ABOUT ALUMNI HONORS
In 2018 we began a new tradition called Alumni Honors, designed to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of alumni who embody our core values of inquiry, care, integrity, agency, and interconnection.
Each year, Alumni Honors will celebrate an alumna/us/x who is a leader in his/her/their field and making important contributions at a local, national, or international level through personal accomplishment, professional achievement, or humanitarian service.
We invite our entire community to nominate candidates: alumni, current students, current and past parents, and current and past faculty/staff. Click here to nominate at any time during the year. Nominations are reviewed on a rolling basis and recipients are honored at Reunion Weekend.
The selection committee consists of the Alumni Council, head of school, and president of the board of trustees. Our honorary chair is Lareina Yee '91, P '21.
2019 ALUMNI HONORS RECIPIENTS:
Jaime Teevan, phd '94
Jaime Teevan '94 isn't changing the world, she's helping you do it. Her title is chief scientist at Microsoft, and she works with product leaders across all of Microsoft's experiences and devices to shape the company's bold ambitions for productivity. She’s using science to build the tools that make it easier for you to achieve your goals. She does this by drawing on her experience as a researcher at Microsoft Research, where, from 2006-2017, she invented, published, and patented novel approaches for applying artificial intelligence to web search and task management; studied machine learning and information retrieval using large-scale log analysis; and became a recognized world leader in computing research with 220 publications, 12,263 citations, and an h-index of 52 (as of this publication). Jaime has a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Computer Science, but, remarkably, did not take a single related course until her second year as an undergrad at Yale.
Jaime's tenure at UHS was a time for exploration. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer right before her ninth-grade year started, and, while she didn't realize it at the time, she can see now this deeply influenced her high school experience by forcing her to focus on what really mattered to her. She fondly remembers taking a broad range of classes that interested her versus being on a specific track. These included art history with Prudy Kohler, physics with Tucker Hiatt, and math with Matt Holdreith. Junior year she spent in Barcelona with the School Year Abroad program despite "not seeing myself as a languages person." She remembers passionate student debate about the Gulf War, and permission from the administration to attend an important anti-war protest off-campus. She credits UHS with instilling in her a growth mindset and giving her the courage to challenge boundaries. Now, as an expert in artificial intelligence, she describes these attributes as more important than ever as people must increasingly teach, learn from, and challenge their tools.
At Yale, Jaime took courses on autonomous systems and learned how to build robots, "coaching" a robotic soccer team that participated in RoboCup, the robot complement to the World Cup. Web search was just starting to emerge, so for her senior thesis she developed an approach that used link analysis to help people find web pages. She then sold that approach to one of the first internet search engines, Infoseek, and worked there for a year after graduating to help them implement it.
Jaime went on to receive multiple advanced degrees, deepening her knowledge of computer science by conducting rigorous research, formulating problems, challenging assumptions, and adding new knowledge to the world. For her first eleven years at Microsoft, her role was to continue this research in an academic think tank setting similar to Bell Labs, asking and answering questions about human behavior and technology, publishing award winning papers, and contributing significantly to the field. Since 2012, she has also advised graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle as an affiliate professor.
Much of Jaime’s research focused on using AI to help people make productive use of their time and, as a working mother of four boys ages ten to fourteen (including twelve-year-old twins), this is something she benefits from directly. She developed “microproductivity” as a way to algorithmically break large tasks down into a series of microtasks. Her research showed that it is easier to do a task via microtasks, and that the approach makes tasks more resilient to the barrage of interruptions we all experience. She even found that microproductivity can help you engage in focused work because, although it is hard to start a task, it is easy to do a simple microtask that can then draw you into the larger task. Jaime draws on her experience as a mother not just for her research, but to support women pursuing computer science careers. For example, she has worked with academic conferences to help them implement better support for attendees with children.
Though research gave Jaime a lot of space to explore interesting topics, in 2017 she decided it was time to push herself to learn entirely new skills and ways of having impact. She accepted a job as the technical adviser to Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, where she was responsible for helping him formulate technical strategy and track key industry and scientific trends. In that role she found that while she was an expert on AI for productivity, she did not (yet) know anything about actually building a company that uses AI to help people be productive. She spent a year learning about how Microsoft’s products are developed, sold, and delivered before moving into her current position as chief scientist.
Jaime offers this advice to those who want to follow a similar career path as hers: "Don't over-optimize for short term rewards. Following a career path is like orienteering or navigating in an unfamiliar landscape. You need to be responsive to the environment you're in, but you can’t get distracted from finding your true north and making progress towards where you really want to get to."
Nominated by Eleanor Hicks '94
Minh Tsai '89
Minh Tsai '89 is the founder and CEO of Hodo Foods, manufacturer of organic plant-based products. Hodo has grown from a niche business into a thriving national brand in just fifteen years, and is about to double its manufacturing space—again.
Minh is making a low-carbon-footprint, plant-based diet a realistic alternative for everyone by handcrafting excellent delicious product, and evangelizing for this lifestyle. Hodo’s tofu and yuba based products are organic and non-GMO, using soybeans sourced from U.S. farms. Hodo products are used by Michelin star, trend-setting chefs around the country, and available in thousands of grocery outlets and farmers markets. The Hodo factory in West Oakland has 180 employees, many of whom live in the community.
When Minh arrived in the United States at age 11 from Saigon, he spoke Vietnamese and a few dialects of Chinese. His facility with languages helped him pick up English and find his way quickly. Compared to Saigon, San Francisco seemed small, and he saw it all on his hour-plus, two-bus ride across the city from Visitacion Valley Middle School to the Summerbridge after-school program at UHS.
Minh credits Summerbridge with "giving me a safe space to blossom… giving me a roadmap to navigate the educational system I would not otherwise have had. As Summerbridge Co-founder and Director Lois Loofburrow would say, 'You would have been successful regardless, but your path to success is a result of the expectations and exposure from Summerbridge.'"
"At Summerbridge I was required to meet the expectations of a challenging academic environment, which formed me for University High School. Expectations at UHS were equally high and, remarkably, came with guidance and a support system to allow every student to succeed in their own way."
Minh went on to become a Summerbridge San Francisco teaching fellow, the director of Hong Kong Summerbridge (which just celebrated its twenty-year anniversary), and, in 2000, a board member of the national organization, now called Breakthrough Collaborative.
Minh matriculated to Columbia University where he studied Asian American literature and political science as an undergraduate, and went on to receive his masters degree in economic development from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. In his twenties and early thirties, he worked as an investment banker and a management consultant, loving the intense international travel, coming full circle as a global citizen. Fifteen years ago, he left the corporate world, disillusioned by the politics of senior management, ready to go forward on his own terms.
He chose to start a specialty food company because yes, he loves tofu and, from a practical standpoint, food is recession-proof. He also noticed there was no premium high-end purveyor competing in the space (think Scharffenberger, Blue Bottle, or Cowgirl Creamery). Because he was the first one to make artisanal tofu at a commercial scale, there was no blueprint for manufacturing and marketing such innovative plant-based products. He's figured it out as he goes, including designing his own manufacturing equipment. Minh is a media darling. The press is happy to feature him when telling the story of the evolution of vegetarianism that first gained widespread popularity in the 1970s.
Today, Hodo manufactures 50,000 pounds of 100% organic plant-based products per day. The production line operates twenty-four hours per day, five days per week. Hodo products are sold wholesale for meal kits, restaurant chains like Chipotle, Silicon Valley corporate cafeterias, and even to the U.C. Berkeley dorms. You can find the Hodo brand in national chain supermarkets like Target and Whole Foods; and it's listed as an ingredient on the menus of Michelin-star restaurants Daniel, State Bird Provisions, Greens, Slanted Door, and more.
Minh believes Hodo's greatest strength is its employees and he takes pride in this extended family. Ninety percent of the 180-person West Oakland factory workforce is made up of immigrants. Minh encourages and supports employees in learning English and supporting their families’ integration into the workforce by providing flexible working hours. Employees are cross-trained in multiple departments (including Minh's own responsibilities) so they can fill in for each other and understand the big picture of the business. Management is committed to helping all employees move up when they're ready, within Hodo if there's an opportunity or with another company. Hodo provides 100% coverage of health, vision and dental benefits, and offers a 401k program with four percent matching, unheard of in this industry. Employee turnover, typically 150% for a food manufacturing business, is less than twenty percent. The City of Oakland Workforce Development program has taken notice, recruiting Minh to evangelize for the best practices Hodo has pioneered.
In addition to Hodo, Minh has a consulting practice working with food start-ups, and is co-parent to two teenage boys. In these capacities, he can share the secret ingredients to success inspired by his roots at Summerbridge and UHS: high expectations and a strong support system.
Nominated by Will Hartley '89
2018 ALUMNI HONORS RECIPIENTS:
DR. NJEMA FRAZIER '88
Dr. Njema Frazier ’88 says her hobby is changing the world.
In the twenty years since obtaining her PhD in nuclear physics in 1997 and rising to a place of leadership within the field, Njema has been a lifelong mentor to youth and emerging professionals just beginning their path, specifically focused on increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM professions.
Due to her efforts, she has been recognized by countless organizations devoted to the same, from national entities to grassroots influencers, extending her reach even further.
The path to enter and excel in STEM is illuminated through the life choices she has made: a rigorous course of academic study, time spent in the House of Representatives on the staff of the Committee on Science learning the business of government, many years working as a physicist with the Department of Energy, and now leading the Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). At the NNSA she manages scientific and technical efforts undertaken to ensure that the United States maintains a credible National nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing. Her program is charged with researching high energy density and plasma physics and works closely with the nation’s top talent around the country, including researchers at Lawrence Livermore Lab.
It is through this combination of professional excellence and service to others that she embodies UHS’s core values of inquiry, care, integrity, agency, and interconnection. Njema is candid about the experience of being an underrepresented minority in her field. “There aren’t a lot of women or people of color in physics. Because of that, my qualifications have routinely been challenged, and my work has had to be strong enough to counter or change those views. Even today, in 2018, some established leaders in my field still are not ready for diversity. I guess it is a good thing they don’t sign my check!”
The academic rigor at UHS prepared Njema well for Carnegie Mellon, where she felt comfortable with challenging assignments like problem sets from day one. Being comfortable in the college classroom early on instilled a high degree of confidence in her. She credits her time in Summerbridge before UHS with making her take academics seriously as a middle school student. Njema’s first love is math, but the pervasive nature of physics drove her to pursue science instead. She remembers trips to the Exploratorium for homework assignments from physics instructor Tucker Hiatt; trips that made her realize physics is everywhere.
When asked how she has moved up through the ranks to leadership in her field, Njema offers advice that can be applied to any field. “My willingness and ability to find solutions to problems is one of the things that has made me successful. It’s not enough to identify a problem. Managers appreciate team members who identify a solution at the same time as presenting a challenge. Offering a solution means the team can work together to solve the issue and move the project – or program – forward.
Being a physicist means Njema was trained to find solutions. But looking for answers isn’t enough, you also have to listen for answers. “It’s important to be a good listener, an active listener, instead of simply preparing your next talking point while others are speaking.”
And the other ingredient for success? “You have to be an expert in your job before you can lead. Advancing into higher positions is a worthwhile goal, but take the time to learn your current role inside and out before you decide it’s time to advance. Doing the best job where you are will help you get the plum assignments. Then, when you do get the promotion, you’ll be more competent and valuable as a leader because you understand the details of how your discipline works.”
Today she still volunteers her time for STEM education and STEM advocacy. Algebra by 7th Grade which she co-founded and still chairs, has just ended a successful pilot program in Washington DC and has started to expand with a second program partnering with Purdue University’s Minority Engineering Program. Ab7G is evaluating the pilot’s results and preparing to take the program to scale. Njema has been involved with National Society for Black Engineers since her undergraduate days and now serves on their advisory board. She is an active speaker for the American Physical Society. And she is on the board of CHANGES, Coalition of Hispanic, African and Native Americans for the Next Generation of Engineers and Scientists.
And on a personal note, she shares the news that she is engaged to be married to Dr. Joe Haralson, an electrical engineer. The two met the summer before freshman year of college and have been lifelong friends. Joe got down on one knee and proposed the night that Njema was recognized by Black Girls Rock! as their STEM awardee.
Njema Frazier is indeed changing the world.
To watch a video of Njema's acceptance speech, click here.
Nominated by Steve Kubick ’85
GEORGE WATSKY '05
George Watsky ’05 (known professionally as Watsky) is an accomplished artist who has experimented with and mastered multiple genres: rap, poetry, music, writing, acting, and directing. He has been dedicated to his craft since his high school days as a poetry slam champ when he broke new ground with his 2005 spoken-word play, “The Fuse,” the first ever student-written main stage production at UHS.
From Lin Manuel Miranda to Ellen DeGeneres, established artists and performers have identified George as a rising talent and collaborated with him. George continually reinvents himself, rewarding his loyal followers while reaching new audiences. His essay collection, How to Ruin Everything, is a timeless look at the angst and humor of being a youth and young adult, like a Gen Y David Sedaris. And his short film excerpting the book is yet another example of genre-bending innovation. George was selected for Alumni Honors because of his innovative work, and because he uses his stage to question the status quo, advocate for those who are less fortunate, and expects the same from others.
George has always been interested in the craft of writing, figuring out how to add new tools to make language pretty, interesting, rich, or attention-grabbing, and there’s humor in most of what he does. At the center of everything he writes is sincerity and desire for emotional connection with the audience. When asked to describe the common thread in his work, George says, “I’m an atheist searching for church. I keep returning to the question of how we can find beauty and meaning in a world that may lack fundamental meaning. If we’re all gonna die and none of us matter, what’s the point of this exhausting dance we all do? I think the conclusion I tend to draw is, well, yeah, there probably is no point. But we’re here, our feelings are real to us, and it’s more fun to care than to cave in.”
George’s inspirations include the precision and clarity of Jhumpa Lahiri’s prose, the stream-of-consciousness brilliance of Andre 3000, and the passionate dedication of ropeless rock climber Alex Honnold. His poetry is largely influenced by the other teenage writers he grew up competing against.
Navigating a career in entertainment is not for the faint of heart. Unlike an author who can’t get published because his novel isn’t easily filed in a bookstore “section,” George has found a way to stay true to his art and keep himself in the public eye. “I’m an advocate for finding the balance. I aim for a sort of Trojan Horse strategy, i.e., give them what they want enough to get in the door, and once you’re in, subvert their expectations.”
UHS had a big impact on George. “I got to UHS and almost overnight became a better writer, a better listener, a better Greek-column-volute explainer. UHS believed in me, allowed me to make mistakes and bounce back, gave me a platform for my playwriting, and delivered me to leadership positions.” And after graduation, “we as University alumni are privileged to have the opportunity to spend our careers doing something that makes us happy.”
But true to his ethos, George recognizes his experience was not universal, and challenges us to be better: “What I’ve been coming to terms with over the last few years is that my experience of the school was not shared by everyone. Some of my good friends brilliant, hardworking, caring people—had a starkly different high school experience than I did, a straight, white male.”
“UHS can’t singlehandedly solve the patriarchy, or racial income inequality, and it would be unfair to expect the school to. All my experiences relate to the school as it was when I was there, so I can’t speak to the current environment. But I think if we're staying honest with ourselves about how to serve the needs of every student we’re moving in the right direction.”
His advice for aspiring artists? “You can do it! Try to create something you’ve never seen before. Dream big. Apply all those awesome analytical practical UHS skills to your art. Break your craft down into manageable chunks and master one little subset at a time. Be dedicated and determined. Every career takes hard work and you need to be your own taskmaster because usually there’s no one there to force you to show up. But never disassociate from the spark that made you fall in love with the arts in the first place.” And that advice can be applied to any discipline.
Remember, everyone starts somewhere: “I was, to my knowledge, the first person ever cut from the freshman basketball team.”
To watch a video of George's acceptance speech, click here.
Nominated by Henry Rittenberg ’11