their own lives in the pursuit of justice.”
Growing Eco Wines
An excellent glass of organic wine is the product of not only a good grape harvest, but also a dedicated winegrower, like Eric Pooler (BS, Agricultural Business, ’02), who devotes countless hours to making it truly great. Growing up as the son of the Yuba County agriculture commissioner, Pooler has “always liked growing things,” but he was not always sure how he would turn that passion into a career.
Though Pooler spent his teens working in local orchards, as an undergraduate he was planning a career in the sales side of agriculture. But experiences like heading out of the classroom to conduct water analysis on Big Chico Creek with Professor Henricus Jansen’s agricultural ecology class piqued his interest in the microbiological aspects of “growing things.” Then, as a junior, Pooler took a wine tasting class from Professor Marian Baldy, a nationally recognized wine expert. (“I still have the draft of the textbook she wrote,” he says.) After a summer 2001 internship with United Agricultural Products sent him to wine country, it all came together.
Within a year of graduation, Pooler was working for Kendall-Jackson, first as a pest control advisor in Sonoma and then as assistant vineyard manager in Monterey. In 2005, Pooler returned to Napa-Sonoma to work for a start-up winery, Hall Wines, beginning what has become his passion: sustainable, organic viticulture. After recognizing the subtle improvements to wine quality fostered via organic and biodynamic farming practices, he never looked back.
Since 2008, Pooler has been vineyard and grower relations manager for Boisset Family Estates throughout California. A major part of Pooler’s work has been shepherding the demanding processes of organic and biodynamic certification in the company’s St. Helena and Rutherford vineyards. Biodynamic growing is a holistic approach, not simply ruling out use of synthetic pesticides, but also striving to build biodiversity and feed the farm from within.
“Organic and biodynamic growing demands more thought and planning,” says Pooler. “It’s harder because it requires you to think proactively, not reactively.” It’s a challenge Pooler enjoys—not just “growing things,” but growing them in a way that produces what Boisset Family Estates president Jean-Charles Boisset calls “true wines, authentic wines.”
Playing New York City
Ashley Morgan Monroe
Having already accumulated press clippings naming her a “tap dancing sensation” and “sultry chanteuse,” this past fall Ashley Morgan Monroe (BA, Theatre Arts, ’06) captured a New York Innovative Theatre award nomination for outstanding choreography in the musical satire Circus of Circus.
From childhood, Monroe says, “I wanted to be this famous actress in television or Broadway, and believe me, I still do, but now I kind of like doing things on my own terms.” Monroe’s own terms have her thriving in New York City as a performance “jack of all trades.” Her performances range from modeling to musical theater and choreography, to Pilates and fitness instruction, to a role as an undercover writer in television’s Disappeared.
But Monroe’s real love is performance, which began at age 3 when she started tap lessons. She went on to add to her repertoire, studying salsa, hip-hop, jazz, and ballroom dance, and singing in her church choir, “where I learned to belt,” she says. Homegrown theatre productions began early, too. She remembers “putting shows on in my living room, pretending to be Wonder Woman with my little-kid hooded blanket, putting on ice skating competitions at recess, singing ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in my backyard.”
Three years ago, Monroe founded The Silky Sirens Burlesque Company. While retaining the glitter, feathers, and outrageous fun of traditional burlesque, her shows often blend humor and serious commentary. “We do classic burlesque with a modern twist,” explains Monroe. “My choreography always tells a story. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“We all want a sense of belonging,” says Erica Flores (BS, Agricultural Business, ’07). “We all want a place where we are respected, connected, and affirmed.” Creating such places is what Flores’s life and career are all about. No matter where she is, no matter what she’s doing, she’s “always engaged in building community.”
Flores began her professional community building as leadership program coordinator at Chico State’s Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, which she and mentor C.C. Carter established in 2007. “C.C. and I were dream builders together, dreaming big and believing in ‘possible.’ ” Now in Indianapolis, Flores has taken that same drive to the national stage at Future Farmers of America’s (FFA) headquarters, as coordinator for diversity and inclusion—a position she and CEO Dwight Armstrong collaboratively created shortly after her initial hiring as an education specialist in 2009.
The reach of FFA extends beyond rural America and includes active chapters in 18 of the 20 largest U.S. cities, says Flores, yet FFA’s own research shows some potential membership populations do not feel included. This is what Flores aims to change through an approach she calls “diversity intentionality.” In contrast to an organizational model in which, Flores says, “you’re sitting at home waiting and hoping for someone to knock on your door, instead imagine standing on your front porch and eagerly welcoming all in through your doors. We want to stand on the front porch of our organization and make certain everyone knows FFA and agricultural education is a place to call home.”
Whether she is advocating in her FFA office, volunteering with half a dozen nonprofit organizations in her new hometown, or indulging her love of portrait painting—life, for Flores, is about “engaging my heart in all that I do and dreaming big.”
Searching for Smalltopia
Google Smalltopia, the title of Tammy Strobel’s second e-book, and you’ll find more than 18,000 hits. First up is her own blog site, Rowdy Kittens, celebrating social change through simple living. Then come fans—thousands—of this “mini-living mama,” as one blogger writes. Interspersed are links to the 2010 New York Times article that led to appearances on The Today Show and in USA Today, which in turn led to over a dozen literary agents asking to represent her next book, though Strobel (BA, Economics, ’01; Master of Public Administration, ’03) hadn’t even started it yet.
“Smalltopia”—the concept—is actually a philosophy, a way of life, and a place to be, explains Strobel. Smalltopia—the book—describes using that philosophy to start a small business and live simply. She writes from and of her own experiences, offering “options to ponder.” A decade of social work with sexual assault survivors taught her “how important it is to talk about options rather than telling people what to do, what to think.”
The examples of “living small and thinking big,” says Strobel, all focus on “prioritizing human connections over stuff.” One challenge she and husband Logan Smith (BS, Animal Science, ’02) took on several years ago was weeding their belongings down to a total of 100 items each—clothes, books, cooking utensils, everything. Living small culminated in their move this past winter into a 150-square-foot house in Portland. With fewer possessions to care for (and finance), Strobel has reveled in the time freed for volunteering, yoga, and engaging with the online community her writing has opened up.
And that third book the agents were clamoring about? You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap) is due out in paperback later this year from New World Library.
Now CEO of a company he launched as an undergraduate, Robert Strazzarino (at left in photo above) says that as a Redding High School student, he “nerded out writing code,” already driven by his dream to create his own business. And when, as a Chico State sophomore, he spent hours struggling to arrange his schedule, he saw an opportunity.
Strazzarino (BS, Computer Science, ’06) proceeded to design software that did it better. Fast forward a year—past scenes of his roommate hanging flyers all over campus that offered free use of the software—to 2005, when half the Chico State student body used the tool, to Strazzarino’s senior year, when he had his first paying client, Chico State.
College Scheduler clients now comprise more than three dozen colleges and universities across the country, including Penn State; University of Wisconsin, Madison; and several CSUs. Benefits are not limited to saving students time during registration; administrators and advisors are also using the software to track and respond to course demand, thereby speeding students’ graduation paths. The company has garnered national recognition, including a spot among Empact100’s 2011 list of “top 100 companies run by young entrepreneurs … who impact our economy and inspire others.”
“Inspiring others” is another of Strazzarino’s passions. “I’d never have made it through the early roller-coaster years without the mentors I’ve had, and that’s what I want to give back,” he says. He is often on the Chico State campus, speaking at Collegiate Entrepreneurial Association meetings, guest lecturing in classes, and just having coffee with “anyone who asks.”
He’s also setting up scholarships for students attending College Scheduler client universities. “Some of these students will probably be starting companies, building the U.S. economy,” says Strazzarino. “I want to help.”
Dreaming in High-Tech
Used your iPhone to check out a restaurant’s dinner specials? Snagged a coupon through your Blackberry? Reserved a session with your gym’s personal trainer via iPad? If so, Bizness Apps, the brainchild of Andrew Gazdecki (BS, Business Administration, ’11), may have made your life a bit easier.
CEO of his own global, high-tech business before he even graduated, Gazdecki (at right in photo above) says he has just been following his dream. “I love innovating—not just solving problems, but elegantly solving problems.”
In a field where complexity and innovation are the norms, Gazdecki’s approach has been to take something both complex and generally costly for business owners—mobile development—and make it easy, affordable, and still high quality. Bizness Apps provides businesses with economical, do-it-yourself software platforms to design and update mobile interfaces with customers. Elegant solutions sell: Bizness Apps serves clients in countries across the globe and was featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
In any business venture, finding the right partners is pivotal, and college is the perfect place for making those connections, according to Gazdecki. Early in Bizness Apps’ genesis, he brought in close friend Zach Cusimano (BS, Business Administration, ’11), now the company’s chief operations officer. Equally important has been the mentoring (and start-up support) from Chico State alums Chris Friedland (BA, Political Science, ’99), founder and CEO of Build.com, and Robert Strazzarino.
Yet even as the hardworking CEO of a company that The Washington Post says “is growing like gangbusters,” 23-year-old Gazdecki says his folks still ask, “When are you going to get a job?” Notes Gazdecki, “I work 90 hours a week because I love what I do.” Maybe that just doesn’t sound like a “job.”
Playing It Forward
The glory days of Wildcat women’s basketball are fond memories for former star guard and assistant coach Alisha Valavanis (BA, Journalism, ’00; MA, Physical Education, ’04), now director of annual giving for Athletic Development at UC Berkeley. But what she cherishes most are the lessons she learned from Coach Mary Ann Lazzarini.
During four years as a Wildcat (racking up a then-record 139 three-pointers) and six as an assistant coach, Valavanis watched Lazzarini help athletes grow by instilling values of teamwork and caring on and off the court. As assistant coach, Valavanis says she spent “almost as much time helping athletes develop life skills and engage in community outreach projects as I did on coaching the Wildcat defense.”
In 2006, Valavanis moved up to Division I basketball at the University of the Pacific as assistant and later associate head coach under former Chico State Coach Lynne Roberts. At UOP, Valavanis again threw her energies equally into athletic and philanthropic work with her players, initiating projects like Pacific Plays Pink. This fundraising partnership between UOP players and the local hospital raised $10,000 for breast cancer treatment in its first year and is still going strong.
After enjoying stints as a scout for the WNBA and as point-person for the Golden State Warriors’ nonprofit fundraising campaigns, Valavanis realized that her heart lies with student-athletes and nonprofit work. “As a former student-athlete who benefited on so many levels from the generosity, connectedness, and support of a university community, I really believe in this work,” she says. Today at Cal, Valavanis is back at it, leading a team that “runs fundraising campaigns across all 29 Cal Bears sports—all anchored in philanthropy.”
Seeding Global Change
Some folks are globetrotters. Others might be called “globe changers,” and Alexa Benson-Valavanis (BA, Journalism, ’00) is definitely one of the latter. Humanitarian work has taken her around the world. Now back in Chico, Valavanis is CEO of the North Valley Community Foundation (NVCF), helping North State nonprofits.
Even as an undergraduate and point guard for the Chico State women’s basketball team, Valavanis was active in community service, efforts that won her (with her twin sister, Alisha) an Outstanding Contributions to the University Award. As she pursued her Multicultural and Gender Studies minor, her awareness of human need grew, and, she explains, “I just knew I wanted to help make changes happen.”
Shortly after graduation, Valavanis jumped right in, taking a year-long position in Shanghai with International Kindergartens. She then worked in Vietnam and Thailand, and co-founded Seeds of Life in Guatemala, an international group supporting indigenous Guatemalans’ nonprofit organizations. And always, wherever she was, Valavanis listened to the people she met, taking in their stories and supporting their goals.
Since 2005, Valavanis has brought that same skill to the NVCF. Through meetings, workshops, and leadership institutes, she helps individuals and groups forge connections, organize, and fundraise. Under Valavanis’s leadership, NVCF has raised $25 million for 450 regional nonprofits.
“Every day I see evidence of the vast generosity of human beings,” she wrote in 2007. Being able to support Koala Koudougou’s work bringing education to Burkina Faso villages, helping grieving parents launch a crisis support project in honor of their son—this, says Valavanis, “just makes you want to get up in the morning.”
About the author
Elizabeth Renfro (BA, English and German, ’72; MA, English, ’75) taught for 35 years at CSU, Chico in English, Honors, and Multicultural and Gender Studies. She has written dozens of chapters, articles, and academic papers and two books, one on writing and one on the Shasta Indians. Renfro retired professor emerita in 2010.
Beiron Andersson, Amel Emric, Genevieve Shiffrar, Caroline White
CONCANNON (BS, Business Administration, ’85) is a fourth-generation vintner at Concannon Vineyard.
(BS, Business Administration, ’94) is the human resources manager for the News & Review, headquartered in Sacramento.
(BS, Business Administration, ’87) is executive vice president and chief financial officer of Epicor Software Corporation.