From the first prime minister of Israel (Golda Meir) to an Academy Award-winning special effects designer (Jim Rygiel of “Lord of the Rings” fame), UWM has helped shape the lives of thousands of students. In previous stories, we’ve listed a few who’ve achieved a degree of fame in show biz and in the world at large.
Here’s an update on UWM students who’ve developed interesting, cool and sometimes well-known careers in a wide variety of fields.
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
Nadella, who earned his master’s degree in computer science in 1990 from UWM’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, has been CEO of Microsoft since 2014. In 2017, Nadella published “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone.” He received the Chancellor’s Innovation Award from UWM in 2013.
Nadella was named to the 2018 Time 100 List, Time magazine’s compiling of 100 people who influenced world change in the previous year. He was cited for his role in restoring Microsoft’s spirit of innovation.
Willem Dafoe, actor
Dafoe left UWM before completing his degree to pursue a career in the theater, but the highly regarded actor has fond memories of his time here. “My time at UWM was a very formative and positive experience,” he recalled.
Dafoe was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor in 2018 for his role in “The Florida Project.” This was his third Oscar nomination in a long, distinguished career in theater and film. The first was for the 1986 film “Platoon” and the second for 2000’s “Shadow of the Vampire.”
Kimberley Motley, international lawyer
Motley, who earned her bachelor’s (1999) and master’s (2003) in criminal justice, is an international lawyer recognized for her work in helping people in countries with often weak or corrupt judicial systems. In 2008, she became the first foreign lawyer working in Afghanistan.
About one-third of her international practice is pro-bono work on behalf of women and girls trapped in justice systems that imprison and often execute them for “moral crimes” like fleeing forced marriages, being forced into prostitution or becoming a victim of domestic violence or rape. Her work was featured in a 2015 documentary, “Motley’s Law.”
Brian Firkus/Trixie Mattel, entertainer
Peck School of the Arts alum Brian Firkus is carving out a career as a drag queen. Firkus’ alter ego, Trixie Mattel, was the winner of Season 3 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” in 2018, taking home $100,000 and other prizes.
As Trixie, Firkus is as a larger-than-life, Barbie-esque figure, complete with huge hair and dramatic, unblended makeup. On stage, she combines a bubbly persona with a dark comedy routine. She plays guitar and incorporates live music into her traveling act.
Mattel, who began performing while at UWM, stars in a show on Vice Network, “The Trixie and Katya Show,” with fellow “Drag Race” alum Katya Zamolodchikova, and has released two alternative folk albums – “One Stone” came out in March 2018 and debuted at No. 16 in Billboard’s folk/Americana chart. Mattel is also currently on a North American tour, appearing May 9 at the Turner Hall Ballroom.
Eric Haywood, writer and producer
Eric Haywood (’92 BFA Film) is a writer and co-executive producer on the popular television series “Empire,” about a powerful family’s hip-hop music and entertainment business. The series is in its fourth season.
Haywood, who directed music videos and wrote screenplays at UWM, has also written for ABC’s “Private Practice,” Showtime’s “Soul Food: The Series” and NBC’s “Hawaii,” as well as the movie “Four of Hearts.”
John Gurda, Milwaukee historian
John Gurda is the first person who comes to mind when the words “Milwaukee” and “history” are mentioned. Gurda, who earned his master’s degree in cultural geography from UWM and was awarded an honorary doctorate, is an author and historian focusing on Milwaukee. He has written 21 books, including “The Making of Milwaukee,” a definitive history of the city that became a basis for a PBS Emmy-winning documentary series.
More recently, he published “Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods,” an exploration of the histories and culture of Milwaukee neighborhoods, and his 22nd book, “Milwaukee: A City Built on Water,” comes out in June. He writes a regular column on local history for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and co-hosts a PBS series on Wisconsin cities and neighborhoods, “Around the Corner with John McGivern.”
Melissa Ebbe, costume artist
Melissa Ebbe is an artist who has turned her talents into a special business focusing on masks, costumes and other paraphernalia for role playing, cosplay and fantasy. Two years ago, she was one of three finalists in the SyFy Channel’s “Face Off,” a reality show that challenged makeup artists and costume designers to create unique fantasy creatures and special effects.
Fans of the show now recognize her, she’s been invited to give talks at events, conventions and universities, and she did a demo at Monsterpalooza, the popular California convention that caters to horror fans. Ebbe, who earned her master of fine arts degree in art and design in 2007, runs Feral Works, an online business that specializes in costumes and masks.
Justin Jacobs, NBA analytics researcher
Justin Jacobs is able to combine his love of basketball and mathematics in his new job as a senior basketball researcher with the Orlando Magic. Jacobs, who earned his master’s degree in mathematics from UWM, is an expert in the newish field of sports analytics, popularized in the book and movie “Moneyball.” Sports researchers use statistical analysis to help teams improve their performance.
Jacobs, who also has a doctorate in statistics from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, played high school basketball in Stoughton and college basketball at Carroll College (now Carroll University.) He worked for the National Security Agency doing mapping analysis before joining the Magic in January 2018.
Mitch Whitmore, Olympic speedskater
Mitch Whitmore, who attended UWM on and off from 2007 through 2012 while training at the Pettit National Ice Center, has competed in three Winter Olympics. At the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, he posted the fastest U.S. time in the 500-meter event, finishing 15th overall. He finished 10th in the 1,000-meter race.
Whitmore set a course record while winning the U.S. Olympic team’s 500-meter qualifier for the Pyeongchang Games at the Pettit Center and placed third in the 1,000-meter qualifier. Whitmore competed in the 500-meter event, his specialty, in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, and in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Leah Letson, MMA fighter
Leah Letson, a mixed martial arts athlete who graduated in from UWM in 2016, recently signed a contract to fight for UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), the highest level of the sport. A member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard, she took up mixed martial arts while at UWM after taking a class at the Rec Center.
Letson, a first-generation college grad who earned a double major in psychology and criminal justice, was one of the graduates featured in a 2016 commencement videos. Her UFC debut is expected to take place in spring 2018.
Luis Arreaga, US ambassador
Luis Arreaga was appointed U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, the country where he was born, in October 2017. After arriving in the U.S. as a foreign exchange student, he came to UWM to earn three degrees – including a PhD in economics (’81), a master’s degree in management (’76), bachelor’s degree in marketing (’75).
Prior to his diplomatic career, Arreaga worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development for 11 years. While at the State Department, his overseas postings took him to Canada, Panama, Spain and Iceland, where he served as ambassador to Iceland from 2010 until 2013.