2019 WWU Alumni Awards

Meet fellow alumni who are making a difference

Michael Christopher Brown, 2019 Distinguished Alumnus, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Michael Christopher Brown


Distinguished Alumnus, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Brown’s photography beautifully marries international adventure with images of human intimacy and beauty, studies in contrast between the ugliness of war and the beauty of those caught within wars. After completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2000 at WWU, Brown completed a master’s degree in documentary photography at Ohio University and interned at National Geographic Magazine. He has become known for bringing under-reported international stories to mass audiences with work in Libya, Egypt, China, Congo, Central African Republic, Cuba and Palestine, often capturing images with an iPhone. Follow his work on Instagram @michaelchristopherbrown.  

Andrew Vallee, 2019 Distinguished Alumnus, College of Fine and Performing Arts

Andrew Vallee

Co-founder, Smith and Vallee Cabinet Makers and Smith and Vallee Gallery

Distinguished Alumnus, College of Fine and Performing Arts

Vallee, ’96, B.A., art, teamed up after graduation with Wesley Smith, ’95, and founded Smith & Vallee Cabinet Makers of Edison, which creates hand-crafted cabinetry for homes and businesses throughout the region. In 2007, they opened Smith & Vallee Gallery in a restored schoolhouse nearby to showcase new and established artists. Vallee is an artist in his own right whose work has been exhibited at Smith & Vallee as well as the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art and Museum of Northwest Art.

Latonya and Douglas Leek, 2019 Young Philanthropists of the Year

Douglas W. and Latonya G. Leek

Young Philanthropists of the Year

The Leeks both earned bachelor’s degrees at Western, Douglas in English in ‘98 and Latonya in general studies in ‘00. Douglas returned to Western for a master’s in student personnel administration in ‘99, and later completed a doctorate at Seattle University. They strongly value education and understand the role finances play in students’ persistence and success. So they helped fund the endowment of five Ethnic Student Center Scholarships. Next, they created the Cora D. Hill Memorial Scholarship Endowment for Transfer Students, in honor of a dear friend and 1999 Western alumna. And their Leek Family Job Preparation and Networking Award provides two annual $1,000 awards to graduating students of color to purchase professional clothing for job interviews. Then last year, the Leeks decided to create the Leek Family Scholarship for undocumented students, which funds two two-year tuition and book awards to high achieving students.

Christy Johnson, 2019 Distinguished Alumna, College of Business and Economics

Christy Johnson

Founder and CEO, Artemis Connection

Distinguished Alumna, College of Business and Economics

Johnson, ’01, B.A., economics, is an innovator who believes human capital is the key to corporate success. After teaching at Bellingham High School, Johnson earned master’s degrees in education and business at Stanford University. She then joined McKinsey & Co. and worked with executives in the U.S. and Europe. But when her newborn twins needed postnatal care, she realized the structure of corporate culture keeps caregivers from living full lives without the good graces of an understanding manager—not a given in the workplace. So she got the idea for Artemis Connection, “a consultancy that focuses on strategic solutions, with data and design thinking, plus provides a flexible working model for our own talent." Her work can be a challenge—telling hard truths to powerful executives. But when they listen (and they often do) she sees them succeed.

Nick Harmer and Ben Gibbard, with Deborah DeWees, executive director of the WWU Alumni Association.

Ben Gibbard and Nick Harmer

Musicians, Death Cab for Cutie

Young Alumni of the Year

In 1997, WWU student Gibbard, ’98, B.S, environmental science, sat down in the living room of his rental house and recorded “You Can Play These Songs Without Chords” on a cassette, which generated buzz from Bellingham to Seattle. He gathered some friends, including Harmer, ’98, B.A., English, to record some more. In 1998 they recorded “Something About Airplanes” followed quickly by “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes.” Now immersed in success, Death Cab for Cutie is critically acclaimed and internationally recognized with six Grammy nominations. They recently made a tour stop in Bellingham for Double Major, alongside fellow alumni ODESZA, a concert benefiting WWU scholarships.

Karen Gallagher, 2019 Distinguished Alumna, Woodring College of Education

Karen Symms Gallagher

Dean, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California

Distinguished Alumna, Woodring College of Education

Gallagher, ’67, B.A., political science, has dedicated her career to education, championing students who, like her, depended on scholarships and financial aid to attend college. At USC, she has been an innovative leader in creating opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds.


Hoyt Gier, 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award

Hoyt Gier

Head of Western Region – North, Citi Private Bank

Lifetime Achievement Award

A longtime member of the Western Foundation board, Gier, ’80, B.A., business administration, helped lead the $60 million Western Stands for Washington campaign. Hoyt and his wife Donita have also given to the Goodrich/Dolfo Fund for Women’s Basketball and to a scholarship endowment for cross country.

Ronald L. Heimark, 2019 Distinguished Alumnus, College of Science and Engineering

Ronald L. Heimark

Pharmaceutical Innovator and Cancer Researcher

Distinguished Alumnus, College of Science and Engineering

Heimark, ’70, B.S., biology, was part of a small team at the Seattle biotechnology company ICOS working on what they thought would be a new hypertension drug. It turned out to be Cialis, a very successful treatment for erectile dysfunction. Today, Heimark is a cancer researcher at the University of Arizona Cancer Center and professor in Arizona’s College of Medicine.

Michael West Cox, 2019 Distinguished Alumnus, Huxley College of the Environment

Michael West Cox

Retired EPA Climate Adviser, Whistleblower

Distinguished Alumnus, Huxley College of the Environment

Cox, ’81, B.S., environmental science, served under six presidents at the Environmental Protection Agency, dedicated to such issues as drinking water rules and climate change policy. When he retired in 2017, Cox penned a now-famous letter to incoming EPA chief Scott Pruitt, blasting budget cuts, denial of climate science, and open hostility to environmental protection.

Lisa Wolff Swanson, 2019 Larry “Go Vikings!” Taylor Alumni Service Award

Lisa Wolff Swanson

Larry “Go Vikings!” Taylor Alumni Service Award

Scan the crowd at a men’s soccer game at Western, and you’re likely to see Swanson, ’95, cheering on the Vikings. Swanson is the consummate Viking—fan, supporter, and friend to the Athletics Department, student-athletes, and the community.

Edwin Love, 2019 Campus Volunteer Award

Edwin Love

WWU Marketing Department Chair

Campus Volunteer Award

In addition to his work as professor of marketing, Love gives a great deal of his time and energy to ensuring that Western students succeed. He’s a leader in Western Engaged and WWU Give Day, and works with marketing faculty to hold twice-yearly alumni meet-ups in Seattle.

Rod Roth, 2019 Community Volunteer Award

Rod Roth

R&D Plastics

Community Volunteer Award

Roth and his Portland-based company R&D Plastics are longtime supporters of Western’s plastics engineering program, providing internships, guest lecturers, scholarships, materials and industry tours for countless students over the years—not to mention employment for about 24 Western grads.

Jeffrey Roy Hammarlund, 2019 Distinguished Alumnus, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies

Jeffrey Roy Hammarlund

Leader in Sustainable Energy Policy and Education

Distinguished Alumnus, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies

A 1972 graduate of both Fairhaven and Huxley College of the Environment, Hammarlund has dedicated his entire career to promoting sustainable energy policy and addressing climate change in the U.S. and abroad. After work in the public and private sector, Hammarlund taught at Lewis & Clark College, Portland State University and Western.

Stephan Aarstol, 2019 Young Entrepreneur of the Year

Stephan Aarstol

Founder and CEO of Tower Paddle Boards

Young Entrepreneur of the Year

All summer, Tower Paddle Boards founder and CEO Stephan Aarstol wakes up, goes to his dream office on the beach in San Diego and, along with his team, clocks out at 1:30 p.m. to go surfing, play volleyball, relax on the beach—whatever is fun.

The idea: Disrupt the round-the-clock work hours of start-up culture with a true investment in work-life balance. Employees are still expected to meet their goals, but Aarstol and others who have adopted shorter workdays report that leaving out the downtime of lunch breaks and the afternoon slump makes the day more productive, the employees happier, and the culture more in tune with the company’s mission.

“We’re a paddle board company and we never had a chance to go out and actually paddle board,” Aarstol says.

A year into Tower's workday experiment, Aarstol published "The Five Hour Workday," which got press in more than 20 countries.

Aarstol graduated from Western in 1996 and got an MBA from the University of San Diego. He worked for an internet start-up for five years, paying attention to industry trends and new ideas that could feed his entrepreneurial streak. He founded buypokerchips.com in 2003, and rode the upswing of poker in the early 2000s. As the poker trend waned, a friend took him paddle boarding, and he got the idea to manufacture, market, and ship paddle boards.

Within a year, the television show “Shark Tank” called. He went on the show with Tower Paddle Boards and gave “the worst pitch in the history of Shark Tank that still landed a deal,” Aarstol remembers. “I completely blanked. It was terrible.” But it was good television, not to mention a good product and business model. Aarstol’s direct-to-consumer paddle boards company has lower overhead, more profit, and better prices for customers.

Celebrity investor Mark Cuban put up $150,000 for 30 percent of Tower Paddle Boards, which has become one of the most successful businesses ever profiled on the show. It made Inc. Magazine’s list of America’s fastest growing companies in 2015.

But Aarstol, true to form, is moving into new territory, expanding Tower into electric bikes with TowerElectricBikes.com and launching a new business, NoMiddleman.com, a website that offers hundreds of direct-to-consumer brands in one spot.