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2012 Alumni Award Winners

Robert HoudekRobert Houdek A’57,

North Park Academy 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award

Ambassador Robert Houdek enjoyed a distinguished career in international diplomatic service. Houdek was a U.S. State Department foreign service officer, National Intelligence Officer for Africa, and advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Agency for International Development (AID) on the President’s Greater Horn of Africa Initiative during the Clinton Administration. Houdek was U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, held high-level diplomatic positions in Guinea, Kenya, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, and State Department leadership roles in African affairs. Now retired, Houdek is vice president for retirees of the American Foreign Service Officers organization, and conducts cross-cultural training for the U.S. Special Forces.

President George H.W. Bush awarded Houdek the President’s Exceptional Service Medal in 1991 for working with the Israeli government to organize the evacuation of some 14,000 Jews to Israel in last days of the Ethiopian civil war.

Houdek was born at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago, grew up in the North Park neighborhood, was a member of North Park Covenant Church and attended North Park Academy from 1953 to 1957. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Beloit (Wis.) College, and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Boston. Houdek was also a Mid-Career Fellow, Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, Princeton (N.J.) University.

Houdek developed an interest in international affairs when he attended a lecture at North Park by foreign service officer Nicholas Lakas, who described the evacuation of foreign nationals during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. “When that was over, I said, ‘That’s a nifty career.’ I didn’t know what the foreign service was until that lecture. That was one of the great things about living in the North Park community. North Park as an institution was so enriching,” Houdek said.

Houdek and his wife, Mary, reside in McLean, Va. They are parents of two adult children, Bill and Pam, and have two granddaughters.

Joyce NelsonJoyce Nelson C’72,

North Park University 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award

Joyce Nelson enjoyed a 28-year career with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, including seven years as president and chief executive officer. Nelson worked her way up in the Society before becoming the senior executive in 2004. Her career accomplishments are many: She was responsible for launching significant MS research initiatives and pushed for fast-tracks of clinical trials; led efforts to open six Pediatric Centers of Excellence; created a program to provide personal assistance to people with MS; expanded funding for MS research programs; expanded scholarships; and pushed for the first ever line-item funding of MS through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program.

Nelson, the first woman elected North Park student body president, earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a certificate in secondary education. Her father, Wesley Nelson, was an Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) pastor and professor at North Park Theological Seminary. She grew up in the diverse North Park neighborhood, attending Hibbard Elementary School and Von Steuben High School. Nelson became involved in the civil rights movement, spending her senior year attending Harlan High School, a mostly African-American school on the city’s South Side. Nelson recounts how her new friends at Harlan helped her during the civil unrest that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.

After graduation from North Park, she taught briefly in Chicago and in the Lincoln, Neb., school system. “I wanted to be involved with kids in a different way. I answered an ad for a position with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, where they were looking for people with teaching backgrounds to help raise funds for MS READaTHON,” Nelson said. She combined her teaching interests and summer camp experience, never expecting this would result in a lifetime career. In 2006, the University presented Nelson an honorary doctorate. In 2009, she was national winner of the Impact Award, presented by the Invisible Disabilities Association.

Today, Nelson is a consultant with the Society. She is a member of the School of Business and Nonprofit Management advisory board, and was recently appointed to the board of directors of Blackbaud, Inc. Nelson lives with her husband, Dr. John Hansell, an endodontist, in Evergreen, Colo. She has one grandchild, Ashlin Lee, daughter of her stepdaughter, Lydia, and Lydia’s husband, Bryan Dominguez.

Alicia (VerHage) PetersonAlicia (VerHage) Petersen C’02,

North Park University 2012
Distinguished Young Alumni Award

Alicia VerHage Petersen is a trainer and curriculum developer for Management Systems International (MSI), Washington, D.C., a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Petersen works with the Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, developing training programs for USAID personnel in subjects such as fundamentals of democracy and human rights. While a student at North Park University, she did community mapping, and later volunteered with the Mennonite Central Committee in Zambia, where she developed interests in conflict resolution and peace studies. Petersen traveled in China and Ecuador before graduating magna cum laude from the University with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She earned a master’s degree in conflict resolution from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Soon after, she was awarded an Ambassadorial Scholarship from Rotary International District 6450, and earned a master’s degree in international relations from Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.

Petersen grew up in Galesburg, Mich., and followed other family members who attended North Park Theological Seminary or the University. She became interested in international development and the social sciences at a young age, and hopes to eventually work in conflict resolution or peace training. Petersen has many supportive friends that inspired her during her North Park years. “When you’re in an inspirational environment, you’re more willing to take risks and do things off the grid,” she said. “The liberal arts degree is perfect for what I do, and what I am doing. I love teaching, and I feel very blessed to do what I love doing.”

Petersen and her husband, Dave, reside in Arlington, Va., with their infant daughter, Sofia. They attend Community Covenant Church, Springfield, Va.

Next Steps

Read more from the Winter 2013 North Parker.