November 20, 2019
With 23 boundary-spanning departments and schools, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University offers some of the most interdisciplinary studies on campus. Alumni of The College go on to careers that are equally diverse. On Nov. 22, five outstanding graduates who demonstrate that breadth will be celebrated with an induction into The College Leaders.
Just 69 of over 120,000 alumni from The College’s natural science, social science and humanities divisions, recognized for contributions to communities, professional advancements and impacts on the world at large, have been selected since The College Leaders program began in 1997. The College will also recognize 147 of its current students from across the divisions, nominated from a pool of over 23,000.
As part of the academic heart of the university, alumni of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences go on to careers that span industries and disciplines.
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This year’s alumni leaders are Clinton Ang, Michael Convey, Reyna Montoya and Cheryl Najafi. Robert Kestelik will be honored posthumously.
From the degrees they received to the fields they entered, The College Leaders represent the myriad ways liberal arts and science tracks play into the real world.
Montoya earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o studies and a minor in dance in 2012. Growing up undocumented in Mesa, Arizona, provided an intimate understanding of how immigration policy impacts daily life. She founded nonprofit organization Aliento in 2016 with the aim of helping Arizona’s undocumented students, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and mixed-immigration status families through the barriers she navigated herself.
She’s since earned a master’s degree in secondary education from Grand Canyon University and completed an executive education program through the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She said she sees education as a powerful tool for empowerment.
“I’m a firm believer that once you’re educated, no one can take away those skills and that knowledge from you,” said Montoya, whose work earned her a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2018. “Going to ASU, I was able to build relationships and challenge my own thinking. All of that helped me understand who I am and what I am worth.”
Aliento now hosts art and healing workshops for families and leadership training initiatives for youth affected by immigration issues. Organizers also engage young people directly through partnerships with local schools and the student group Aliento at ASU.
“I think often we hear that millennials are the do-nothing generation, but I have witnessed the opposite,” she said. “I have seen young people of all ages getting involved in leadership and investing in not just their growth as individuals, but also that of the community.”
Entrepreneurism for social good is also a cornerstone of Najafi’s professional trajectory. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication from what is today the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in 1992 and 1996, she penned a New York Times bestseller and founded a string of business ventures. Her latest, dubbed The Cause Collection, is a womenswear line that connects fashion with advocacy by allowing consumers to choose the charity a portion of the purchase will support.
“The reason I was drawn to fashion was to create a vehicle to wear my activism,” she said. “I saw an opportunity to launch a clothing line to galvanize people and get my message across.”
Najafi said her communication degrees had applications in all of her entrepreneurial pursuits, despite being spread across multiple industries.
“I've always held my degrees as banners of pride because it allows you to really hone your skills at talking to people,” she said. “It really gave me this fearless approach to starting businesses, because when you're trying to touch a consumer, you have to communicate with them.”
Ang came to ASU from his native Singapore on an athletic scholarship for badminton and graduated with concurrent bachelor’s degrees in psychology and computer systems in 1994. Now he’s the managing director of CornerStone Wines and board chairman of Hock Tong Bee wholesaler and distributor of wines, an enterprise originally founded by his great-grandfather.
He said studying psychology helped him build his emotional intelligence (EQ) and make well-informed decisions as a leader.
“It's very important to be able to observe a situation and then be able to reflect very quickly and decide on the right approach,” he said. “I can't say that I am perfect in doing the EQ side, but I would say that my psychology degree has definitely helped me improve.”
For Convey, pursuing a degree in the humanities ended up being a springboard to a multifaceted law career. The alumnus earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1982 and went on to law school at Chicago’s DePaul University.
“I recognize all the time that my liberal arts degree is what helped me get here — my advice to students is to try many things and don’t be afraid of changing your mind, because exploring opportunities is why you go to school.”
Today, he presides over family law cases as one of 500 governor-appointed judges with the Los Angeles County Superior Court. He sees the position as a dream job, but said he didn’t always see himself there.
“A lot of people ask whether I always planned on becoming a judge, and I realize that I could have stayed in Chicago and become a firefighter like my dad, but my parents gave me the confidence to find my own opportunities,” he said.
This month’s event will also honor Robert Kestelik, another law professional who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Asian languages and a certificate in Asian studies from what is today The College’s School of International Letters and Cultures in 1994.
He went on to attend law school at Washington University in St. Louis and worked in a handful of international law firms before becoming assistant general counsel to multinational toy manufacturing company Mattel, providing legal support to the company’s worldwide operations and marketing and sales subsidiaries in China, Japan, Mexico, Italy, Russia and dozens of other countries.
He also gave back to ASU. Today, students in the School of International Letters and Cultures can apply for the Robert J. Kestelik Scholarship, which supports students who are studying a handful of foreign languages and are involved in LGBTQ+ issues or groups.
“I grew up in a conservative Catholic family that accepted me for who I am,” Kestelik said of his decision to create the scholarship. “But I also realize that many students who identify as LGBTQIA may not have the same level of familial support — I want to help students who don’t have that support, and I want them to know that the LGBTQIA community does support them.”
Kestelik passed away in August 2019, but will be recognized posthumously by The College this month.