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Spartan Profiles

  • Author:
    Robert Bao
  • Published:
    Spring 2014
In the Senegalese dialect of Fulani, “jangde” means to learn.  And that’s the aim of Jjangde (, a collaborative not-just-for-profit enterprise founded to build schools in Senegal with profits from the sale of products made by rural artisans.  Jjangde is the brainchild of Valerie Lemke, ’08, and co-founder Ousmane Gaye, a native of Senegal.  They have already started two schools, in Guedeiawaye and Koumpentoum.  “That’s a village of 20,000,” notes Lemke of the latter.  “You won’t find it in a map.”  Valerie says Jjangde became an immediate hit after its web launch. “It was insane,” she says.  “We had over 5,000 visitors and they wanted everything we offered.  They loved the products, the story and the mission.”  In November Jjangde issued a crowdfunding appeal via Indiegogo and raised more than its goal of $50,000.  A native of Howell, Valerie selected MSU because a good friend was headed to East Lansing—and it was a decision she does not regret.  At MSU, she especially enjoyed the Study Abroad program, which she says broadened her horizons.  “I had an opportunity to go to South Africa in a class led by Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha 
MacDowell,” recalls Valerie.  “That had the biggest impact on my life.  They took us everywhere and introduced us to cultural leaders, and they taught us that you can do anything.”  After MSU, Valerie spent two years teaching English in Uiejonbbu, South Korea.  “It was a life-changing experience,” she says.  “Being a racial minority changes your view of the world.”  After that experience she attended the University of San Francisco, graduating in 2012 with a master’s degree in nonprofit administration.  She wanted to do something meaningful and partnered with Gaye, who had similar dreams, to found Jjangde.  “I’m very grateful to MSU,” says Valerie.  “It opened my eyes to the world.  I learned that the language of love is universal, and if you can show that, you can communicate with anyone.”   
Every year Forbes magazine identifies “30 Under 30” leaders in various fields.  This year Aaron Letzeiser, ’12, was named an up and coming leader in “Law & Policy.”  As a student at MSU’s James Madison College, Letzeiser spearheaded legislation in Michigan to allow medical amnesty—state laws that give limited immunity to those seeking medical attention as a result of illegal actions (such as underage drinking).  “I first became interested in 2010, when I was a junior and was working as a legislative aide to a state senator in Lansing,” recalls Aaron, who then took a job as a legislative liaison with the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU).  He was able to eventually see his work result in the passage of House Bill 4393, which Gov. Snyder signed into law on May 8, 2012.  “It’s not often that you get to start with an idea and move it through the whole legislative process,” says Aaron.  “I got a ton of support and a lot of guidance from MSU.”  Aaron has now founded the Medical Amnesty Initiative, the only nonprofit in the country dedicated to passing medical amnesty legislation nationally.  As of January 2014, medical amnesty legislation has been passed in 17 states and the District of Columbia.  “Our goal is 40 states by the end of 2014,” says Aaron, who relies on contributions from individuals as well as organizations, such as nurses associations and prosecutor groups.  “We’re using the same outline we used in Michigan,” says Aaron.  A native of Novi, Aaron came to MSU frequently to visit an older brother.  “We went to football and basketball games,” he recalls.  “I chose MSU because I was drawn to the structure of residential colleges, which make a big school feel small.  We lived, studied and ate at Case Hall, at least my freshman year, and that was very helpful.”  
In 2011, when he became chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, he had been enjoying a 13-year run as president of Morrisville State College in upstate New York.  That was when union members occupied the state capitol in Madison, WI.   “I had to be escorted by police for a meeting with the governor,” he recalls.  “I was thinking, ‘You were nuts to come here.’”  But Raymond Cross, PhD ’91, survived the ordeal and forged many friendships and alliances, and today he is president of the entire University of Wisconsin System—13 state universities including the one in Madison.  “This job involves interconnectedness with faculty and administrators and legislators,” he explains.  “It’s a delicate dance.  My role is to help the university explain the value it brings to the people of the state.”  Cross touts the so-called Wisconsin Idea, which holds that the university must provide value to  everyone in the state.  A native of Big Rapids, Raymond was working at Ferris State University when he enrolled at MSU for his doctoral program.  “I have very fond memories of driving to East Lansing and keeping my life in balance,” he recalls.  “It was a great experience.  MSU really prepared you well to understand factors that are not necessarily in the surface of things.”  Raymond touts former professors Louis Hekhuis and the late Eldon Nonnamaker as his two favorites.  He recalls one class taught by Nonnamaker about budgeting in higher education.  “The teaching was brilliant,” he says.  “At one point, we moved into role-playing, and we were all given notes on the people we played.”  Raymond says that students received different information, which led to unexpected results.  He played a president, and did not understand why one dean was supporting another.  “It turned out they were having an affair,” he says with a chuckle.  “Eldon wanted us to understand that under-the-table alliances are often at work.  I disputed him then, but some years later, I encounted the exact same situation.  I called Eldon and told him, ‘I owe you an apology.’” 
In just his third season as the play by play television announcer for the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes, he has accumulated quite a few awards.  Indeed, Matt McConnell, ’85, who previously worked eight seasons in Atlanta with the Thrashers, has won two regional sports Emmy awards and was just named the 2013 Arizona Sports Broadcaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.  “That was very rewarding,” says McConnell of the award.  “I’ll pick it up in June.”  A versatile broadcaster who has done both radio and television, professional and college hockey, and many other sports, including college football, basketball and lacrosse, Matt says some people call him the “Michel Petit of hockey broadcasting”—after a professional icer who played for 10 different NHL teams from 1983-98.  Matt started with the International Hockey League, then covered the Pittsburgh Penguins when it had Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, then the Minnesota Wild, and then the Anaheim Ducks before moving to Atlanta.  He has done broadcast work for CBS Sports Network and Pac-12 Networks.  “My 15 minutes of fame was when I filled in for Marv Albert in Toronto,” he recalls.  “Because of a storm Albert could not make it in and I ended up doing the NBA play by play with Mike Fratello and Cheryl Miller on TNT.  Later in the studio Kenny Smith made fun of me, but Charles Barkley came to my defense.”  A native of Gary, IN, Matt came to MSU and soon decided to major in telecommunications.  His roommate his senior year was Mario Impemba, the sportscaster for the Detroit Tigers and the Oakland Golden Grizzlies.  He believes a good broadcaster is one who does not try to make himself the story.  “The best in my business is Chris Cuthbert (who does a variety of sports, including the Olympics, for  CBC Sports),” says Matt.  “The best in basketball is Dan Shulman.  And in baseball, I’m biased, but the best is Mario (Impemba).”  
Two years ago, Zoom Chess ( was founded as an online chess tutorial for children ages four and up.  But founder Jill (Brahms) Keto, ’96, believes she has launched much more than that.  She believes that chess can have a dramatic impact on young girls, helping them build self-esteem and eliminate barriers to their interest in science, technology and math.  “Ninety-five percent of high school chess players are boys,” says Keto, an author and entrepreneur based in Bellevue, WA.  “Girls drop out because they get the message that they can’t make it.”  She adds that surveys have shown that many girls become disinterested in science and engineering because they don’t want to be the only girl in the field.  “Research has shown that girls who play chess believe they are smart and they carry this their whole life,” says Jill, a mother of two.  A native of Ann Arbor, she chose to study engineering at MSU partly “to get some separation from home.”  She says MSU’s engineering program is second-to-none, “based on all the job offers” she received after graduation.  Jill worked for Boeing for several years designing aircraft, but left to become an entrepreneur, manufacturing jewelry.  “That gave me more flexibility and helped fulfill my interest in art,” she explains.  She also published a book, Don’t Get Caught With Your Skirt Down: A Practical Girl’s Recession Guide (Simon & Schuster, 2008).  A mother of two, she got into chess when her children became interested, learning alongside them while they were in preschool. Today she runs Queen’s Quest, the largest all-girls elementary tournament in the U.S. with some 250 annual competitors.  Zoom Chess is free, but to get to the next level, there is a $50 annual charge for tutorials.  “That’s a bargain,” says Jill, “when you compare it to $60 an hour with a chess coach.”
Ming Chuan University in Taipei, Taiwan, founded in 1957 as a private women’s business college, is now a comprehensive university with 20,000 students across four campuses.  Thanks to Robert Yien, MA ’68, PhD ’70, a longtime vice president of academic affairs at Saginaw Valley State University, MCU became the first university in Asia to be accredited by the U.S. and will soon open a branch campus in Saginaw.  “Everyone around the world envies the American university system,” says Yien.  “So who would have the audacity to come to the U.S. to establish a university?”  Robert says the challenge was too hard to resist, so he is postponing his retirement to do so—on the heels of earning U.S. accreditation for MCU.  “It’s the vision of (MCU) President Lee Chuan,” says Robert, who is currently the executive director of MCU-Saginaw.  A native of Taiwan, Robert came to MSU in 1965 when he earned a graduate assistantship.  He then spent more than three decades at SVSU as a professor and mostly as its vice president for academic affairs, helping build an engineering program from scratch.  In 1989 he co-founded the Japanese Center for Michigan Universities.  He retired in 2006 to take on the challenge of earning U.S. accreditation for MCU, which finally came in 2010.  “It was like moving a mountain,” he recalls.  “Fortunately President Lee Chuan was committed to the goal.  We turned that university upside down.”  Robert says he loved his stay at MSU.  “I couldn’t go to the 1966 Rose Bowl so I vowed to go to the next one,” he says.  “I waited and waited.  Finally, in 1988, I took my family.”  He was in Taiwan for the latest Rose Bowl, which he watched on television.  After MSU beat Stanford, he and his wife Amy decided to resume their support for MSU and joined the Presidents Club.  He plans on opening MCU-Saginaw this summer—yet another of many “firsts” in his career in education.
Contrary to what some people think, poker is a game of skill, not luck.  Every year, the best poker player in the nation is probably identified by the World Series of Poker Main Event, a no-limit Texas Hold ’em tournament.  The current champion, crowned last November, is Ryan Riess, ’12, a poker professional from Waterford Township.  He graduated from MSU in hospitality business.  At age 23, “Riess the Beast”—as he was billed in the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV—was the last player standing from 6,352 contestants who entered the $10,000 buy-in tournament in July.  Ryan won $8,361,570 million and a sparkling bracelet.  He was promptly invited by ESPN’s Gameday as a celebrity guest at the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, alongside regular hosts Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso.  Ryan proved he was a savvy football prognosticator as well, correctly picking the Spartans to beat Ohio State.  In the final round of the poker tournament, Ryan had $85 million in chips to his opponent’s $105 million, but within the first 50 hands he took a commanding chip lead.  He finished off his opponent in about three-and-a-half hours.  Prior to the final round, Ryan was very confident and told ESPN’s cameras that he “expected to win” because he was the best player at the table.  That kind of confidence may be part of the formula for winning.  After his win, he again was quoted saying, “I just think I’m the best player in the world.”  At this time, it is a statement that no one in the business can challenge.