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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Notre Dame vs. Deacs? Good answer.

Having grown up with Tobacco Road sports rivalries fueling childhood memories, at first I didn’t believe the news this week that yet another school in a distant land beyond Tobacco Road was joining the ACC. Once I got past the shock of hearing that the University of Notre Dame would become an ACC member in all sports except football, I remembered Connor Swarbrick (’11).

Connor Swarbrick ('11) bleeds black and gold

Swarbrick was a top-notch student in the first journalism class I taught at Wake Forest in the fall of 2010. That first week he had an answer when I asked whether anyone had had “journalism done to them or a family member.” Yes, he knew what I was talking about. Connor’s father is Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s vice president/director of athletics. The news conference Wednesday about the Irish’s departure from the Big East featured Jack Swarbrick in a starring role.

The dad's announcement

I tracked Connor down at the Wasserman Media Group, where he worked in the golf division in Raleigh until moving a few months ago to the Los Angeles office. I asked him in an email which team he would pull for when the new rivalry heats up. The former Old Gold and Black sports writer had this to say:

“I always have and always will root for the Deacs. Wake Forest is my alma mater and I’m extremely proud of that. But the best part about it  – I can’t lose. It was great fun when Wake Forest hosted Notre Dame last fall (for the record I wore a green shirt with WF inside a clover and a “Beat ND” button on my lapel) and I can’t wait to travel to see the two teams play again this fall in South Bend. It is fantastic that the friendly rivalry will continue with the announcement yesterday. Now I just need some bragging rights….”

Connor Swarbrick, as he frequently did in my journalism class, had the right answer.

James Beshara (’08) and Crowdtilt are worth watching

Crowdtilt, the San Francisco-based company co-founded by James Beshara (’08), is one of CNN Money’s crowdfunding sites to watch and has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle. Now the September issue of Fast Company magazine counts Crowdtilt among the “niche crowdfunders” mimicking the Kickstarter model.

James Beshara as a Wake Forest senior

Fast Company says, “Other platforms exist to cast a wide net in search of funding. Crowdtilt narrows the focus to take the risk and stress out of coordinating collective purchases – think party buses, tailgates, and group vacations.” Launched in February, the company “skews young; predictably, the site has been well received by circles of friends in, or right out of college.” Other sites mentioned in Fast Company’s “Crowding Around” article include Fundly, Appbackr and Petridish.

Beshara, who arrived from Dallas as an undergraduate, flashed a memorable entrepreneurial streak at Wake Forest. He worked with Sylvain Boko, an economics professor, to create the Dvelo Fund to finance student trips to developing countries. His Crowdtilt company allows people collectively to “group fund anything,” from a PHISH party bus in D.C., to an urban community garden to neighborhood pothole repair.  If the campaign is successful, the company takes 2.5 percent of the amount raised, nothing if it fails. Crowdtilt.com’s website describes Beshara’s aspirations this way: “He studied development economics in undergrad and hopes that Crowdtilt will eventually be used by people to change the world –- but for now, he’ll take what he can get, so late-night parties and tailgates are ok too.”

With angel investors and venture capitalists lined up behind him and the other co-founder, Khaled Hussein, the odds of success, for now, appear to be tilting in the young entrepreneurs’ favor.

Lawyer and activist Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham (’06) on Rwanda’s lessons

Last month Wake Forest Magazine received an email from Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham (’06), an alumna reclaiming her Pro Humanitate spirit.

Craigwell-Graham had just spent two months in Africa, and the memories of her experience gathering information for an indictment against a war criminal persisted, leaving her profoundly changed by Africa and with a need to make sense of how the assignment fits with her personal history.

She wrote to us, “I am a transactional attorney by practice and felt more comfortable negotiating a loan transaction than with traditional forms of advocacy. I saw no connection with what I was currently doing with pursuing justice under mantras of international criminal law. However, I was reminded of the spirit of giving back that I wholeheartedly adopted at Wake Forest and took a big leap in faith and potentially a few steps back in my current career.”

Craigwell-Graham is an associate at Shearman and Sterling LLP, a prominent law firm in New York City that advises on major deals across the globe, most recently the financing of a $3.7 billion Egyptian oil refinery project and the sale in which Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway next week will acquire all but one of Media General’s newspapers, including the Winston-Salem Journal. With her juris doctor from Boston University, she is living the life of an associate in a blue-chip law firm, busy, running from meeting to meeting and steeped in a corporate culture. But one of the aspects that drew her to the firm was the opportunity for pro bono work. Since 2000 the firm has provided legal assistance to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. As an international post-conflict organization, this United Nations’-established tribunal has been prosecuting persons responsible for genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994.

“I put myself on the list right away,” Craigwell-Graham told me about her reaction when an internal law firm message went out seeking volunteers to assist the ICTR in Arusha, Tazania, for a month in 2012. “Even when I was at Wake I volunteered and always felt like my purpose in life was going to be to help others.”

She and I met at The National restaurant in Manhattan a few weeks ago. Like so many young professionals, she felt the weight of early-career demands. “I felt like I was getting lost,” she told me, “disconnected from the person I was and the person I am now.” As she said in the email, she wanted to share her experience, hoping it “might inspire others in my situation to find ways to reach out to their immediate community and communities very far away.”

Growing up as the child of a psychologist father and a social-worker mother, Craigwell-Graham lived all over the country but finished high school in Goldsboro, N.C. “From a young age, my mom and dad insisted on giving back.” Part of her inspiration was her mother, who arrived as an immigrant from Barbados and worked to seize every opportunity. At Wake Forest Craigwell-Graham became a political science major with a concentration in Asian studies, Japanese language and literature. She traveled to Japan to study and to Moscow on a service-learning trip.

“I was probably what you call a joiner because I did everything,” she said. She headed Project Launch, a Volunteer Service Corps. program, served as a President’s Aide, volunteered in an AIDS hospice program and started a community service program to raise HIV-AIDS awareness in Winston-Salem’s minority communities. “Wake Forest taught me to use your creativity, use your innovation, use your drive, use your skills to do something,” she said.

Africa reminded her of her “joiner” path. Her law firm allowed her to extend the one-month pro bono work to two months. She started in Arusha with the tribunal and traveled to Rwanda with other lawyers for a week to gather statements about a massacre in a church. The accused is a fugitive, but Craigwell-Graham said the material for the indictment will one day be useful: “The idea is they will find him, and he will be transferred to Rwanda.”

Two months on the ground in Africa gave her a taste of what is possible and a reminder of what mattered to her at Wake Forest. She came back to New York, where her colleagues told her, “You seem so relaxed.” She was. “Relationships and people. That’s what matters,” she told me.

She’s energized to direct her energy “doing projects in places I care about, which is Africa.” She hopes to offer support to others like her, who might feel lost hammering away at career-building. She doesn’t want her classmates from 2006 to forget the spirit of Pro Humanitate — “the important lessons that Wake Forest instilled in every student that passed through its gates.” She carries those lessons more tenderly than ever.

Gaye Taylor Upchurch (’96) on theatre, “Escape,” and the creative process

Opening at La MaMa on East Fourth Street in New York City this weekend is “Escape,” Susan Mosakowski’s play in which three dramas occur simultaneously in adjacent rooms on the same stage. You’ll find an actress held hostage by a terrorist, an elevator repairman and the chained grandson of Harry Houdini, all seeking liberation. As The New York Times said this week, “The director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, has her work cut out for her.”

Gaye Taylor Upchurch ('96)

That’s nothing new or daunting for Upchurch, a 1996 alumna from Jackson, Miss., whose maiden name was Hederman and artistic passion was dance at Wake Forest. She came late to drama — “my life took a left turn” — but she has been on a luge ride ever since with accomplishments galore. I sat down with her over Indian food in Midtown recently to discuss her journey from Wake Forest to Manhattan.

Typically, her memories of Wake Forest center on small class sizes and professors who took the time to know her, feed her dinner at their houses and teach her how to ask probing questions about literature. “But (Wake Forest) also had a sense of fun,” says the S.O.P.H. Society member. She camped and hiked in nearby mountains and “spent a ton of time in the Scales Fine Arts Center when I wasn’t researching English papers.” She majored in English but took courses across the curriculum, from Italian and economics to painting and art history, “which helps me all the time with design” for theatre productions. Barry Maine, Jim Barefield, Ed Wilson, Page Laughlin, Dillon Johnston, Jennifer Sault — these are professors (the latter two have departed for other jobs) whom she recalls with gratitude.

Wake Forest taught her an appreciation for a breadth of knowledge and the ability to talk about story. “I have a massive curiosity,” she says, “and for each show I work on I get to have a whole new experience of research and learning, and it changes each time, which I love. In that way, it’s not unlike a liberal arts education.”

What does that look like in her day-to-day life? Before her heralded production last summer of “Bluebird” at the Atlantic Theater Company that starred famed British actor Simon Russell Beale, she traveled by cab all over London to photograph scenes and neighborhoods. (Bluebird is the taxi, Beale the driver in the play Upchurch directed). Upchurch tacked the photos all over the walls back in New York to help the American actors imagine the places the Bluebird would travel.

Simon Russell Beale

Her path from Wake Forest led her a stone’s throw across Reynolda Road, first to Summit School, where she taught seventh-grade English. Missing the performing arts, she sought inspiration by observing what was happening at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It was there that Drama Dean Gerald Freedman began guiding her as she studied for her B.F.A. in directing. And it was in these early days that Christopher Shinn’s play “Four” and Tom Stoppard’s play “The Invention of Love” inspired her vision “to tell a story that is beautiful and moving but also has this other quality than can only be realized in theatre.”

The leap from English literature and dance to drama makes more sense to her now: “With dance I was very interested in bodies in space. Theatre is really the synthesis of storytelling from a text plus the choreography in the way of dance…. In retrospect I can see that those were the elements I was most interested in.”

From UNCSA she landed in New York with a prized Kenan Foundation Fellowship at the Lincoln Center Institute, where she learned “a very particular method” of teaching schoolchildren about the arts and gained exposure to all manner of actors and artists. Because it was a fellowship that paid her, it also allowed her time to knock on doors, keep her ear to the ground about opportunities and volunteer to assist other directors for free.

In the lean years like so many artists in New York, she did her late-night  share of cocktail waitressing mixed with early-morning hours of concentrated work toward her career. “That time was really brutal,” she says, “but I think … in New York you come here and you have to do that. You end up running yourself ragged, but there’s no other way to get a foot hold and figure out who your collaborators are going to be.”

Eventually she scored big. In 2008 she became associate director for The Bridge Project, a joint venture between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Old Vic Theatre in London. Sam Mendes was directing Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” The three-year project had a major international tour component. “Sam was looking for someone who could assist him in the rehearsal room, who could then take the shows on tour and help keep the shows together in his absence and tech them for new cities,” she says. That was her job. The cities she toured over two years: London; Singapore; Auckland; Madrid; Recklinghausen, Germany; Paris; Hong Kong; Amsterdam and Epidaurus, Greece, known for its ancient and acoustically perfect amphitheater. In the first year of touring, Simon Russell Beale played Leontes and and Lopahkin. That’s when he and Upchurch became friends, and he told her he wanted to work with her again. Simon Stephens’ “Bluebird” became the collaboration for the actor-director friends.

She will return to the Atlantic Theater Company in the fall to direct another Simon Stephens play, “Harper Regan,” an odyssey of self-discovery for a woman in London. And she has “site-specific pirate musical” on a harbor boat that is in the works.

“People fret about (theatre) being a dying art form. I question that,” Upchurch says. “I think it’s shifting and certainly everything has had to respond to the age of the Internet, but I think that this need to experience live storytelling as a community — I don’t know how that disappears. I don’t know why that would disappear.”

The afternoon of our lunch would find Upchurch off to her ever-changing routine of rehearsals, reading plays, working with lighting directors and meeting with costume designers. She has found her place in our country’s mecca for the performing arts.

“I love this city. It can be hard, but sometimes it can love you back,” she says. And for this emerging director, the career highs clearly show the affection is mutual.