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Connections

Class Notes and more

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Scott Reames, Michael Shea, Suzanne Conway, Barnabas Kane, Joanie Tamsey Kucienski, Julia Schilke Nelson, and Paul Fiejdasz standing in front of the Van Meter entrance

Scott Reames, Michael Shea, Suzanne Conway ’92, Barnabas Kane ’84, Joanie Tamsey Kucienski ’85, Julia Schilke Nelson ’85, and Paul Fiejdasz ’85 at the entrance to Van Meter Hall.

Oh, the people you meet!

In the fall of 1982, Scott Reames traveled from Oregon to spend an exchange year at UMass. As he settled into the six-story Van Meter residential hall, he had no idea his neighbors would soon become his lifelong friends. The tight-knit group studied together, explored local haunts, and ventured out of the Pioneer Valley to places like Grafton, Lynn, Wellesley, and of course Boston—giving Reames and fellow West Coast exchange student Michael Shea a taste of New England.

When the spring semester ended, they all said their farewells, but it was decidedly not goodbye. Instead, over the following four decades, the group stayed in touch with calls, visits, chat groups, and Zoom sessions. Then, in 2022, Reames had an idea. Why not get the gang back together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their UMass days?

Two alums are seated in their old dorm 40 years later

So, on August 5, 2023, seven of the crew made their way from all over the United States back to Van Meter to once again cross the threshold of the 400-bed, 86,500-square-foot hall. Though the hall had been fully renovated in 2008, they were still able, with special permission, to check out their old rooms and reminisce. “After we explored our old dorm, we walked all over campus and marveled at how much it had changed over the decades—and where it hadn’t,” says Reames.

 


 

Brick by Brick

Matt DiBara ’14 was only nine years old when he started working in construction, apprenticing with his father on nights and weekends. As a teenager, DiBara went to a vocational high school, where he placed second in the country in a bricklaying competition.

He was on track to having a very solid career in construction and had all the experience he needed to be successful—or so he thought. But when he started classes at UMass Amherst, he realized there was a lot more he needed to learn.

“I was a very shy and socially awkward kid, and I think going to UMass forced me to become social in a way,” DiBara said. “It taught me to be independent.”

Since graduating, DiBara has nourished three career passions: growing his own construction company, DiBara Masonry; serving other contractors through his staffing company, The Contractor Consultants; and helping homeowners.

DiBara says his UMass education also made him appreciate the work ethic of white-collar professions, a realization that would help him on his own path—needing to rely on those skills to build his business.

“It was really brought home to me later in my career when I became a manager, and a lot of what I was doing was done intellectually—I wasn’t in the field breaking rocks and laying bricks anymore,” DiBara says. “Through classes, projects, and working with people in a professional setting, my experience at UMass definitely set me up on the right path.”

 


 

Class Notes

A tiger laying in green grass

Wild at Heart

Douglas Hendrie ’99MS has spent the last 27 years in Vietnam working to protect wildlife, most of those years for a local organization called Education for Nature—Vietnam (ENV). He serves as chief technical advisor and manages ENV’s Wildlife Crime and Investigation Units. He has also supported wildlife in Vietnam by founding the Asian Turtle Program and helping to establish the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Vietnam program and the Small Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program and Turtle Conservation Center at Cuc Phuong National Park.

Donna Halper (holding Rush album cover) and colleagues, circa 1974

Photo courtesy of Donna Halper

Mixed Media

Whether or not you know Donna Halper ’11PhD by name, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with her work. She had a 40-year career in media, and in her DJ days discovered the band Rush, who dedicated two albums to her. She’s written six books and many articles—and is quoted extensively in textbooks and other publications. “And,” she says, “did I mention I got my PhD from UMass Amherst at age 64 so that I could become a college professor?” These days, she’s an associate professor of communication and media at Lesley University. In 2023, she was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

John Allen sitting in front of a white wall

Dark Matters

Fans of true crime and urban legends, take note: John Allen ’10—now better known globally as MrBallen—brings “strange, dark, and mysterious stories” to life every week through his YouTube channel and Amazon-exclusive podcast. In his trademark flannel shirt and backwards baseball cap, the former Navy SEAL has been telling these chilling tales since 2020, covering everything from ghost stories to medical mysteries to unsolved crimes. And audiences are responding—millions of people view and download his content each month. Allen was recently profiled by The Boston Globe about his stories; his company, Ballen Studios; and how he built his enormous following.

1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s | 2020s

1980s

Daniel Nugent ’82 recently retired after a long career in the energy industry. While at UMass, Nugent majored in energy engineering as part of the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) program. During his career, he pursued his lifelong vision of energy efficiency and sustainable energy generation, supervising the engineering and construction of large solar, wind, and combined cycle generation facilities.

Matthew J. Willis ’85 and Susan A. McCoy ’93 were recognized in Best Lawyers 2024, Willis for land use and zoning law and McCoy for trusts and estates. Both attorneys are partners at the Connecticut law firm Halloran Sage.

1990s

Katie Johnson ’90MA is the author of Racing the Great White Way: Black Performance, Eugene O’Neill, and the Transformation of Broadway (University of Michigan Press, 2023). The book was featured on Playbill’s list of “8 Theatre Must-Reads for July” and named one of Broadway World’s “27 Theater Books for Your Summer 2023 Reading List.”

Lou Cove ’92 is the founder of CANVAS, a nonprofit that funds Jewish arts and culture. Begun in 2020, this funder collaborative and field-building initiative has grown substantially in just a few years, making significant progress in its mission “to elevate the ecosystem of Jewish arts and culture in North America.” It now includes some of the largest foundations in Jewish philanthropy, including Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

Ron Gordon ’92—a patent agent, former physicist, and textbook author—has a somewhat unusual hobby: solving math problems on an online forum called Math Stack Exchange. He’s become something of a legend, solving 2,954 problems in a decade—some incredibly complex. “I was having so much fun with it that I just didn’t even keep track of how many hours I was dedicating to it,” he told Scientific American.

Artist Kada Goalen ’99 was tasked with beautifying a busy transit station in Minneapolis that has been frequently tagged with graffiti. Goalen embarked on a mural project—her most ambitious yet—transforming walls and pillars into a kaleidoscopic array of color and giant songbirds using some 90 gallons of paint over six weeks. Taggers tend to leave murals alone, say transit authorities, plus the art makes the station more inviting. “It has a welcome feel,” says Goalen.

2000s

Preeti Aghalayam ’00PhD was recently named director-in-charge of the new campus of the Indian Institutes of Technology Madras (IITM) in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Aghalayam is the first woman to head an IIT campus, making her not only a trailblazing academic in chemical engineering but a pioneer for advancing gender equity as well.

Lester Edgardo Sandres Rápalo ’03, ’06MA became president of Rockland Community College, part of the State University of New York system, in July 2023. Rápalo is a National Community College Hispanic Council fellow and board member and the author of several textbooks, and he previously served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bronx Community College, City University of New York.

Jace Chaffee ’08 and Kaden Chaffee ’10 founded the wine import company Vine Farmer, which imports European wines with a focus on the new wave of rising winemakers. The brothers have worked with many of the best New England restaurants and wine shops, including Best of Boston winners and Bon Appétit Best Restaurant nominees, and they were recently featured in SOMM Journal.

Emma Lovewell ’08, a star fitness instructor for Peloton, recently released a memoir. Live Learn Love Well: Lessons From a Life of Progress Not Perfection (Ballantine, 2023) explores her upbringing on Martha’s Vineyard, her biracial identity, and her career, and it offers tips for readers looking for inspiration to change their lives for the better.

Arash Hashemi ’09 left his successful career as a senior-level finance executive at General Electric and home furnishings retailer RH to focus on his health. This pivot prompted him to start Kaizen—a company specializing in the world’s highest-protein, lowest-carb pasta and rice—with his wife, Madalina, and to share his healthy recipes on social media. Today, he has a social media following of over 3.5 million, including such high-profile followers as Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Pierce, Gal Gadot, and Orlando Bloom.

Kristin Olszewski ’09 was interviewed by Eater about her sustainable canned wine company, Nomadica. Although she attended Harvard Medical School after UMass, she realized her true passion was in the wine business. Olszewski worked as a sommelier and wine director at top-rated restaurants around the country before starting her own business.

2010s

Joe Hastry ’15, ’15MS, COO/CFO; Alex Nichols ’15, CTO; and Jose LaSalle ’16, CEO, are the co-founders of florrent, a minority-owned clean energy company which seeks to “stabilize electrical grids and address critical bottlenecks for the adoption of renewable energies, electric vehicles, and electric buildings” by creating an energy storage system using the alternative fuel hemp biomass.

Chantel Lima Barbosa ’16, ’18MA was appointed to the Boston School Committee, and is the first Cape Verdean woman to serve on the board. Born in Boston and raised in Cape Verde until 2010, Lima Barbosa will provide a voice on the committee for the seven percent of Boston Public Schools (BPS) families that speak Cape Verdean Creole—the third most common home language for BPS students after English and Spanish.

Lauren Rollins ’17 chose the location of her new think tank, the Western Massachusetts Policy Center, based on her observation that “the region is often underrepresented in public policy matters,” according to a recent profile in the Greenfield Recorder. The grassroots, anti-racist think tank aims to create public policy for the people who need it most, and who are often left behind by existing systems of power.

Jon Davine ’18 joined Northampton Fire Rescue in 1998, eventually working his way up to fire chief. Last year, he was tapped to lead the state Department of Fire Services as fire marshal—the first from Western Mass., and the first who started out as a recruit. But the Northampton fire department is still in good hands—Andrew Pelis ’95, a Northampton native who started with Davine back in 1998, stepped into the fire chief role.

A new play by Izzy Salant ’19 debuted at Windhover Center for the Performing Arts in Rockport, Mass. In the semi-autobiographical play Rite of Passage, a boy comes to terms with a tragic family secret as he prepares for his bar mitzvah. The play offers an authentic voice on autism and was presented as a sensory-friendly production.

2020s

Cale Makar ’21 is the cover athlete for NHL 24, the latest title in EA Sports’ popular hockey video game series. Despite being just four years into his NHL career, Makar has already been compared to legendary Boston Bruins defensive player Bobby Orr by multiple experts, including Wayne Gretzky.

Destiney Philoxy ’23 represented Rwanda in the 2023 FIBA Women’s AfroBasket Tournament. Philoxy finished her five-year career on the UMass women’s basketball team in 2023 as the program’s all-time career leader in assists, games played, and minutes played.

Lily Fitts ’23 released her first two singles, “Hurts Like Hell” and “I Know What It Isn’t,” after building a following on TikTok and Instagram. Some of her song covers attracted the attention of their original recording artists, who reposted them and helped them go viral, and Fitts now has more than 186,000 TikTok followers and nearly four million likes.


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