Blue Skies and Beyond
It’s the Warren Miller Blue Skies Award, given to the student who personifies “good cheer, a good-humored perspective, and saving grace in the conduct of daily life on campus.” The award was originally dreamt up by the administration of Martha Peterson, who served as college president from 1975 to 1981.
“There were so many awards for math and science and things like that,” says Dave Mason’49, Peterson’s assistant in those days. “We thought there ought to be something for students who make people feel good.”
The college asked alumnus and New Yorker cartoonist Warren Miller’60 to contribute a whimsical sketch for the whimsical award; in return, they’d name it in his honor. Miller happily supplied a cartoon, but why he was chosen as the eponym is still a mystery to him.
“I was kind of surprised that they asked me to do a drawing,” he says. “I don’t remember being particularly cheerful when I was a student.”
Whether or not he was a paragon of pleasantness himself, Miller’s name has become a symbol of goodwill at Beloit. Since 1982, when the award was rolled out, 33 people have been recognized in his name. Students are nominated, and the winner selected, by the Dean of Students office staff.
“We get to see students at their best, and in some cases their worst, in daily life on campus,” says Bill Flanagan, who was dean of students for years before becoming executive advisor to the college president. Flanagan says choosing the winner was usually an easy decision. “There would be five or six names nominated, and oftentimes it was all the same person.”
Truth be told, that’s what I was expecting to find when I began interviewing the six Blue Skies recipients for this article. I anticipated cheerful conversations that were basically iterations of the same life story: So-and-so played well with others in childhood, continued being nice in college, and is still, to this day, remarkably likeable.
Instead, I met individuals with nothing more in common than a cartoon of a hot air balloon. They are activists, performers, organizers, and athletes, all who influenced the college in markedly different ways. My conversations with them hammered home what should have been an obvious truth: The Warren Miller Blue Skies Award doesn’t laud polite placeholders in campus life. Rather, it celebrates those who stand out for their investment in the community and their deep regard for others. Generations of Beloiters have received this award. Here are just a few of their stories.
The Fish Out of Water
From the moment Mike Smiles’82 stepped foot on campus, something felt different. It was him. For the first time in a long time, he says, he felt like an individual.
“As the New England sailing guy, I had no peers,” he says.
He grew up in Cos Cob, a neighborhood in the town of Greenwich, Conn., and had always felt stifled by the “preppy culture” of New England. The child of an artist and an international banker, Smiles knew very well about the different paths one’s life could take, and he was eager to leave his home and try something different.
“What that might be, I didn’t know,” he says. But he was determined to find out, so while his siblings went to Ivy League schools in the Northeast, Smiles ventured west to Beloit.
He soon made a name for himself on campus by organizing a lacrosse club. Along with a few other students, he negotiated the use of the school’s athletic fields, raised funds for equipment, and organized games with other schools (one team hailed all the way from South Dakota).
“That was one of my first fundraising challenges and success stories,” he says. “It was like a community organizing playground.”
Thomas Mikolyzk’82 played in the lacrosse club, where he got to know Smiles pretty well on the field.
“Mike was perhaps the most genuine guy on campus,” he says. “When the award was announced, everyone cheered.” Years later, Mikolyzk would become the head of a private school in Des Plaines, Ill. With Smiles in mind, he would establish a similar award for his students.
After graduation, Smiles took his classics major and headed to Greece, where he worked on the Agora archaeological excavations for the summer. When the job was done, his wanderlust still wasn’t satisfied, so he flew to Egypt—a lifelong dream. He was a strong sailor (he’d been on the water since he was 10) and soon landed a position aboard a 60-foot sloop, winding its way to Antibes, France.
Before long, he was called back to the States when he landed a job in Beloit’s Development Office. Among many other things, he worked on funding a new sports center and establishing the Center for Language Studies at Beloit. That’s also when he met Martha, his future wife. They’ve been married for 28 years.
Looking at Smiles through the lens of the Blue Skies Award gives us a warm and fuzzy image of the man—but perhaps a two-dimensional one. I ask him to tell me about the bad times as well as the good. And he’s surprisingly candid.
“Sure, there are hard knocks in life,” he says. “I wasn’t blessed to have children of my own. That brought about a number of questions about what I’m here to do.”
Smiles says those questions led him to his greatest passion: non-profit work.
“With a name like Smiles, I was either going to be a dentist, an insurance salesman, or work in non-profit. I chose non-profit.”
After many years in the world of higher education, Smiles dove into non-profit work completely. That brought him to Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a free summer camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. There, he raised millions of dollars, and in his words, “found a way forward from my own challenges of not being able to bear children.”
Later, he joined the New England Science & Sailing foundation, an organization that mixes adventure and a STEM curriculum to teach at-risk youth. Most recently, he took a job as executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont, where he’ll direct fundraising, lead underwater archaeological expeditions, and captain a historic vessel. With the entire lake as his classroom, he has high hopes for the future of the museum.
Smiles explains his interest in museums: “Every person who goes to an art museum gets to do what a French impressionist painter did when they painted,” which he imagines as spending a beautiful summer afternoon with a loved one, a bottle of wine, and a canvas to fill.
For Smiles, Beloit’s first Blue Skies alumnus, that’s exactly what the award is about. And he means the award itself: Warren Miller’s sketch of the hot air balloon among the clouds. It’s not just another piece of paper he was given upon graduation. It’s not a recognition that makes him exceptional. Smiles insists it’s a tribute to every student. An invitation to go away, and find yourself.
Jessica Gray Jagoditsh’00
The Team Player
By the time Jessica Gray Jagoditsh’00 came to Beloit, she was five years out of high school, had already gone to two other universities, taken two semesters off, and worked as a nanny for a year and a half. All those numbers added up to one thing: She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life.
“My goal was to do what I wanted and what I loved, and my hope was to stay out of a cubicle as long as possible,” she says.
So she majored in Russian and dance. Russian because she loved the language and knew it would help get her overseas, and dance because it was a far cry from what seemed like an inevitable future behind a desk.
One day in Russian class, an Army recruiter paid a visit. The military was looking for linguists, they said, and recruits would have their student debt taken care of. Jagoditsh signed up immediately.
“I was thinking: ‘I’m single, I’m free, and I only have myself to think about.’” But then she fell in love.
She was working on campus after graduation, making a little money before shipping out for basic training. One day a colleague mentioned that a nearby summer camp needed a fill-in female counselor. Jagoditsh volunteered and immediately hit it off with the camp leader.
His name was John, and they were married in a month. “We were kind of star-crossed lovers,” she says. “But we didn’t know each other long enough to know what was going to happen.”
The Army happened. Jagoditsh was stationed in Germany, where she worked on a crew of Russian linguists. They would hole up in a bunker for hours at a time, listening to chatter collected by surveillance planes flying over Kosovo and Bosnia. They were a tight-knit group. They still keep in touch, years later.
After about a year and half on the base, Jagoditsh and her husband decided to have a child. They moved back to Wisconsin to start their family. Now, they have four kids—two girls and twin boys. “The first three years of their lives were a complete blur,” says Jagoditsh.
Finding work after the military is hard—and harder still if you’re raising children. Jagoditsh took a job at a call center and quickly rose through the ranks. Without meaning to, she had begun the dreaded cubicle phase of her life. But it wasn’t as bad as she expected. In fact, she found herself loving aspects of the office environment: the teamwork, the multi-tasking, and the collaborative atmosphere.
These are a lot of the same things she likes about her hobby: roller derby. A few years ago she joined a local team called the Mid-State Sisters of Skate. After building up some skills, she hit the track under the derby name “Slaybird.”
But Jagoditsh won’t be playing much this season. She’s working toward a Master of Business Administration degree with a focus in human resources, something she never imagined pursuing.
“My strength is and has always been winning people over and making things fun for them and building trust.” She pauses. I can hear her cringe over the phone. “Sorry, that must sound boring.”
Boring or not, it’s her passion. And the writing was on the wall back in 2000, when she was handed the Blue Skies Award for her “unfailing good humor, gregarious nature, and sparkling personality.” The award still hangs in her house.
“I walk by it, and every once in a while I stop and smile,” she says. “I feel like I’ve taken it with me. It really is how I fit.”
“Beloit was great academically,” says Eddie Fergus’96. “Socially it was a struggle.”
As a child, Fergus had hopped continents. The whole family moved a lot because his father was in the U.S. Army. Fergus was born and raised in Panama, rotated military bases in the States for several years, and then spent his adolescence in Germany, where he graduated high school.
In 1992 he came to Beloit, a wiry black teen with an easy smile and a passport full of stamps. It was the day before his 18th birthday. There, on the campus that would become his home, Fergus encountered something he wasn’t expecting: homogeneity.
“There were a lot of white students who were coming to terms, for the first time, with how to interact with people who were different from them,” he says. Worse, he recalls an air of skepticism directed at minority students, an assumption that all students of color were “affirmative action babies.”
Originally, Fergus hoped to study economics, but changed his mind after an upsetting interaction in class one day. It was an intro-level class, and the city of Detroit came up in discussion. The professor turned to Fergus, the only black student in the room. “What do you think?” he asked. Fergus couldn’t imagine why his opinion was worth more than anyone else’s. The professor pressed him. If he himself wasn’t from Detroit, surely he knew someone from the city? Fergus decided to major in political science with a concentration in education instead.
He also became active in Black Students United and co-founded Voces Latinas, both student organizations. “We wanted to find a place where we could share our experiences and also make sense of what to do about them.”
Virgil Storr’96 was Fergus’s classmate and friend. He was also vice president of BSU when Fergus was president. It was a difficult year for the group, and the two became very close. “When it’s time to be serious, he’s deadly serious,” Storr says of Fergus. “And when it’s time to relax and have fun, he can be extremely chill.”
Along with his peers, Fergus brought a list of demands to college administration calling for more students and faculty of color and better programming for minority students. The outcry was nothing new; students had demanded the same thing in the 1960s.
Because of his role as a campus leader, Fergus interacted a lot with the college administration. But those interactions were usually about what was wrong with Beloit, about ways the college could improve. Fergus saw himself as something of a hell-raiser, a voice of dissent. And if nothing else, a bug in the administration’s ear. So at Commencement, when the president launched into the Blue Skies Award preamble, describing the winning student, Fergus was a little confused. That sounds like me, he thought. But it couldn’t be. When it was his name that spilled from the president’s lips, he stood up in disbelief, surrounded by applause.
Bill Flanagan, dean of students at the time, wasn’t so surprised.
“Eddie was very respected by all of us, because we all had the same goal,” he says. “He was someone who could speak very positively and passionately about these topics, and do it in a way that pulled you in and didn’t push you away.”
Fergus was a McNair Scholar, a U.S. Department of Education program that supports low-income, first-generation, or underrepresented students in their pursuit of doctoral degrees. After graduation, he went on to get his Ph.D., becoming the first McNair student at Beloit to do so.
Now he teaches full time at New York University, researches education policy, and consults for school districts. He identifies racial inequality in schools, and figures out how to address the problems. Looking at the disproportionately high rate of suspension among students of color, or the low number of minority students enrolled in talented and gifted programs, it’s easy to feel outmatched by the system.
“I’m exhausted from all of it,” he says. “But I’m satisfied because there are multiple places where I can say, ‘This is different now because of things that I have done.’”
Fergus’s children are nearing college age themselves. And though he knows they’ll run into some of the same problems he did, he’s not too worried. “It’s part of the inevitable reality,” he says. “It’s just a matter of how they make sense out of it.”
Bethany Nordstrom Silva’04
Bethany Nordstrom Silva’04 was 16 years old, sitting at home, when her future flickered onto the TV screen. She even remembers what channel she was watching—it was Bravo—when the broadcast of Cirque du Soleil came on.
Her mom was a principal, and her father was a minister; show business didn’t run in the family. But from that moment, she was hooked. “It was the spandex and sparkle, you know? The live entertainment, the glitz, the glamor of it all.”
Silva was a local kid—she lived just down the street from Beloit’s campus. When her dad dropped her off for her first day of college, he drove around the block twice to make her feel like she was really going someplace.
“When I arrived I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” she says. Then she found the costume shop.
“She was so delightful, a shining star,” says Donna Thalman, a longtime costume designer for Beloit College theatre, who directs the college’s costume shop. “She had such a bubbly personality—and she excelled in costumes.”
Silva majored in women’s and gender studies and ran track, but costumes consumed her. They were her passion and her ticket to the circus. Even at track events, she was in costume: The team uniform was basically a yellow leotard, so she slapped a cut-out turtle shell on her back and ran her events as Beloit’s makeshift mascot. And on graduation day, she went out in style, with a spinning mortarboard and gold turtles plastered all over her gown. Her picture made the cover of this magazine that year.
“She would wear some crazy get-ups while she was here,” says former Dean of Students Bill Flanagan. “If you met her, you couldn’t help but smile.”
Today, she has her dream job. She lives in Las Vegas, Nev., where she’s a wardrobe technician for Cirque du Soleil at New York-New York Hotel and Casino. She spends most of her time making alterations and helping performers get into costumes—and dealing with the occasional backstage blowout.
“It’s live theatre, dealing with people and a live audience,” she says. “You never know what you’re gonna get every day.”
“From when I was really small, my mom always stressed education,” says Natasha Jarvis’05. “It was an expectation.”
She grew up in the Bronx, so needless to say, Beloit was an adjustment. But something immediately felt very right. “It seemed like students had a voice,” she remembers. “If they felt something was wrong, they were encouraged to voice their opinion.”
Jarvis went to Beloit to study psychology, but she discovered theatre along the way. For her, acting was the perfect art form—the best way to express herself and her relation to the world.
Although she directed numerous plays at Beloit, she recalls difficulty getting roles of her own. “She felt like there wasn’t room for black students to act, or see themselves on stage,” says Sonja Darlington, professor of education and youth studies and Jarvis’s mentor in the McNair Scholars program. “That was very troubling for her.”
In the summer following her first year at Beloit, Jarvis was awarded a Venture Grant to study traditional dance in Ghana. When she returned in the fall, she started an African Dance Club on campus. In many ways, this was a first step in her overarching goal at Beloit: to use theatre as a way to represent and teach others about cultural identity.
“Some stories are told and some aren’t,” she says. “My focus was to use drama to get people to talk about racial issues.”
After two master’s degrees—one in theatre and one in education—Jarvis has transitioned from the stage to the classroom. She recently began teaching fourth grade in the Bronx, not far from her childhood home.
In the future, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in multicultural education. But for now, she still has a lot to learn.
“Teaching is challenging,” she says. “It’s hard work, but my students are very inspirational.”
Jeff Stein’90 is a college administrator with a poet’s soul.
He’s the advisor to the president of Elon University in North Carolina. I call him at work on a Wednesday afternoon. His daughter, Lena, just had her sweet 16 birthday party, and Stein sounds tired. Tired and reflective.
“It’s fun to see your kids develop into young adults and take on parts of who they’re going to be,” he says. “But when your kids turn 16—or any milestone really—you’re shocked at the whiplash of them growing up.”
When Stein has time, he tries to translate fleeting thoughts like these into stanzas on the page. “I like to write about family, Jewish culture, and the complete, crazy irony of life,” he says. But with a career in college administration, it’s been a while since he’s gotten the chance to write.
“I think administrator is probably a bad term,” he says of his work in higher education. “I see myself more as someone who’s helping to shape the community and help other folks shape the community too. It’s a calling.”
Stein can trace that calling back to one evening at Beloit in 1986.
“A group of us was sitting around and complaining because we were surprised that the college didn’t create a Martin Luther King celebration,” he says. “And it sort of struck us: It was our job. Nobody’s job but ours.” So they put together a Martin Luther King vigil—and people showed up. “We learned that we could shape the community, and the community would respond.”
After that, Stein threw himself into his community. He became a head RA, he was active in Jewish life on campus, and he co-founded a peer counseling group.
“Beloit gave me a lot of opportunities,” he says. “To learn to think, to develop relationships in brand new ways, and to learn about who I was and who I wanted to be. There’s no question that it’s a transformative place, and I was transformed.”
“He had the most positive, outgoing spirit. He was always there with an encouraging word,” says former Dean of Students Bill Flanagan, who knew him through the Office of Student Affairs. Flanagan remembers Stein as the transformative force on campus, not the other way around. “When he graduated, just about everybody on the staff knew that he was going to be the winner [of the Blue Skies Award].”
Stein married classmate Christine Watson Stein’90 and went on to earn advanced degrees in English and creative writing. Over the years he has been an English professor and published numerous poems. But his career has always centered on building up the communities of higher education.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to interact with all of these different groups on campus, thinking about all the details and operations,” he says. “I guess that’s a form of poetry in itself.”
Here’s to Blue Skies, Every Day
Choosing only six people to write about from a list of 33 Blue Skies Award-winning alumni was no easy task. Besides the alumni we’ve profiled on the previous pages, the following individuals were singled out with the Warren Miller Blue Skies Award the year they graduated, joining what we consider to be an especially significant group of Beloiters. We tip our hat to them and to every future graduate who will put his or her special imprint on Beloit and maybe walk away with a Warren Miller’60 drawing to remember it all by.
- Waheeb Kamil’83
- Sanni Sivula Judy’83
- James Snead’84
- Julie Swanson’85
- Alan Anderson’86
- Haralds Gaikis’87
- Debra Hass’88
- K.C. Johnson’89
- Derrick Redding’91*
- Jamey Brumfield’92
- Stephanie Erickson-Brown’93
- Jolynn Penne Hull’94
- Natasha Bonilla’95
- John Bratlien’97
- Matt Carey’98
- Abdoulaye Boye’99
- Gregoria Nova Cahill’01
- Katharine Gricevich’02
- Muyiwa Awoniyi’03
- Rob Sjoberg’06
- Jenna Hunter’07
- Matt Aslesen’08
- Devyn Brown’09
- Eric Dunford’10
- Alicia Halvensleben’11
- Amani Edwards’12
- Jason Busack’13
- Athi Selvendran’14