College roommates, world-class problem solvers

top-story-roommatesHalvorsen ’92 acts locally, Bhojwani ’90 works in developing nations.

On a late-summer day, fellow UW-Green Bay graduates and lifelong friends Noel Halvorsen and Haresh Bhojwani agreed to meet on campus.

There was the usual catching up on each other’s families and reminiscing about good times shared as roommates 25 years ago in the old student apartments.

They also talked about their professional careers and challenges. It’s something they do at least a few times a year, using each other as trusted sounding boards. Though Halvorsen and Bhojwani arrived at UW-Green Bay in the late 1980s with vastly different backgrounds, pursued entirely different majors and now often find themselves on different continents, they tend to see things the same way.

“When we met, Haresh had been all over the world, and I had never been anywhere,” recalls Halvorsen, a Sheboygan native who now lives in Green Bay, “but we were almost surprised to find out that we had very similar world views.”

Then and now, they tend to believe that good public policy requires good data, that even relatively small adjustments can bring maximum benefit, and that organized and dedicated people can make change happen.

Halvorsen, a 1992 graduate in Urban and Regional studies, is well-respected locally as longtime executive director of NeighborWorks, a not-for-profit housing and community development agency based in Green Bay. NeighborWorks promotes neighborhood revitalization and home ownership through counseling, education, loan programs and new investment.

Daily, he applies lessons learned at UW-Green Bay and in previous jobs with the city of Green Bay and Brown County. His first five years after graduation he was a planning specialist with the city and then spent three years as land information officer, managing land records and GIS activities, for the county.

Halvorsen says his approach to his work is not all that different from Bhojwani’s, whose involvement in economic development projects takes him from South Asia to Africa to Latin America.

“We learned a lot at UWGB about how to look at the world,” Halvorsen says, mentioning the liberal arts emphasis, the breadth and scope of the problem solving and the ample opportunities for students to lead and create. “Those were the experiences that made a great difference.”

Bhojwani, a ’90 graduate in English, is based in the New York City area as deputy director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University.

He racks up frequent flyer miles establishing partnerships with governments and international development organizations to help at-risk societies be pre-emptive and proactive. The time to respond to a massive crop failure in Ethiopia, for example, is not afterward when children are starving, but when it’s apparent that crucial early rains aren’t going to materialize. A relatively small financial intervention up front, then, can tide people over and keep a farm family from eating their seed stock or selling their oxen… which would all but guarantee a larger, multi-year failure.

Bhojwani came to Green Bay from prep school in the United Kingdom. After graduation, he taught English in Spain and worked in a peasant cooperative in El Salvador during that nation’s transition from civil war to peace. He came back to earn a law degree at Marquette and create the first legal services for the indigent in Milwaukee, working with long-term immigration detainees and human rights victims. From 1999 to 2005, he worked with indigenous communities, NGOs, the private sector, and government agencies on economic development programs in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Bhojwani naturally points to UW-Green Bay English faculty including Tom Churchill and E. Michael Thron as early influences, and Halvorsen cites Urban and Regional’s Ray Hutchison, Ron Baba and Marcelo Cruz, but they don’t stop there. They mention Orville Clark in philosophy, Martin Greenberg in international relations, geographer Bill Laatsch, linguist Don Larmouth, academic dean George Rupp… and several others.

Professors were academic mentors and also, often, friends.

“Bill Laatsch was such a knowledgeable and talented professor,” Halvorsen recalls. “Then, one of my first weekends on campus, I see him dressed as a giant mouse (for the annual Cheese Classic). Things like that did so much to make you comfortable here.”

Bjohwani remembers open poetry readings and other activities that offered students a chance to test their ideas among not only faculty and staff but also peers. Students learned from one another.

“I think it was a particular advantage at UWGB that not every student was the same age, 18 or 20, straight out of high school,” he says. “There was so many returning adults… people who had worked in a paper mill for 15 years, perhaps raised children, and then gone back to school to look at something different or to pump up their skills. They added so much to the experience.”

The two men learned from each other, of course, and continue to do so as proud alumni a quarter century later.

“It’s amazing how similar the issues are that we face,” Bhojwani says. “I’ll go to Noel for advice and he’ll do the same. Whether it’s in Wisconsin or on the other side of the world, it’s about making the right choices, or sometimes a small investment at just the right time.”