Outstanding alumni in the spotlight


The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) will honor at the AACC Annual Convention next month four exceptional alumni from member colleges — a heart doctor, an anesthesiologist, a community housing advocate, and an owner of an interior design and build company — who not only excelled professionally, but also gave back to their alma mater.

The heart doctor

Dr. Jean-Bernard Durand is a trailblazer in the medical profession with his heart set on helping others.

Dr. Jean-Bernard Durand

Durand was born in France and moved to the U.S. at a young age. He attended California’s Long Beach City College and was named Outstanding Student and Outstanding Scholar by the Association Student Body. From there, Durand attended California State University–Long Beach and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

He performed his residency at Loyola University Medical Center and completed several post-doctoral fellowships at respected institutions. His focus was on the heart.

Durand is now an authority on heart transplants, pacemaker implantations and chronic heart failure. He also has revolutionized our understanding of the relationship between cardiovascular disease and cancer, launching the first program designed to manage chemotherapy-induced cardiovascular complications.

Durand is currently a faculty member and researcher at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he founded and directs the department of cardiomyopathy services. He is also an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University. There, he educates future doctors to “fight cancer for the good of mankind.”

The anesthesiology

Dr. Karen Morris-Priester grew up in the projects of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As a teen, she watched in awe as doctors cared for her ailing grandmother. She knew she wanted to join their ranks.

Dr. Karen Morris-Priester

But, as often happens, life got in the way. At age 16, she became a first-time mom and her dreams were put on hold. By 29, Morris-Priester had five children and a husband who didn’t believe college was in the cards. So, she left the marriage to pursue her goals.

While working multiple jobs and caring for her kids, Morris-Priester attended HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College. In 1996, she graduated summa cum laude with an associate degree in nursing and went on to get a bachelor’s degree. She then applied to medical school and in 2007 became the first grandmother to graduate from Yale Medical School. (Her story was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show.)

Morris-Priester now practices anesthesiology in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and shares her story widely, hoping to inspire others to fight for their dreams. She gives back to her community by mentoring students and organizing city-wide health fairs, and even led a medical mission trip to Ghana.

With the American Medical Association, Morris-Priester created a mentoring program and a scholarship for disadvantaged students. She also gives back to HACC by speaking at events and donating to the HACC Foundation.

The community housing advocate

For Nora Mendez, the past has inspired her present. Mendez was raised on a small farm in Jalisco, Mexico, where parents struggled to provide for their family. After the death of her father and sister, Mendez’s mother left Mexico for Santa Ana, California, to earn money for her family.

Nora Mendez (left)

They settled into a one-bedroom apartment in a Mexican-immigrant neighborhood fraught with crime and poverty. The dilapidated living conditions spurred the residents in her apartment complex to organize a rent strike. The Orange County Community Housing Corporation stepped in to bring upgraded housing to residents. With a better home environment, Mendez could shift her focus to her future.

After high school, Mendez enrolled at Santa Ana College. She stayed there for five years, until 1999, taking courses in everything from law to accounting.

While at the college, Mendez interned with the Orange County Community Housing Corporation. Now, she is executive director of the nonprofit. Through her work, she’s made it possible for thousands of vulnerable families to obtain affordable housing, higher education and a rich future.

Mendez also lends her time to several boards and charitable causes. She’s picked up numerous awards over the years and is seen as a role model and leader in her community. But to Mendez, she is simply someone who never gave up.

“I had a lot of perseverance in everything I did,” she says. “I just kept going forward. I didn’t look back.”

The owner of an interior design and build company

Dave Custer says he owes his success to Michigan’s Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC). But GRCC also owes much to him.

Dave Custer

Custer was a first-generation student at what was then Grand Rapids Junior College in the 1960s and transferred to Western Michigan University. He became a business leader, founding interior design and build firm Custer, Inc., in 1981. Under his leadership, the firm grew from $3 million in sales to $44 million. It’s a family business, with his three sons also in leadership roles.

As his success grew, so did his desire to give back. For 30 years, Custer has helped advance the community college mission as a leader of the GRCC Foundation. He joined the foundation’s board of directors in 1989 and was the first non-college leader to serve as chair of the board.

Custer led three capital campaigns and helped the college secure more than $37 million in gifts. He also pushed GRCC to grow its alumni network. In addition, he donated funds to renovate a historic home on campus that will house the foundation. More importantly, it will be a place for alumni and donors to reconnect with the GRCC family.

Custer also led the charge to award scholarships to more than 15,000 students. Since 2017, the foundation has awarded more than $1 million in student scholarships annually.

Get your event tickets: Purchase tickets for the David Pierce Lecture Honoring Outstanding Alumni (March 30) during the AACC 2020 Convention next month.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.