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Chico State

Class Notes: Fall 2023

The sun sets behind an academic building with grass and oak trees in the foreground and puffy clouds in the sky
(Jason Halley/University Photogr

Whether it’s starting a new business, writing a book, or achieving a lifelong dream, the Wildcat family continues to reach milestones. Alumni share professional and personal updates for fall 2023.


Phillip I. Elkins (Sociology, ’71) has written six books about growing up in East Los Angeles, getting drafted into the Army, and being sent to Vietnam as a medic: My Year in Vietnam, Coming Home from the War in Vietnam, Shadowman, Running from the Fire, Time to Myself, and Daniela, Selena and Isaac at Daddy’s House. All are available on Amazon.

Charlotte Harkness (Psychology, ’73; Credential, ’74; MA, Education, ’12) has retired from full-time teaching in grades pre–K through ninth and on subjects including high school English and algebra, after 43 years. She began working as a supervisor for the School of Education at Chico State in the fall of 2021 and is the proud mom of Billy Harkness, who also works on campus as coordinator of the College of Business Student Success Center and Sarah Harkness, a former dance professor currently working as a choreographer, director, and actress in New Mexico.

John Lorelli (History, ’73; MA, History, ’78) retired in 2012 from Santa Barbara City College as director of the campus bookstore. After graduating from Chico State, he moved to Ventura County and worked at the bookstore at Ventura Community College and as an hourly instructor. A lifelong writer, John has published two books, both on WWII Naval history. He is enjoying his retirement and has since traveled the length of the West Coast in connection with road cycling events. When visiting Chico, John enjoys walking through campus to see what has changed.

Rhonda Rockwell Purwin (Physical Education, ’79; MA, Physical Education, ’80) has retired from Chaffey Joint Union High School District where she worked as an athletic director and dance and physical education teacher.

Gary Cloverdale (Business Administration, ’75) has been recognized for his leadership, expertise, and dedication to the complex field of cybersecurity. Gary has been named one of the top 50 chief information security officers to watch in the nation in 2023 by The Cyber Express. In addition to his role as chief information security officer with the City of Santa Barbara, he serves as a member of the Appointed Critical Infrastructure Protection Council (Department of Homeland Security), with assigned roles in the Cyber Security Workgroup, Communications Sector, and Elections Sector. Gary also received the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Department of Homeland Security) Lifetime Achievement Award.

Carlos Jacobo (Attended, ’76), president of the Wildcat Football Alumni Board, recently announced a milestone. After raising nearly $50,000, the board awarded nine $1,000 scholarships, which were handed out at its annual golf reunion banquet July 15. As intended from the beginning, the awards were given to direct descendants of past Wildcat football players. Through the scholarship committee, headed by Paul Lema (Physical Education, ’76; Credential, ’94) the Board strives to keep the legacy of Chico State football alive and active by awarding scholarships to students in pursuit of a college degree. To all Wildcat football alumni and others who may be interested in the board’s mission, please contact Jacobo or Don Carlsen (Accounting, ’69) at

Kevin Burton (Industrial Arts, ’78) and his wife, fellow Wildcat Kathryn Burklo Burton (Attended, 1975–1978), have retired and are living happily in Portland, Oregon. Since graduating from Chico State, Kevin worked as a draftsman briefly for Varian Associates in Palo Alto and then CH2M HILL in Corvallis, Oregon, where he remained for almost 40 years. Kevin and Kathryn share a daughter, Taylor, and son, Elijah, as well as a granddaughter, Allison.

Rhonda Rockwell Purwin (Physical Education, ’79; MA, Physical Education, ’80) has retired from Chaffey Joint Union High School District where she worked as an athletic director and dance and physical education teacher.

Toni Jolene Starr (Biological Sciences, ’78) has published a memoir, titled Buen Viaje, A Physician’s Journey to Healing and Wholeness. This is her first full-length book, and it tells the story of her years-long struggle with depression and eventual abandonment of psychiatric medications for alternative and complementary medicine, including her journey to healing through shamanism and psychedelics. Jolene is a retired physician who spent many years treating veterans and others with PTSD and other mental illnesses. Her work has been printed in IDAHO Magazine and Chicken Soup for the Soul, and she has also published a book of poetry. Jolene spends her time writing, hiking, singing, and sometimes giving unsolicited opinions on the current state of modern medicine.


David Bruhn (Physical Science, ’82) has published his latest book, Stride Out, with Heritage Press. The book tells the exciting story of Chico State’s men’s and women’s track teams from 1969–1979 and the variety of coaches and coaching philosophies that pushed them toward success. David has written over 25 books covering a variety of subjects, including detailed explorations of famous US Naval battles and another book on Chico State’s celebrated running program during the 1970s.

Assad Jaber (Construction Management, ’84) is director of operations, project executive, and project director for Turner Construction International. Assad is an expert in managing high-profile projects in the public, private, and real estate sectors, and has 30-plus years of progressive experience in the Middle East providing customized solutions in multi-disciplinary projects for government and private sectors.

Albert Garcia (English, ’85) was recently announced as the new president of Sacramento City College, which serves almost 20,000 students in the greater Sacramento area.

Michael Oster (Business Administration, ’86) is managing director and wealth management advisor for Merrill in Oakland, and he was named to the Forbes Magazine 2023 Best-in-State Wealth Advisors List. Michael is a certified financial planner and chartered financial consultant, and holds a Master of Business Administration from California State University, East Bay.

Bob Nienaber (Information and Communication Studies, ’89) Bob has made a wealth of meaningful personal connections in his life, working side by side with Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, and countless members of Congress. In 25 years advising the House Committee on Ways and Means, his ultimate goal was to make the financial world a more fair system. Today, as CEO of benefitRFP, he has created a technology that uses AI to advise clients on investments based on tax codes, insurance products, and their individual portfolios. The company has earned international service and humanitarian awards for risk and wealth management and recognition from Fortune Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, but “an award for me is seeing someone who worked for 20 or 30 years who had nothing when they started and now they are able to achieve all their financial goals,” he said.


Karen (Hackett) Villalobos (International Relations,’92; Credential, ’98; MA, Education, ’00) received her
doctorate from University of the Pacific in 2013 and was recently named the 2023 Association of California School Administrators Superintendent/Principal of the Year following several successful years as
Superintendent/Principal of Twin Rivers Charter School in Yuba City. During her tenure, student achievement increased by over 50 percent in both ELA and Math scores on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. The school was also recognized as a 2023 Distinguished School, 2023 PBIS Platinum, 2023 Middle Schools to Watch, 2022 California Pivotal Practice, and 2022 California Green Ribbon School.

Michelle Rodriguez (Liberal Studies, ’93; Credential,’94) has been named new superintendent of the Stockton Unified School District. Michelle was previously superintendent at the Pajaro Valley Unified School District for seven years. She earned a doctorate in educational psychology and completed a school business management certificate program at the University of Southern California.

Adam Ryan (Political Science, ’93) is the presiding judge for the Shasta County Superior Court.

Brendon Towle (Electrical and Computer Engineering, ’93) provides mindset coaching services and workshops to early-career professionals by helping them develop and build self-confidence, grit, and stress management skills to succeed in any endeavor. Before creating his dream job, Brendon earned a PhD in computer science from Northwestern University and began a 20–year career in the educational technology industry, working as a systems architect, manager, team leader, and system designer. After becoming disillusioned with the tech industry, Brendon was able to fulfill a childhood dream of studying Japanese while living in Tokyo—he is now proficient in both spoken and written Japanese—and has found his calling by serving people through mindset coaching.

Scott Caceres (Sociology, ’97) is a school teacher and substitute recruiter with the Roman Catholic Diocese and affiliated organizations. He is interested in connecting with Chico State alumni in and around Tucson, Arizona. Scott’s wife Kimberly also attended Chico State and is currently working as a recovery coach for Pathways.

Stephanie Crean (Journalism, ’98; MA, Information and Communication Studies, ’00) has joined the board of directors for “Shoes That Fit,” a Clairemont-based nonprofit organization that provides children in need new athletic shoes to attend school so that they can learn, play, and thrive with dignity and joy. Stephanie has worked in corporate finance for over 20 years, including a 12-year tenure at American Express in various vice president roles, and four years as a wealth advisor at California Financial Partners, Inc. In 2023, she founded Meristem Private Wealth and serves as both president and advisor. When not working, Stephanie enjoys spending time with her husband and two children, as well as volunteering with local and national community organizations.

Rochanne Downs (Geography, History, ’98) Rochanne serves as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act liaison and program manager with the University of Nevada, Reno. She is a member of the Toi Ticutta Band of Paiute from the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe. In her current position, she supports cultural resource protection, repatriation, education, and collaboration with Tribal communities. Additionally, Rochanne has dedicated the past 24 years to serving the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe in all facets of Tribal government, including tenure as the education director, cultural resources director, and Tribal historic preservation officer.


Holly Henderson (Journalism, ’02) has been appointed to the position of senior vice president of sales and business development for NCTI, Inc. She is a 20-year industry veteran, whose previous roles include senior vice president of distribution at Hallmark Media, director of affiliate sales for Gemstar–TV Guide, and regional manager of affiliate sales for G4. Holly is also a graduate of the Women in Cable Communications Betsy Magness Leadership Institute, Class 41, and serves as a board member for The Guidance Center in Long Beach, where she resides.

Amber Balestrieri (Nutrition and Food Sciences, ’04) is the owner and president of Balestrieri Family Farm.

Melody Gutierrez (Journalism, ’04) won First Place for Writing in the 2022 California Journalism Awards for her column: “California’s abandoned homesteads fascinated me as a kid. Then my childhood home became one,” published in the Los Angeles Times, where she works as an investigative reporter and staff writer. Previously, Melody has covered state government and politics for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee, and she has written award-winning government accountability stories on wasteful spending, pension spiking, rape kit backlogs, and failures in the foster care system.

Allison Maudlin (Communication Design, ’04) finished her MBA in March of 2022 and has accepted a new position on the executive team of the educational nonprofit New Meridian. Allison is married to fellow Wildcat, Thomas Maudlin (Journalism, ’04).

Randy Presleigh (Civil Engineering, ’04) works as a major projects dam safety engineer for Pacific Gas and Electric Company. He has authored several papers and technical presentations at national and international hydropower and dam safety industry associations, including the United States Society on Dams, the Canadian Dam Association, and Hydrovision International. Randy is a licensed structural and civil engineer in nine US states and in British Columbia. He is married to a fellow Wildcat and College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Construction Management alumna, Elizabeth Presleigh (Civil Engineering, ’04).

Evan Papa (Biological Sciences, ’05; Kinesiology, ’07) is the founding director of the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at Tufts University School of Medicine. He is a 2023 Faculty Fellow of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, and a recent graduate of the Fellowship in Higher Education Leadership through the American Physical Therapy Association. Evan was the recipient of the Innovative Teacher of the Year Award in 2018 and the Clinical Researcher of the Year Award 2020 from the College of Rehabilitation Sciences at Idaho State University. Evan has also been recognized as a two-time recipient of the Emerging Leader Award from the American Physical Therapy Association in 2017 and 2020.

Amber Morley (Journalism, ’08; MA, Social Science, ’16) has recently relocated to Atlanta, Georgia to accept a role as the director of career services for the College of Computing at The Georgia Institute of Technology.

Natalie Collins (Agricultural Business, ’09) has been named the California Association of Winegrape Growers’ president, after serving as interim president since June 2022. Natalie joined the association in 2015 as director of member relations and has recently led the association team in Sacramento, guiding its partnership with the American Society for Enology and Viticulture in preparation for the annual Unified Wine and Grape Symposium. In this new role, Natalie is the voice for California wine grape growers in Washington, DC, helping to shape public policy that will respect and advance the industry. Natalie lives in Lodi with her husband Kyle and their two children.


Mark Luke (Business Administration, ’13) has accepted a position as the marketing manager for LRS Architects. In this role, Mark will focus on client proposals, pitches, and internal and external communication, offering his comprehensive background and expertise in marketing and business growth. Mark has served previously as business development manager and partner for White Rabbit Group and marketing manager for Eagle Security Systems. He also holds several certifications from HubSpot and is a member of the Bend Chamber of Commerce, Bend Young Professionals, and the Central Oregon Trail Alliance.

Tyler King (Exercise Physiology, ’15) is the athletic trainer for Loyola Marymount University Baseball. He also works with USA Baseball and worked in Minor League Baseball with the Boston Red Sox from 2019–2020. Tyler is proud to say that his younger sister is following the Wildcat tradition and is attending Chico State!

Kael Heath (English, ’16) moved to Lansing, Michigan, to be closer to family in December 2022 and got a
new job with the US Army (Lansing MEPS) as a human resources assistant.

Cheyenne Cameron-Pruitt (Journalism, ’16) is the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Senior Program Manager
with FleishmanHillard (FH), tackling the agency’s goal to be the most inclusive communications agency in the world. In 2018, she became the Diversity Champion for FH Sacramento. In 2019, she created Remix Your Algorithm, an FH Sacramento employee program that helps broaden perspectives and break out of echo chambers online. After being selected for the 2020 ADCOLOR FUTURES program and playing the role of campaign strategist for the winning hackathon team, Cheyenne used her newfound tools and resources to orchestrate a shift from client relations to D&I strategy.

Ben Sampson (Business Administration, ’16) recently sold WeHero, an innovative business venture he started in the Bay Area shortly after graduating, but has maintained a position within the company. WeHero connects employees at large corporations like LinkedIn and Microsoft with meaningful volunteer opportunities that reflect their interests. The project has allowed Ben to synthesize his desire to make a positive impact and his love of business. It’s also a win-win for employees who want to explore their passions and employers who want to attract talented, empathetic people who care about the world. Between championing the field of Corporate Social Responsibility for today’s workforce, Ben also advises students in the College of Business at Chico State as a way to give back and inspire others to dream big.

Brandon Walker (Business Administration, ’17) has joined TJ Farms in Chico as agricultural manager, where he maintains and manages a 15-acre lot through planting, harvesting, crop processing, packaging, and distribution. Brandon also administers the farm’s annual Pumpkin Patch and manages the inventory and delivery of the farm’s organic products to various grocery store chains with a focus on building growth.

Maria Gutierrez Ruiz (Business Administration, ’18) is a human resources coordinator for Vulcan Materials.

Bekah Qualls (Social Work, ’19; MSW, ’21) has moved to Puyallup, Washington, where she is a school social worker and online therapist. Compelled to do this important work, Bekah credits the School of Social Work and programs like TRIO Student Support Services for helping her survive her hardest season of college. In 2023, she created the Qualls Footnotes Endowed Scholarship at Chico State. The purpose of the scholarship is to support upper-division students entering the social work program at Chico State. Qualls will fund the first $25,000 in payments over next five years, then the University will maintain the scholarship in perpetuity.


Diego Tena (Psychology, ’20; MA, Business Administration, ’22) is a project engineer for Otto Construction.

Ngan Vo (Business Administration, ’20) is a junior meeting planner for the Rural Community Assistance
Corporation in Sacramento. Her husband is also a Wildcat!

Eric Alcala (Business Administration, ’20) is the district sales leader for Frito- Lay, Inc.

Laura Jhoana Lopez (Mechatronic Engineering, ’21) has earned a master of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Southern California. She is currently working as a systems engineer in the Engineering Leadership Program at General Dynamics Mission Systems and will be pursuing a second master’s degree that will be company-paid.

Brandon Loeb (Mechanical Engineering, ’22) is a staff engineer at Voss Laboratories.

Ericka Rudge (English, ’22) is completing the Single Subject Teaching Credential Program at Chico State. Congrats to Ericka—she’s managed to remain on the Dean’s Honor List during her entire enrollment as a Wildcat!

Erik Anaya (History, ’23) is heading to New York University—in the heart of the Big Apple—for graduate school!

Amber Ortiz (Business Administration, ’23) is a purchase order and payroll coordinator for Recology Yuba Sutter.