2021 Western CUNA Management School ceremony: graduates honor and celebrate the CU movement

105 students launch into leadership during 59th commencement ceremony

CLAREMONT, CA (August 2, 2021) — After three examinations, two projects, two two-week classroom sessions, and one four-week online session, the Western CUNA Management School (WCMS) “Sigma” Class was celebrated and honored on Thursday evening (July 29) during the school’s first virtual graduation. This ceremony for the 105 graduates marked the conclusion of the 61st annual session and 59th graduation commencement.

Seven students graduated with “High Honors,” and 17 students graduated with “Honors.” These distinctions were earned based on each student’s performance on the examinations taken by all students at the end of each school year, as well as their analysis in each of two major research projects — based on their credit union — that was completed between sessions.

Students graduating with “High Honors” were: Jethro M. Casinas, Hawaii; Kevin Cole, Oregon; John T. Granato II, New Mexico; Jess King, California; Nina M. Myers, Ohio; Corey Suraci, Washington; and Neal Weber, Wyoming.

Students graduating with “Honors” were Rebecca Carroll, California; Brodie Welker Cook, Utah; Emily Ann Hawkins, California; Jonathan Holland, Tennessee; Lindsay Jones, California; Erick W. A. Kniestedt, Washington; Hector Martin, Jr., California; Molly McMahon, California; Andrew Murawa, California; Athar Nazir, Alaska; Rachel M. Nielson, California; Aprylle Odlum-Chang, California; Andrew J. Reding, Washington; Scott S. Sager, Wyoming; Austin Michael Schock, Montana; Aaron H. Sugimoto, Hawaii; and Verity Swearingen, Washington.

Abiy Selassie, branch manager for SchoolsFirst FCU, received the Rick Craig Prize for Excellence in Project II — recognizing excellence in the second-year project, an endeavor that usually takes each student more than 200 hours to complete.

In addition, every year the graduating student who best represents high moral character, leadership, and credit union dedication is selected by his or her class to receive the Charles M. Clark Memorial Award. This year’s recipient was Rachel M. Nielson, class speaker, class president and vice president of operations for SESLOC FCU, who was surprised by the award during the virtual ceremony.

“When given the choice, always choose the path that leads to your growth,” Nielson said in her speech.

While transitioning to an online session was a change in 2021, the Sigma Class particularly focused their efforts around creating community and opportunities for interaction across all three classes at the school. Nielson thanked those within the industry such as Dr. James Likens (who led WCMS for decades since it was founded in 1972), the late Richard Myles Johnson, Dr. Michael Steinberger, dean of WCMS, Diana Dykstra, president and CEO of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues, among others, for believing in her throughout her journey.

Kent Oram, CEO of Idaho Central CU, received this year’s James D. Likens Alumni Recognition Award for significant achievements in the credit union field since graduating from the school. In presenting the award, WCMS Alumni Association Member and 2009 graduate Ryan Olsen spotlighted the 1989 WCMS graduate’s work (Kent Oram — including having previously served on the WCMS Board of Trustees). Oram leads one of the fastest growing credit unions in the nation and believes the key to a successful organization is employee engagement — and is on a journey to build a “culture at Idaho Central that is world class.” Team members have embraced Oram’s vision, as Idaho Central was named “Best Place to Work in Idaho” for five consecutive years (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017).

Commencement speaker, WCMS 1995 graduate, and Rogue CU CEO Gene Pelham encouraged students to “unleash your potential (and) become heroes” as they go forward with their newfound understanding of the credit union movement, leadership, and more importantly — themselves.

This year’s graduating class continued with the long-standing tradition of paying it forward to future leaders and giving back to WCMS funds it earned in service-learning activities. Its class gift of $10,000 represents the total raised over the past four years in Sigma- and tri-class-led efforts, and it will go toward providing scholarships for future students to attend the school.

The 2021 session was the school’s first session delivered remotely. The curriculum was split into pre-recorded lectures, along with live-team based challenges that utilized the class content to solve real-world credit union issues, including: credit union financial stewardship during times of inflation; post-pandemic organization of work; and digital transformation and strategy. The graduates had classes from credit union leaders, including a course on credit union innovation by Erin Coleman of the Filene Research Institute, a course on credit union leadership from 2019 Herb Wegner Memorial Award winner Diana Dykstra, and a course on regulation and political advocacy by Scott Simpson, president and CEO of Utah’s Credit Unions (as well as award-winning faculty from college and MBA institutions across Southern California, including Claremont Graduate University, Pomona College, and UCLA Anderson School of Management).

As credit unions and the nation emerged from the crisis point of the COVID-19 pandemic — one of the most challenging and transformative events in history — the need for prepared and enthusiastic leaders at all levels of the industry is greater now than ever. Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic and related economic implications, many credit unions found the cost of developing leaders to be a barrier. To help ensure that no student or prospective student was left behind solely due to financial constraints, this year the school launched a special WCMS Sponsor a Student campaign. The school would like to thank the following organizations and individuals for their generous support: CO-OP Financial Services; CU Direct; CUNA Mutual Group; Laura Brown of Oregon Community CU; Colorado CU; Adam Denbo of Samaha and Associates, Inc.; Chrystine Elstad of the Upsilon Class of 2023; Rob Greaff; Jon Hernandez of CalCom FCU/Mattel FCU/Nikkei CU; Dr. Michael Steinberger; Conrad Tan of Conrad Tan Realty; Julie Tibke of FirstLight FCU; TwinStar CU; Robert York of ILWU CU; and the WCMS Alumni Association.

The 2021 Western CUNA Management School (WCMS) graduating Sigma Class

About Western CUNA Management School

For more than 60 years, Western CUNA Management School has helped credit union management staff meet the challenges of the future. WCMS is the West Coast-based leadership and philosohical institution for current and future credit union leaders, preparing individuals with the depth and breadth they need to contribute to their credit union’s success, the credit union movement, and their own personal career goals.


Nancy Wood
Director of School Administration
Western CUNA Management School (WCMS)

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