February 2015

Honoring a Lost Brother

UConn Foundation
UConn Foundation

2 min read

When Peter S. Drotch ’64 (BUS) was eighteen and in the middle of finals in his freshman year he learned that his brother Paul Drotch ’57, a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot, died during a training exercise from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Lt. Drotch’s A-4 jet, designed to support ground forces by flying low, was lost in May 1960, at a time when tensions were running high between the U.S., Cuba, and the Soviet Union.

Later in 1960, to recognize Paul’s accomplishments at UConn and UConn’s role in his aspirations, the Drotch family established the Lt. Paul L. Drotch, USMC, Class of 1957 Memorial Scholarship. Originally awarded to a single student in Bacteriology — Paul’s major — over time the fund grew substantially, in part because of generous contributions by Peter Drotch. It now provides scholarships to several high-achieving students each year and has expanded to include students in Molecular and Cell Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Physiology and Neurobiology, and Biological Sciences.

In 2009, Peter Drotch and his wife, Hinda, established the Drotch Family Scholarship, the second to honor his brother Paul’s memory. Because Peter was an accounting major at the School of Business, the award is open to students in either the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences or the School of Business and based on merit and need.

This year Cynthia Gowani, a freshman in Biological Sciences, was the happy recipient of a Drotch Family Scholarship. As the first in her family to attend college, Cynthia was worried about the cost and the financial stress on her family. Now, she says, “a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders by this generous scholarship as my family was struggling to pay for my first semester . . . I am truly beginning to believe in myself and am getting closer to my goals.” Attending medical school has been Cynthia’s life-long dream. Thanks to the Drotch family, her dream is now attainable.

Peter Drotch recalls a time when letters from scholarship recipients were a source of comfort to his mother. As steward of the family’s scholarship legacy, he welcomes opportunities to meet awardees and appreciates the kind words they write.

In her thank-you letter, Cynthia Gowani expressed the hope that someday she will be able to help others the same way the Drotch family helped her. She has joined a growing cadre of grateful UConn students whose lives have been changed by a family’s gift in honor of a loved one.

Paul Drotch ’57 will never be forgotten. The scholarship funds established in his name are living memorials that will endure forever, transforming lives for generations to come.

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Behind the Olympics

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2 min read

Last winter, when most Americans were watching the 2014 Winter Olympic Games on TV, David Francis ’99 (CLAS) was in Russia experiencing them live — and getting paid for it. Francis works at the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) as the manager of government relations, a position that involves working closely with the U.S. Department of State and foreign governments to facilitate visa arrangements for American athletes and officials traveling abroad for training and competition. “We’re the team behind the team,” Francis said.

Francis received his first exposure to big-time athletics as an undergraduate at UConn. A student-athlete all his life, at UConn he realized he could no longer compete at the highest levels of competition and needed sports in his life. First, he worked part-time in the Athletics Department, gaining experience in sports marketing and on the department’s facilities crew. He remembers doing a promotion at center court before a nationally televised basketball game between the Huskies and Stanford. “Being a 19-, 20-year-old kid, that was pretty special,” he said. “That’s about as close as you can get without actually being in the game.” He also worked volleyball, soccer, and field hockey games on the facilities crew.

Still a rabid Huskies fan, Francis checks UConn sports blogs nearly every day and regularly attends game-watching parties sponsored by the Washington, D.C. alumni chapter. It was that passion for sports that propelled his career search. “I knew that I wanted to work in the sports industry in some capacity,” he said. “I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.”

After graduating from UConn, where he double-majored in political science and journalism, he earned a JD from California Western School of Law and a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Sports Industry Management (SIM) Program; in between, he interned at the NFL Players Association. Soon after receiving his MA in 2010, around the time of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, he saw an open position at the USOC and submitted his application. “I knew it would be an opportunity I’d enjoy, so I jumped on it immediately.”

He eventually rose through the ranks to become the manager of government relations, and has now worked three Olympics. At the games, he’s primarily a “people mover,” as he describes it, escorting officials and statesmen to and from events. One of his favorite memories is spending a day in Sochi in 2014 watching bobsled with Billie Jean King, legendary tennis great and winner of Presidential Medal of Freedom who was part of the United States Presidential Delegation to the Games.

But helping to manage Team USA at the Olympics is only the most visible part of Francis’s job. “The USOC isn’t just a job every two years,” he said. “It’s constant. We’re the support system for American athletes who are continuously training and traveling abroad to compete. The Olympics and Paralympic Games are the crowning moment, but they’re like mile 26 of a marathon.”

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A Love Affair with Spain

UConn Foundation
UConn Foundation

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In 1999, when Alex Chang ’94 (BUS) was coming to the end of a three-year stint working in the Madrid office of an international market research company and preparing to move back to New York City, he decided to have one last Spanish adventure — hiking the famous Camino de Santiago. The trail, which leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, was one of the most famous pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages and remains a favorite of backpackers worldwide.

Alex ended up hiking over 500 kilometers (316 miles) in 18 days, an experience that changed his life. So, instead of returning to New York, he began guiding tours for Americans on hiking and bicycling trips along the Camino. Four months later, when the tourist season ended, he reluctantly moved back to New York and accepted a job as the director of business development for an Internet startup. But his heart was still in Spain, so when he was laid off two years later in the midst of the dot-com crash, he secretly rejoiced. “It was the best news I’d ever gotten,” he said with a laugh.

In 2001, Alex returned to Spain, this time permanently, and founded Fresco Tours, which offers cultural walking tours along the Camino, the Basque Country, and Andalusia. The company has three full-time employees in its Bilbao office and 10 guides that work with them. In 2014, they led over 300 people on tours to Santiago. “My life is an accumulation of all my different experiences — it was my business background, my marketing background, my Internet background, and my experience living in Spain,” Alex said. “Fresco Tours bridges my two worlds: I can live in a place I love, and it lets me share this magical place with other Americans.”

Alex’s love affair with Spain dates back to his time as a UConn undergraduate when he did a two-month study abroad program during the summer between his junior and senior years. He became entranced by the laid-back European lifestyle and after graduation returned for a two-month backpacking trip. “The people have a saying that they work to live, they don’t live to work,” he said. “I think they have a good balance. I also think Spaniards just have a general love of life — the most important thing is getting together with your family and friends.”

Speaking of friends, Alex still has many from his years at UConn, keeping in touch mainly through Facebook. Recently, he noticed that someone had started a Facebook page for the late, lamented Ted’s Bar, which he remembers frequenting in the 1990s.

“It brought a smile to my face seeing all my old classmates and it brought back great memories of UConn,” he said.

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Feeling “At Home” With Foreign Travel

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Five years ago, Margo Kopec ’01 (CLAS) was teaching English in Castellón de la Plana, a city of 180,000 people on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, when she came up with the idea for a company. The parents of many of her students had been telling her that they wanted to send their children abroad to learn another language, but couldn’t afford it. With a Spanish friend, Kopec decided to start a cultural exchange program to provide reasonably priced opportunities to study abroad for European children like her students who were looking to broaden their horizons. Go Inspired was born.

Kopec knew the value of foreign travel from personal experience. Although her rigorous double major in journalism and political science at UConn prevented her from studying abroad, she decided to make up for that missed opportunity by spending two weeks in the summer after her graduation backpacking around Europe, visiting Germany, Italy, and Spain—the country she now calls home. “I fell in love with Europe,” she said. “I left there after two weeks trying to figure out how to get back there, because I had enjoyed it so much.”

First, though, she decided to put her journalism major to work, spending a few years in San Diego and New York working for a company that published scientific journals. But she soon found herself bored with scientific journals and dreamed of returning to Europe. After quitting her job, she spent five months as an au pair in Italy, and then enrolled in a master’s program in Peace, Development, and Conflict Resolution at the Universitat Jaume I in Castellón.

It was while pursuing her master’s and teaching English that Kopec met her future husband, a Spanish software programmer. The two travel frequently — Kopec has visited 26 countries — and the pace only picked up after Kopec founded Go Inspired. The company now has offices in the United States and Spain, and offers study- and live-abroad programs in 10 countries, including China, India, Ecuador, and the United States. In addition to language immersion experiences, the company offers courses in design, dance, and yoga, as well as volunteer opportunities.

As much as she misses the U.S., though, Kopec’s heart is now in Europe. “I love the European lifestyle. They don’t have so much stress compared to Americans. There’s public transportation, public services. Health care is provided, education is provided. It’s just a more relaxed way of life.”

After seven years in Spain, Kopec and her husband recently moved to Zurich, Switzerland, where she teaches English at a private boarding school and helps manage Go Inspired. One of the first things she did after moving was join the Zurich chapter of the UConn Alumni Association. After all, it was at UConn that she first got the travel bug. “I came from a small town in Connecticut,” she said. “And going to UConn just opened doors for me.”

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Volunteering in the Windy City

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In 2010, Marty Horn ’73 (CLAS), ’75 MA suddenly began receiving a flurry of invitations to UConn alumni events in the Chicago area. Although he’d worked in the city for decades as an advertising executive, he hadn’t been very involved with the Alumni Association, mainly because the Chicago chapter hadn’t been very active. That changed under new chapter president, Tom Rizzi. “I thought it would be an interesting thing to meet alumni in the area—I wanted to connect to people who were tied to the campus,” Horn said. “So I just started going to various events.”

Horn soon became one of the chapter’s most active alumni, so when Tom Rizzi decided to step down as president, he was the natural successor. Under Horn’s leadership, the chapter now hosts at least one event a month, ranging from happy hours to game-watching parties to formal networking events, for the approximately 1,300 Chicago-area Huskies. “We all have one thing in common: a love for UConn, and a feeling of pride for the great education we received and great time we had there, no matter when we attended.” When President Susan Herbst gave a talk to the chapter last October, it was Horn who introduced her. The two have known each other for about a quarter of a century, dating back to when Herbst was a political science professor at Northwestern and Horn was an occasional guest speaker in her classes.

But Horn’s contributions to his alma mater don’t end with the Alumni Association. At UConn, Horn studied communications, a relatively new major in the 1970s but which today is the top-ranked program in New England. Recently, he created an undergraduate scholarship for communications majors and also serves in the CLAS mentoring program. “UConn did a lot for me, so I just thought that it was only right for me to give back in any way I could.”

Horn attributes much of his success in the advertising world to his UConn education. Serving as a chapter president, endowing a scholarship, and mentoring CLAS students is the least he can do, he said.

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Nickerson Dresses for Success

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Last December, Nancy Nickerson ’80 (SFA), ’81 MA celebrated 25 years as a costume designer at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Denmark’s equivalent of the BBC. Over the course of her long career, she’s dressed news anchors and actors in original shows like “The Killing” (the inspiration for the AMC series), and contestants in the popular Eurovision talent contest—one of her career highlights. She met her current husband, a Danish lighting designer, on the set of the drama “Taxi.”

Nickerson first visited Denmark in the late 1980s, a few years after graduating from UConn. She felt an immediate sense of familiarity—with its long coastlines and cold winter weather, the country reminded her of Cape Cod, where she had grown up. She returned to the U.S., but dreaming of moving to Denmark, she joined the Danish Society of Massachusetts, attended celebrations of Midsummer, a Danish holiday, and taught herself Danish, in part by listening to Danish songs and then looking up the English lyrics. Some of the colloquialisms puzzled her—instead of saying that someone “went bananas,” Danes say they “went cucumbers”—but she kept it up and is now fluent.

By 1985, Nickerson had finally saved up enough money to make the move. She arrived in Copenhagen on a tourist visa and immediately began applying for jobs. After months of fruitless searching and with only two weeks left before she’d be forced to leave the country, she received a job offer for a position in the costume department of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, which sponsored her for a work visa.

It was the perfect job for Nickerson, who learned to sew at the age of five on her grandmother’s treadle machine and who fell in love with the theater by going to musicals each summer at the Cape Cod Melody Tent. She decided to attend UConn because the school was one of the few in New England to offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. After graduating, she decided to stay in Storrs for another year to earn her master’s in costume design.

Even though she moved thousands of miles away from her alma mater, its influence, as well as the friendship of two inspirational teachers, the late Dr. Ardelle Striker and the late Alicia Finkel, continued to guide her throughout her career.

Nickerson’s UConn education has served her well in her adopted country. Even after a quarter century, Nickerson hasn’t tired of Denmark or her home town of Copenhagen. “For me, it’s like if you put Boston on Cape Cod,” she said. “As a city, you have everything you need as a costume designer—cultural institutions, TV stations, and theaters. Plus, you’re really close to the beach and nature.”

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