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Alumni Prove There’s Power in Taking Risks

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Alumni Prove There’s Power in Taking Risks

Dr. Christen McAlpine-Tesfai ’04 and Solomon Tesfai ’02 share a philosophy about taking risks as a path to knowledge and growth. Their stories illustrate how that philosophy has changed their lives. Twin daughters, Naomi and Olivia, and rewarding careers in the Milwaukee, Wis., area make their lives exciting and happy. But they wouldn’t have landed where they are now if they hadn’t taken risks.

Solomon has advice for UMD students. “Broaden your perspective,” he said. “If you step out of your comfort zone, you learn so much. Change your landscape. I did.”

Solomon stepped out of his comfort zone on his path to UMD. He was born in Eritrea, near Ethiopia, and came to the U.S. in 1984, so as a boy he knew what big changes in life meant.

In 1998, his high school principal, UMD legend Harry Oden ’64, chartered a bus and brought 65 students to UMD. On that trip, classmates Derek Goodman, Dion Goodman, Kris Franzen, Ebony (Lesure) Morgan, and Solomon decided to attend UMD, even though they all had been accepted to other colleges.

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A few months after first stepping onto campus, Solomon was in class. “I came from a huge black community in Milwaukee, so I moved from majority to minority status,” he said. Being one of the few students of color didn’t stop him. “At UMD, my professors wanted all the students to be successful,” he said, and he took advantage of every opportunity. He helped low-income Duluthians do their taxes through UMD’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Project, and he traveled to Hawaii to study intercultural communication with Professor Michael Sunnafrank.

Christen has her own story. “Don’t limit yourself,” she said. “Stepping away from what is comfortable means getting rid of your stereotypes as well.”

On Christen’s first day at UMD, in her first class, Dr. Kimberly Schoonover walked up to Christen and introduced herself. It was the start of a great friendship. “It was almost as if I instantly became part of Kimberly’s family,” Christen said. Kimberly, who grew up in northwestern Minnesota, often took Christen, who grew up in the Twin Cities, home to Bemidji. Christen began her northern Minnesota education, which included treks in the woods and camping at Lake Itasca. Once the two young women visited Split Rock Lighthouse in the winter, and Kimberly made Christen crawl right up to the edge of the snowy cliff and look down at Lake Superior.

Christen’s academic work in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering also brought adventure. As a McNair Scholar, Christen had the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research, and this led her to work on colon cancer research with UMD’s Dr. Robert Cormier, an associate professor and the Essentia Health Chair in Cancer Biology.

Christen and Solomon met at UMD. They enjoyed the company of students in the Black Student Association (BSA), including Dr. Denise Ojarigi, and the African American Resource Center directors Festus Addo-Yobo, Quinnita (Morris) Abraham, and David Comer. The two also ventured off campus, working with Pastor Arthur Foy, III, who Solomon said was “charismatic and impactful.” They helped with community summer enrichment and athletic programs, too.

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After graduation from UMD’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics, Solomon took on a finance position at SuperValu, Inc., based in Eden Prairie, and began the Master of Business Administration program at the U of M Carlson School of Business. Christen entered the U of M Medical School–Minneapolis. They were in the Twin Cities together until Christen did her pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. That’s when they “switched families.” Solomon spent time with Christen’s family in the Twin Cities and Christen with Solomon’s family in Wisconsin.

The stars aligned in 2010. Solomon landed a job at MillerCoors, LLC in Milwaukee as senior financial analyst and moved to Milwaukee. A short time later, he moved from the corporate offices to the Milwaukee brewery, becoming the youngest controller at MillerCoors.

The 2011–2012 year brought them a new home, two baby girls, and Christen’s position as a pediatrician at Good Hope Pediatrics.

And they still attribute their success largely to their experience at UMD.

“UMD prepared me to relate to people who aren’t like me. That helped me in medical school and my professional career,” Christen said. She has more advice for UMD students: “Don’t deprive yourself of a great opportunity because you are afraid.” Solomon agreed: “The world rewards those who take risks.”

Meet Christen, McAlpine-Tesfai, MD, from Good Hope Pediatrics:

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This alumni story first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of the Bridge magazine, our bi-yearly publication for alumni and friends. This was the first issue to be released exclusively online. You can read the full issue here.

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