In a unique Homecoming 2022 event, the Kennedy Center recognized two alumni who built meaningful lives around their Kennedy Center degrees: Rebecca van Uitert and Jason Howell, 2002 graduates with BA degrees in International Studies. The couple, who passed away in 2022, were posthumously awarded the Kennedy Center’s Alumni Achievement Award on 13 October 2022 by President Kevin J. Worthen. The award was received by their parents, Sandy and Ed Howell, and Fae and Dennis van Uitert at the luncheon and awards ceremony in the Hinckley Alumni Center on campus. They were remembered throughout the week for their far-reaching service, vocational achievements, and commitment to family through a service opportunity, career open house, awards ceremony, and the screening of a new short film about their lives.
Rebecca and Jason met at the Kennedy Center as teaching assistants with the BYU Model United Nations program, mentoring other students and preparing them throughout the year for class, conferences, and competitions. As former peer Noelani Sanchez Porter recalls, “Becca was highly competent and determined and never shied away from an opportunity to support and include others, including me.” Porter lived in the same student ward as Jason and recalls him as being “present with you, as well as open, genuine, optimistic, kind, and having a great sense of humor with hearty laughter that filled the Clark Building’s hallways.”
“Their lives were shaped by their Kennedy Center degrees and by their paths at BYU,” Jared Howell, Jason’s brother, said. “Not only did it bring them together as a couple, it was also a shared passion and desire to do something more for the world and humanity.”
After graduating from BYU, Rebecca received a Juris Doctorate from St. John’s University in Queens, NY, and served as a Judicial Law Clerk intern with the U.S. Department of Justice and as managing editor of St. John’s Law Review. As an immigration attorney with Fragomen, Del Ray, Bernsen, & Loewy LLP, she was the first pro bono coordinator in their Chicago office, managing projects related to asylum, U-visa cases, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She also led efforts to provide pro bono attorney representation to asylum-seeking women and children detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement along the southern U.S. border.
Throughout her life she mentored staff and students, making this her full-time vocation from 2018 to 2020 as assistant dean of career services at BYU Law. She later worked as vice president of Human Resources at AgReserves before returning to Fragomen as a managing partner of the new Salt Lake City office in 2021.
Jason started his career with the New York Public and International Affairs Office, working with the United Nations and the diplomatic community for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While in New York, Jason served as the branch president, and later bishop, of the Queens Astoria Ward, and enrolled at Columbia University to complete pre-med requirements. This paved the way for him to attend Loyola University, Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago, where he earned an MD in 2012, focusing on primary care and global health. He was involved in service immersion experiences in Guatemala and Peru and founded a peer-led medical Spanish program at the medical school that, to date, has trained more than one thousand doctors. He completed residency in Chicago at Lutheran General Hospital. In 2018, they moved back to Utah, where he started his family practice as a physician with Intermountain Healthcare in Heber Valley.
Rebecca and Jason were married in 2002; in 2016, they adopted four children. Mallorie Mecham, an attorney hired by Rebecca at the Fragomen SLC office, recalled, “Becca was a mom all the time. And Jason was such a great dad—he loved those kids and poured everything he had into it.”
Inspired by the couple’s humanitarian work, the Kennedy Center partnered with Days for Girls for a service opportunity, assembling feminine hygiene kits as part of the Homecoming 2022 and Honored Alumni celebration. Students, alumni, and lawyers from Fragomen SLC joined together at the BYU Salt Lake Center on 10 October and at the Kennedy Center on 11 November. Hundreds of pieces for the kits were assembled across three different stations, according to project director Kelly Russell.
Also recognizing their lifelong efforts to mentor and support students, the Career Open House featured professional clubs in international development, business, diplomacy, national security, medicine, and law to interact with current students. These student organizations also represent popular career paths for Kennedy Center students—the Howells themselves having careers in public health and law.
Lydia Kropelnicki, double majoring in Russian and Political Science, came to the event to learn about what opportunities exist for her. “I wanted to meet with people who are experts in their field and get some direction on questions that I had about my prospective career paths,” Kropelnicki said. Benjamin Saway, a BYU student and outreach coordinator for Students for International Development, recently returned from an internship for the state department in Dubai where he participated in a culinary diplomacy project. This experience helped him discover a love for international development. “I think it’s a great opportunity for students and professionals to connect and learn from each other through their shared interest,” Saway said.
A booklet titled “Building a Life” contained additional details of Rebecca and Jason’s lives, their advice to aspiring students—along with additional information on internships, careers and opportunities—and was given to over a hundred and fifty students who were in attendance. As Jared Howell recalled some advice that Jason would offer to current Kennedy Center students, “You don’t have to have it all figured out. He lived his life like that. He was okay with letting things roll a little bit. Sometimes the real purpose comes when you get some experience.”
A short film premiered, talking about the impact that Rebecca and Jason had. It featured family members, colleagues, and friends from New York, Chicago, and Utah. Two pieces of advice that Rebecca would give, according to BYU Law Associate Dean Carolina Nunez, is to not “give up on your aspirations and dreams” and “bloom where you are planted. Sometimes our paths take us toward an ultimate goal in a circuitous route.”
The film is available now on the Kennedy Center’s Vimeo page.