Distinguished Alumni Award: Steve Nystrom
For 31 years, Marquette native Steve Nystrom (Business Administration ’82 BS, Defense Administration ’86 MA) used the knowledge, skills and leadership qualities he acquired at NMU to contribute to U.S. national security. He served in the U.S. Army during the Cold War, as a senior analyst in the Defense Intelligence Agency, and as division chief and program manager with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
After NMU, Nystrom completed a master's in defense administration and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Armor Branch of the U.S. Army.
“I always had a desire to serve my country with the military, and Northern professors influenced my specific interests in international affairs and the intelligence community,” he said. “Dr. Fred Berry's courses provided an overview of the U.S. intelligence community, how insurgencies and revolutions start, and what governments can do to prevent them by meeting the basic needs of their people. Dr. Robert Kulisheck addressed national security matters such as nuclear policy and diplomacy, and Dr. Miodrag “Bata” Georgevich taught international relations/law.”
During the Cold War, Nystrom was on the front lines as an armor officer—platoon leader—in West Germany. He became a senior analyst in the Defense Intelligence Agency after the first Gulf War, which introduced the public to the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles and reconnaissance satellites. Nystrom worked varied assignments providing geospatial intelligence and products to the Drug Enforcement Administration, identifying and targeting narcotics labs and the suspected locations of key leaders in the Cali Cartel, who were eventually captured.
Nystrom said there were a lot of crises in the wake of the Cold War; it wasn't as peaceful as many people assumed. For the crisis in Bosnia, he briefed officials on capabilities and limitations involving geospatial or imagery intelligence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he helped to determine the location and status of Russia's tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.
Imagery factored heavily into his later role as division chief and program manager with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) during two deployments to Iraq.
Much of this was during the Sunni Awakening, in which Sunni insurgents who had formerly fought against U.S. troops eventually realigned themselves with U.S. and coalition forces to repair critical infrastructure such as power plants, schools and hospitals. This greatly reduced the appeal of insurgent groups, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaeda, and sectarian violence.
“It was one of my greatest achievements because our efforts helped to end the insurgency by stabilizing the situation in Iraq, which led to elections that enabled them to form a government encompassing the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. This reduced both the military and civilian casualties and allowed us to bring our brave men and women home.”
Three years before his 2017 retirement, Nystrom completed the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies program, and became the first civilian from NGA to graduate from the program.
With more time now to devote to community service, Nystrom actively serves the YMCA of Marquette County, Marquette West Rotary and Big Brothers Big Sisters. He also provides guidance to the U.P. Cybersecurity Institute at NMU.
Alumni Achievement Award: Jim Paquette
Jim Paquette (Social Work ’74 BS) of Negaunee developed an interest in history and archaeology at a young age, in large part because his paternal grandfather instilled pride in the family's French Canadian-First Nation Métis ancestry and traditional lifestyle. As he grew older, Paquette wanted to learn more about his family's history in the region. He read and copied volumes of material from the library at NMU and began searching for and locating early cultural sites.
Since 1984, Paquette has been conducting an ongoing archaeological survey project in the central U.P. One of his most prominent revelations was in 1987 at the 10,000-year-old Gorto Site on Deer Lake in Ishpeming, where he and John Gorto '74 BS, '76 MA found a cache of more than 30 Paleo-Indian spear points in a small area.
“That discovery shook the archaeological world,” Paquette said. “At the time, we were trying to prove that early people that are referred to as Paleo-Indians lived in the U.P. since the end of the Ice Age. There was a lot of doubt among professional archaeologists that this was true and people told us that we wouldn't find anything, but we did.” NMU's Dr. Marla Buckmaster and then-NMU student John Anderton ’87 BSled the 1987 excavation of the Gorto Site.
Another highlight is the Goose Lake Outlet #3 site, an early Anishinaabe family's winter camp/hunting site, which traces back to the pre-1650 Protohistoric period, when European-manufactured goods were first being traded/gifted to Indigenous peoples in the Lake Superior region, but before any historic records of such contact.
"We found moose, beaver and porcupine bones, stone arrowheads, brass finger rings from the French, and an incredible array of glass trade beads. When it comes to searching for signs of my French and Native ancestors, this site really nailed it. There's a powerful spiritual connection I feel when I'm there.
“I had incredible professors who taught me about human beings and how to value, treat, and deal with them. I also learned how to communicate effectively through writing and speaking, and how to do proper research and ‘always' get my facts right. So much of what I have achieved throughout my life I owe to what I learned at Northern.”
Paquette said he went to college so he wouldn't have to work in the local iron ore mines, but the mines offered more than double the starting pay of a social worker, plus full benefits and a good retirement plan. He ended up launching a 35-year career with the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company.
“The skills I learned at Northern gave me a tremendous advantage in a mine setting. I started as an hourly employee and was the first college-educated iron ore miner to ever take one of the union jobs. I sat across from senior management when I was only 24 years old to negotiate local issues and argue miners' grievances. I also became editor and writer of the first union newspaper at the Tilden Mine. But mine safety was always my first concern and I dedicated myself to get every miner home safe and sound to their families at the end of every shift.
Today he has channeled his union activist spirit toward advocating for human rights on behalf of individuals mistreated because of their gender, religion or ethnicity.
Alumni Service Award: Chris Mosier
Chris Mosier (Art and Design ’03 BFA)of Chicago is a trailblazing transgender athlete who has been a catalyst for policy change and a staunch advocate for inclusion in and beyond sports. Abiding by his motto, “Be who you needed when you were younger,” Mosier is a dedicated mentor to transgender and nonbinary youth, a highly regarded speaker and a leading grassroots organizer against the current wave of anti-trans legislation across the United States.
“It’s wonderful to return to campus feeling I'm the person I was always meant to be,” said Mosier. “When I was a student at Northern, I definitely struggled in terms of finding my place in the world because I didn't comprehend that I was trans, and there weren't many out people in my social circles when I was there.”
As a protective mechanism, Mosier said he threw himself into his Northern experience, keeping busy with intramural sports, residence hall council and other organizations so he would not have time to think of his identity, develop close relationships with others or have to talk about himself too much.
“Even putting on the Wildcat Willy mascot costume allowed me to be involved in sports, but with the gift of anonymity,” he said. “It was all about building walls to help me avoid potentially awkward moments. Don't get me wrong—I really enjoyed my overall experience at Northern and it prepared me to interrogate some of those ideas about my identity. But I didn't fully explore and embrace my authentic self until after I left.”
Along with increased self-awareness, Mosier began to recognize the meaningful value of using sport as a vehicle for social change. His credibility in that arena received a boost in 2013, when he created the website transathlete.com, a resource for students, athletes, coaches and sports administrators with information about trans inclusion in athletics at various levels. He has also helped teams, high school athletic associations and professional sports leagues create gender-inclusive policies.
In 2015, Mosier became the first openly trans man to earn a spot on the U.S. men's national team and was instrumental in getting the International Olympic Committee to revise its policy on transgender athletes. The following year, he became the first trans man to compete against men in a World Championship race under the new rules. He is a six-time member of Team USA in sprint and long-course duathlon, as well as sprint triathlon. Mosier became the first known trans athlete to compete in the Olympic Trials in the gender with which they identify in 2020. Mosier's event was the 50k race walk, a sport that garnered him two national championships.
Today Mosier is a Nike-sponsored athlete who was featured in a commercial that debuted in prime time during the Rio Olympics and in the shoemaker's BETRUE campaign. He also was the first trans athlete to appear in ESPN The Magazine's body issue. Mosier is the executive producer of the Emmy-nominated Hulu documentary, Changing the Game, and was featured in his award-winning short documentary, The Chris Mosier Project.
Outstanding Young Alumni Award: Stephanie Lay
Stephanie Lay (Sociology ’11 BS) provides crisis care to suicidal adolescents as a member of the behavior emergency response team at Children's Hospital Oakland in California. She also has a private therapy practice in nearby San Francisco, where she specializes in gender identity, depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm. With a master's degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis in expressive art therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies, she practices from a trauma-informed, person-centered and narrative expressive arts therapy foundation.
“Expressive arts therapy uses every modality—from poetry and painting to movement and dance. It gives clients space to explore who they are as people and to experience fully what their identity might be,” she said. “Once they strengthen their sense of self, they can start figuring out goals, ideals, values and how to relate to other people.”
Lay started working with queer youth populations because there's so much overlap between gender identity and suicidal ideation and action. Those who aren't accepted face a higher risk of depression.
“Talking about suicide in hushed tones makes people feel ashamed; it's okay to talk openly to maintain safety,” she said. “What is mentionable is manageable. And a proper response is important. If a young person expresses suicidal thoughts, you don't want to say, ‘Oh, you don't have it that bad' or ‘I have a friend who followed through on that and hurt everyone around them.' It's better to acknowledge what they're expressing and ask them to elaborate—perhaps by saying, ‘Wow, that's big; is there something more you want to say?'
“I have been managing my own mental health for a long time with help from providers. There were multiple periods where I felt suicidal and had to utilize extra supports. When I was younger, there were few options for reaching out. I wished there was someone more relaxed to talk to. That's what I wanted to focus on: being the person I needed. It's rewarding to support individuals in figuring out their identities so they can develop who they are as people and build out from there.”
Lay said her favorite extracurricular activity at NMU was the student improv organization, which rehearsed weekly at midnight in a large lecture hall on campus and performed monthly. She described it as a fun way to establish new friendships, both within the group and with students who would attend the shows. Lay said one of the biggest supporters of the improv group, who became her best friend, was Monica Selby-Blissenbach.
“She was so in love with Northern, Marquette and the Yoop,” Lay said. “Monica passed away a couple of years ago. She would have been most proud of me for receiving the alumni award. When I got the notification letter this spring, I was so excited, yet also devastated that I couldn't share the news with her. I think it's more important to build out your chosen family while in college than to pick a major that's a direct path to a job. Having a close network of friends at Northern has served me very well in life.”