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Pt. 3, 30 Spotlights for 30 Years


Photograph by Bradley H. Slade


Founding CEO > Perth Usasia Centre, University of Western Australia

From DC to the Antipodes

After returning from his mission to Korea, Gordon Flake was told that his dream career in Asian studies was a long shot. “If you want to work in Korea, get a skill,” he and other Korean-speaking returned missionaries at BYU were told. “You would be lucky if 1 percent of you got jobs as Korean specialists.”

Flake was that 1 percent. Previously running programs with Asia as the head of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, Flake topped 20 years in the nonprofit think tank sector in DC with an appointment as the first CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia in January 2014. “Ultimately, the field of international relations is all about relationships and forging trust so that you can have real understanding and communication,” he says. “The opportunity to do that across the Pacific is tremendous.”

Over his career Flake, who grew up on the Navajo Nation, has “earned and burned” four million frequent-flyer miles, following a family motto: “The world is a book. If you don’t travel, you’re only reading one page.”


Senior officer > U.S. Foreign Service, DC

A spiritually minded diplomat

I am going to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when I grow up,” Aleisha Woodward told her third-grade teacher.

Though she has yet to fulfill her own prophecy, Woodward recently served as the U.S. consul general in Perth, Australia. “Australia, and especially Western Australia, was well insulated against the global financial crisis,” she says. “We worked hard to assist American companies and individuals in finding business opportunities in Australia.”

Aside from Perth, Woodward has served in Tokyo, in London, and in Chisinau, Moldova. She is now in Astana, Kazakhstan, where she heads the Public Affairs Section. “Being a diplomat is everything I imagined it would be,” she affirms.

Her journey to the Foreign Service began at BYU. “International relations at BYU seemed to have all the best parts of political science as well as business and cultural studies,” she recalls. “What could be better for a future diplomat?”

After receiving her BA in international relations from BYU in 1992, Woodward served a mission in Japan and then later spent a year there teaching English and conducting interviews for her master’s in international and area studies. After defending her thesis in 1998, she began her career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. She also received a second master’s degree, in national security strategy, in 2010 from the National War College.

At BYU she learned that “the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just about religion,” she says. “All truth, all goodness comes from our Heavenly Father. Successful businesses, technological breakthroughs, and negotiated treaties all come about through His power. This is something I could not have learned at any other university.”

Another insight Woodward gained was how much of her education depended upon her. She says, “Mere knowledge was not the goal. The professors were simply guides on a journey of exploration; the pace and destination were up to me.” [Illustration by Joel Kimmel]

Photograph by Dodge Billingsley


Senior director of private brands packaging > Wal-Mart, Arkansas

The Wal-Mart label guy

In Ron Sasine’s first class as a student at the Kennedy Center, Professor Ray Hillam quoted Doctrine and Covenants 88:79, which says to learn of “things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations.” Hillam told the students that “no course of study at BYU more closely fulfilled that scriptural mandate,” says Sasine, “and that our preparation in international studies would prepare us for a future that we could not yet envision.” Sasine decided to do everything in his power to prepare for this future, graduating in 1989 with a BA in international relations before earning an MA at Johns Hopkins.

Today he manages a global supply chain that designs and manufactures packaging for Wal-Mart, one of the world’s largest corporations. “Every day I work to find ways to connect manufacturers with consumers and help consumers meet their household needs,” says Sasine. “Meaningful communication in a very limited space with only seconds to affect a purchase decision makes my work challenging, demanding, and very rewarding.”

Sasine’s work over the past twenty-five years has taken him across Asia, Europe, and North America. During a seven-year assignment in Brazil, he translated as President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the LDS temple in Campinas.

Photograph by Dodge Billingsley


President and CEO > Africa-America Institute, New York

Advocate for hope in her homeland

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Amini Kajunju is the first African appointed as president and CEO of the Africa-America Institute (AAI), an international nonprofit organization based in the United States and dedicated to strengthening Africa’s development through higher education and skills training.

Kajunju cares deeply about Africa, but affecting meaningful change on the continent can be challenging. Her work with AAI focuses on areas such as vocational and technical training, leadership and management, entrepreneurship, and increased access to higher education.

Kajunju received a BA in international relations from the Kennedy Center in 1995. One of the greatest lessons she learned during her time at BYU was the importance of establishing lasting relationships. “People must come first,” Kajunju says. “In one’s professional or personal life it is important to build solid relationships with people.”

Even after graduation, Kajunju’s experience at the Kennedy Center has continued to influence her life. “Every time I mention BYU and the Kennedy Center, it helps me get in the door because there is so much respect and integrity associated with it,” she says.

Since graduating, Kajunju has worked largely with nonprofit organizations focused on improving humanitarian and business situations in Africa. Her determination and success have brought her attention: she was featured in the Forbes annual “20 Young Power Women in Africa” in 2013, and her article “Africa’s Secret Weapon: The Diaspora” was included in CNN’s African Voices.

Kajunju considers it one of her most significant accomplishments to balance the demands of motherhood with the rigors of running an international organization. “Thankfully,” she says, “I really enjoy my job and I love being a mother, and that helps me find the support and the mental energy to juggle my responsibilities.”

Photograph by Bradley H. Slade


Associate professor > BYU Law School, Utah

Cyberwarfare law specialist

We need more David Kennedys in the government who are true diplomats and who know how to solve problems through diplomacy,” says BYU law professor Eric Jensen, while reflecting on his twenty-plus years working in international law for the U.S. Army. “I came out of that experience being a real believer in international law and diplomacy.” During those two decades, Jensen was deployed to Bosnia, Macedonia, and Iraq, among other areas, working as international legal advisor, law of armed-conflict trainer, and eventually the army’s chief of international law.

Three years ago Jensen returned to BYU and eventually the Kennedy Center, which he says was “the backdrop against which I planned my international career.” One of his goals became to strengthen ties between the BYU Law School and the Kennedy Center to help prepare more students for a career in international law.

“There have been a number of my students who have gone on to work in the government doing international or national security law. That’s really rewarding,” says Jensen, who cotaught a class this summer for the Kennedy Center about national security policy.

Jensen still spends a lot of time working with peers around the world on international legal issues. He recently returned from a weeklong trip to Estonia in which he worked on cyberwarfare issues. Two weeks after that he left for Australia to talk with representatives from more than twenty nations about the same topic, and he has a similar trip to Oxford planned.

Jensen has been writing about cyber issues since 2001, but he also deals with national security and armed-conflict issues. He is especially proud of a book he produced that helped define laws relating to cyber technology and warfare. “These are issues that governments are thinking about right now,” he says, “and the extent that we can talk about them and provide a platform to discuss them is very important.”

Photograph by Dodge Billingsley


Immigration lawyer > Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, Chicago

Hero of the undocumented

When she was nineteen Rebecca van Uitert decided to study Arabic at BYU’s Jerusalem Center. She earned every penny she needed for the six-month trip herself. “That was the best $9,000 that I spent up to that point—and maybe since,” she says. “It set the course for pursuing a career in immigration and international law.”

On a trip with Model UN, van Uitert landed a paralegal job at a New York City law firm working in international finance. “I think Model UN prepares you for working in the real world with clients with diverse backgrounds and experiences,” she says.

Today she works as a corporate immigration lawyer in Chicago, helping businesses bring international talent into the United States. But her heart is really in her pro bono work. “My primary goal in pursing a degree from the Kennedy Center was to someday serve this undocumented immigrant community that I had come to love so much on my mission in California,” says van Uitert, who got her BA in international relations in 2002. The cochair of the junior leadership board of the National Immigrant Justice Center, she spends about 30 percent of her time helping undocumented immigrants, many of whom are victims of crime.

Courtesy Jeff Rust


Cofounder and CEO > Corporate Alliance, Utah

The networking guy

For Jeff Rust, it’s who you know that matters—in the best possible way. The cofounder and CEO of Corporate Alliance, a networking company, Rust has spoken to more than 1,500 audiences about relationship-building principles. “Some of our clients tear up as they talk about the way their life or their business was saved or enhanced because of the care and connection of someone else,” he says.

As a sophomore Rust attended an orientation at the Kennedy Center in which the group was asked, “How many of you are here because you didn’t get into the business school?” His hand shot up—along with the hands of almost every other student there. “The good news is that 95 percent of our graduates graduate with a job,” they were told. “The bad news is that you’ll need to start looking now.” Rust says the advice empowered him and led to an internship in Ukraine and to starting Corporate Alliance.

At age 37 Rust already has gone gray (though he considers himself a late bloomer since his dad grayed at 26)—but he has many more connections to make. “We are still very much in the throws of growing Corporate Alliance around the world,” he says.

Courtesy Sisi Messick


Account director > Microbenefits, China

Harnessing the power of the app

After graduating in international relations in 2011, Sisi Messick moved to China, where she has been working with a team to build MicroBenefits, a startup company designed to help decrease factory turnover rates. After a few initial bumps, their hard work
has paid off: the company now works with brand names like Apple, Nike, and Starbucks.

As the account director for MicroBenefits, Messick oversees sales, marketing, app development, and account management, which takes her to factories all over Asia. Many of these factories have employee turnover rates of 15 to 20 percent per month among their young, tech-savvy employees. To help companies engage their young workers, MicroBenefits creates gaming apps for corporate training and internal communication and develops networks to improve purchasing. “Together,” she explains, “these programs create a socially responsible solution for businesses to cut their costs and keep their turnover low.”

Messick credits much of her success to the Kennedy Center. While completing her undergraduate degree, Messick was active in several student organizations and participated in internships with the Office of the United States Trade Representative in DC and with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Such experiences were demanding but valuable. “It shows a future employer that you have taken the initiative to seek out opportunities abroad and that you have a global mindset, which is increasingly critical today,” she says.

Her advice to students is to take the initiative. “Talk to teachers after class, join clubs, do an internship, go on a study abroad, and ask companies what they look for in a future employee,” she says. “Seek to differentiate yourself.”


Special assistant to the president for economic policy and senior advisor > U.S. National Economic Council, DC

In the vanguard of White House economics

“Do not be afraid to fail,” says Seth Wheeler from his office in Washington, DC. “Not only does it suggest you are pushing yourself, but failing small is one of the best ways to learn your strengths and weaknesses and to learn how to overcome hurdles.”

Wheeler is a senior advisor at the National Economic Council, having previously served as chief of staff for the Office of Financial Stability Policy and Research at the Federal Reserve Board. His career path has weaved through the U.S. Treasury, Morgan Stanley, and Bain & Company.

In the past decade he has had a notable rise to the top. “My career so far has been very rewarding, though challenging at times,” he says. “It has been incredibly exciting and satisfying to try to make a difference in the world with the skills and education I have gathered along the way.”

Following a mission to San Francisco, he double-majored in economics and Asian studies at BYU. “This seemed like a great way to polish my Mandarin Chinese and to receive a broad range of exposure to political science, history, and culture,” says Wheeler. “The Kennedy Center and related experiences encouraged me to seek out rich and intellectually stimulating activities, dynamic friends, and opportunities to serve.” After graduating in 2000, he capped off his education with a JD from Columbia and an MBA from Harvard.

Wheeler also notes the importance of getting involved with student activities and finding peer mentors. “Professors and alumni can provide valuable perspectives given their experience,” he says, “but the networking and long hours chatting with fellow students and friends played the most important role in helping shape my outlook on career, public service, and more.” [Illustration by Joel Kimmel]

Photograph by Bradley H. Slade


Founding director > BYU Center for the Study of Europe, Utah

BYU’s advocate for Europe

“I was minding my own business,” says Wade Jacoby, a political science professor at BYU. “The group of faculty putting together a grant for a national resource center asked if I’d like to participate.” When the grant was successful, President Merrill J. Bateman asked Jacoby if he would run the center, which became the Center for the Study of Europe (CSE). That was in 2003, and Jacoby, who had come to BYU three years earlier from Grinnell, accepted.

While a BYU student in 1985 Jacoby traveled through communist Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. That taste of “so-called life” behind the Iron Curtain led him to earn a BA in European studies two years later.

As director of the CSE, Jacoby secures grants to keep the center running and promotes European studies throughout the Mountain West. He recently spent six weeks as a visiting professor at the University of Copenhagen and then returned later with thirty Utah teachers, taking them across northern Europe to learn about environment and education policy there.

Though he’s a strong supporter of European studies, Jacoby is most passionate about helping students succeed: “I want to help our students do hard things [and] help them see what remarkable abilities they have and that there is more they can do.”

Visit our Facebook and LinkedIn feeds for additional content about our Thirty for Thirty—photos, filmed interviews, and more. And please send us a note or write a post: we want to hear about your experiences, journeys, and connections and how you have been influenced by the Kennedy Center.

See Pt 1 and Pt 2 for more Spotlights from this issue.