By Elizabeth P. Steele, P’12
Critical thinkers. Creative problem solvers. Innovators. Collaborators.
An environmentalist, a nurse leader, a civil rights attorney, an educator and practitioner, and a nonprofit chief. Hartwick alumni who are determined to improve their piece of the world.
Dreamers with firm footing. They start small, go big, and start again.
Each pursues a distinctly personal path to bridging gaps, building strength, and ultimately making a difference.
Rebecca Taylor-Ford ’02, DNP, RN, NE-BC creates change.
As a nurse, she is dedicated to improving the health of her patients. As a nurse leader, she is devoted to preparing and supporting others to provide excellent bedside care. And as a community leader, she uses both her position and her training to strengthen her community.
Taylor-Ford is the director of maternal child health at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center in California where she is responsible for labor and delivery, postpartum, neonatal intensive care, and pediatrics. “My realm is families,” she says, “and that has ripple effects into the community. Our work has had a positive impact on health indicators, such as maternal mortality, SIDS, and breastfeeding rates.”
Influencing the continuum from individual care to community wellbeing intrigues Taylor-Ford, who says, “Improving lives is our mission. We always work to do the right thing. That aligns with my values and that’s why I’ve stayed with Kaiser Permanente.” Taylor-Ford has been with the hospital system since she graduated from Hartwick, first on the medical-surgical unit as a staff nurse; then as a department manager; then as a director in accreditation, regulation, licensing, and risk management; and now leading maternal child health.
“My experiences have opened my eyes to the ability of a leader to align teams to foster change,” she says. “We can work on an individual level and put plans into place to move toward a larger vision. When you’re a leader you have a voice.”
But, she cautions, “Nursing leadership is not for the faint of heart. Making change on a large scale brings responsibility.” For Taylor-Ford this includes both serving as chair of the Board of the American Red Cross California Northwest chapter and as incident commander in efficiently evacuating her entire hospital during the Kincade wildfire of 2019. She’s equally proud that at Kaiser Permanente, “We’ve been making a huge investment in addressing social wellness issues, such as homelessness and access to care. We see a link between providing social services and the health of the community.”
Taylor-Ford points to three Hartwick nurse leaders as her role models. “Professor Sharon Dettenrieder ’65 believed in me and inspired me,” she recalls. “Professor Jeanne-Marie Havener, PhD, opened my mind to the power of research and ongoing education, which I brought to Kaiser Permanente. And Professor Peggy Jenkins taught me about courage and being an advocate for my patients and their families.”
Through their example and her own diverse experiences, Taylor-Ford has become adept at change. “I’ve had opportunities to implement my ideas and give back to our community,” she says. “By building relationships, we move forward.”
Carlo A.C. de Oliveira ’01 is a problem solver and someone who finds the positive even in adversity.
As a young soccer player at a New York community college, he was planning to study in the United States for six months before returning to his native Brazil. When his school scrimmaged Hartwick, his game caught the attention of Coach Jim Lennox and soon de Oliveira was playing for the Wick. A knee injury sidelined him, but “That meant I had more time to devote to classes,” he recalls. Soon it was Political Science Professors Mary Vanderlaan and Laurel Elder taking notice. “My injury opened doors for me,” he concludes.
de Oliveira was back in Elder’s class this fall, talking with students about his career and what he sees as “the struggle between law and justice” in civil rights and employment law. He says, “I chose litigation over transactional law because I’m competitive. Advocating for clients is what I most enjoy.”
His plan to become a criminal defense attorney shifted when those faculty mentors recommended him for an internship with noted civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri ’83. (See p. 4.) “That’s when I became interested in civil rights and employment discrimination,” de Oliveira recalls of the two years he spent in Washington, DC, with Mehri & Skalet, PLLC. Now de Oliveira is a partner with the Albany law firm Cooper Erving & Savage LLP, where 95% of his practice is on behalf of plaintiffs in civil rights and employment cases.
“Cyrus became important as a mentor then and now as a colleague,” de Oliveira says. “We are both on a quest to reach that elusive justice.”
de Oliveira cites one unforgettable case. His firm represented a not-for-profit organization that wanted to use an abandoned building to provide mental health services to patients affected by the shutting down of mental health facilities in upstate New York. The city and neighbors objected, raising the colloquial “not in my backyard” defense. de Oliveira sued in federal court seeking an injunction to order the City Council to approve his client’s project. “Injunction is a very difficult relief to get, but we were successful and, as a result, the case immediately settled,” he says. “The community now loves the facility and its efforts. We helped our client, all the people they work with, and the neighbors. I’m very proud of that. This is an example of how a successful civil rights case can positively affect more than your clients themselves.”
When the decision was announced, de Oliveira took calls from attorneys in Washington, DC, and elsewhere congratulating him on setting precedent. “Being a civil rights and plaintiff’s employment attorney is not an easy task,” he says. “These cases are hard to win, but when you do, the success is rewarding and meaningful.”
Karen Berkel O’Brien ’85 draws on her experience as a star athlete to make a difference in the lives of others.
“I’ve paralleled my career with sports,” says Hartwick’s first All-American in women’s soccer. “I’ve always been a leader on the field, looking ahead for the greater good. My approach is, ‘Let’s do this.’”
What she does now is help lead CARITAS, a major nonprofit in Richmond, Virginia, whose mission is to “help our most vulnerable neighbors break the cycles of homelessness and addiction to reclaim their dignity.” O’Brien is the chief operating officer and strategic partner of the CEO. “I make things run to achieve our goals,” she explains. “My business education and experience have made me very comfortable managing budgets, holding people accountable, and leveraging resources. Now I also have opportunities to be creative and set priorities.”
Her primary responsibilities include managing the budget and the staff, many of whom are former clients. “The work we do is so important,” O’Brien observes. “We take people from a place of crisis to a place of dignity. When we help an adult find a stable place again, their family is affected and their relationships are healed. There are ripple effects.”
Context is important to O’Brien, who says “faith is the fundamental piece” in helping her move forward in difficult times. A longtime CARITAS volunteer and independent business owner before she joined the organization’s staff, O’Brien says she has found a place “where my passion and skills align. I’m part of setting the culture of putting people first.”
CARITAS is now recognized as a top place to work in Richmond. O’Brien measures success by the numbers following sound accounting principles, but she also knows that what really matters is the people. “We’re collaborative, we share, and we do role modeling,” she says. “We talk to our competition and learn from each other. That’s good for everyone.”
A business major and mathematics minor at Hartwick, O’Brien fondly remembers two faculty of influence: John Clemens (now deceased) in business and Charlie Scheim (now retired) in math. “They were both great encouragers,” she recalls. “They saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. I gained a sense of independence and confidence at Hartwick.” Now O’Brien helps to create that feeling in others.
Don Sawyer ’99, PhD, is an educator, both by title and by temperament.
The vice president of equity and inclusion at Quinnipiac University is also a tenured professor in the department of sociology, criminal justice, and anthropology. An “applied sociologist,” Sawyer’s research and teaching interests include youth culture, using hip-hop as a tool of engagement, and urban education. “A lot of my work is with and for the community,” he explains.
On this Connecticut campus, Sawyer says he is “helping to expand what inclusive excellence means.” His interest in establishing conversations on diversity issues developed at Hartwick. “My freshman roommate, Andrew Lawrence ’98, and I had really tough discussions around race and inequality,” Sawyer recalls. “We had completely different backgrounds—he was a conservative from Connecticut, I was a liberal first generation college student from Harlem—but we were both willing to listen and learn.”
Sawyer’s psychology major helped him develop “an important base of critical thinking and understanding.” And it was in those classrooms that he formed a bond with Professor Wanda Jagocki, now retired. “Our relationship was transformative,” he says, noting that she was “the catalyst” who never hesitated to press him and challenge him to reach his potential.
Now Sawyer has adopted a similar approach. “I’m proud of the work I’m doing on campus and in the community,” he says. “I support and challenge people along the way to open discussions and create understanding. I know it matters.”
That kind of insight has helped charter Sawyer’s life, starting with his childhood neighborhood in Harlem where friends who were caught up in drugs always steered him clear. “They saw something in me that I didn’t and they protected me,” he recalls with a sense of awe. “They were some of the most marginalized people in our society, but they shielded me. I keep them in my mind as I do my work now.”
Sawyer is well suited to the career he has made for himself, first in college student affairs and admissions, then in studying for two master’s and a doctorate from Syracuse University, then as an educator and practitioner, and now as a leader in higher education. “My skillset is suited to building community connections and creating consensus with people across differences,” he reflects. “I don’t shy away from challenges and I always try to meet people where they are.”