The Alumni Association Board recognizes and celebrates outstanding alumni who demonstrate high levels of achievement and/or service in one or more of Converse’s Seven Core Values: Excellence, Integrity, Exploration, Diversity, Respect, Community, and Progress.
2021 Alumni Achievement Award Winners
Our Alumni Association Board is honored to recognize our outstanding Alumni with the following awards:
The 2021 Recipient of the Distinguished Alumna Award is Thayer Cheatham Willis ’70
Thayer Cheatham Willis is an internationally acclaimed author, educator, speaker, and leading authority in the area of wealth counseling. She has been a licensed, practicing psychotherapist since 1990, and her primary focus is on facilitating inheritors and their families as they cope with the psychological challenges of wealth. A child of wealth herself, born into the founding family of the multinational Georgia-Pacific Corporation, she brings to her field a unique insider’s perspective on contending with family dynamics as they relate to the mental and emotional challenges of wealth. Accredited with an M.A. from the University of Oregon and an M.S.W. from Portland State University, Thayer is a licensed clinical social worker (L.C.S.W.) specializing in wealth-related issues. Thayer offers thirty years of experience in a field she helped pioneer and dominates as one of its most prominent, foremost authorities. Working privately with a global client base, she has helped over 10,000 inheritors and their families in eight countries and four continents resolve wealth-related family conflicts.
Thayer is the author of Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth: A Life Guide for Inheritors, an invaluable introduction for families on the difficult journey to freedom beyond wealth, and Beyond Gold: True Wealth for Inheritors, which focuses on how individuals can be responsible with the financial wealth in their lives, keep it in perspective, and be free to take on the tough, rewarding task of enhancing relationships. Thayer wrote a column for Worth Magazine for several years, has had many articles published in additional national magazines and writes a quarterly newsletter, available on her website. She also has been interviewed for top financial publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Business Journal, and Time Magazine.
The 2021 Recipient of the Career Achievement Award is Padrica Hopkins ’85
Padrica Hopkins graduated from Converse College in 1985 with a BA in Chemistry. She earned the honors of being Junior Marshall, Academic Aide, and Alpha Lambda Delta. As an alumna, she attended Converse’s Celebrating Courage and Charting the Future series at Opening Convocation in 2018.
Padrica earned her Medical Doctor degree from University of Florida College of Medicine in 1990. Padrica has been a Board-Certified Medical Oncologist with Georgia Cancer Specialists since 2000. She specializes in women’s health issues and breast cancer.
Padrica received her medical degree from the University of Florida, College of Medicine in 1990, completed her residency at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles, CA, and completed her fellowship at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, CA in 1995. She is a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Medical Association. Prior to her current position at Georgia Cancer Specialists, Padrica was a Medical Oncologist at Kaiser Permanente in Anaheim, CA (1995-97) and in Overland Park, KS (1998-99).
The 2021 Recipient of the Career Achievement in Music Award is James Martin “Rusty” Keesler, Jr. ’77
Rusty Keesler was among 18 male music students admitted to Converse in 1973 and 1974. Musical activities included providing music for a Converse May Day Festival, performances in Once Upon A Mattress, The Sound Of Music, Madama Butterfly, Susannah, La Perichole, and he served as Chorus Master for La Perichole and the American premiere of J. S. Bach’s Psalm 51 which was lost and rediscovered in Germany. He spent two summers at the Brevard Music Center (closely associated with Converse at the time) where he performed in musicals, operas and pops concerts. He graduated with a Bachelor of Music Degree in Music Education and Vocal Performance.
Rusty did his student-teaching with Mary Frances Gosnell at Dorman High School. He began his teaching career at Towers High School in Decatur, Georgia where he was named Club Advisor of the Year for working with the school’s Key Club. He was recruited to Pendleton High School in Anderson District 4 to start a new choral program. Within three years his choirs were earning state and regional awards. In his third year there the yearbook, The Landmark was dedicated to him and in his fourth year he was named Teacher of the Year for both the high school and the district. He started a Key Club (a high school service club and sponsored by a Kiwanis Club) and was named Advisor of the Year for the Carolinas District.
While pursuing a Masters Degree in Music Education at Winthrop University, Rusty served as the graduate assistant to Dr. Robert Edgerton and had opportunities to conduct the Winthrop Chorale and teach studio voice. He did additional summer graduate studies at Florida State where he studied Spirituals and Choral Conducting with Dr. André Thomas and at the University of SC where he studied Music Literacy with Dr. Carol Krueger.
Rusty taught one year at McCracken Middle School in Spartanburg District 7 before he was recruited to Riverside High School in Greenville County. His choirs at Riverside earned top awards in state and regional competitions including Superior ratings in the SC Music Educators Association, 1st place among 400 plus choirs at Carowinds theme park, 12th place in the National Festival of Gold at the Kennedy Center that included more than 400 choirs from across the United States. The Riverside Concert Choir appeared in two PBS broadcasts of The World’s Largest Concerts as well as concert appearances on SCETV, WGGS, and WSPA. This choir also performed twice in New York’s Carnegie Hall with composer / conductor John Rutter. Other noted performances included St. Bartholomew Church in NYC, the National Cathedral in Washington, the US Naval Academy, the Epcot Center, a concert with Andy Williams and a concert tour of Germany and Austria. For many summers he worked for Tomorrow’s America Foundation helping to lead Broyhill Leadership Conferences for high school organizations like Key Club, Student Council, FBLA, FFA, and others.
In 1984 Rusty was invited to join the staff of Greenville’s Singing Christmas Tree, a joint project of the Greenville Downtown Rotary Club and the School District of Greenville County. The following year he succeeded Dr. Virginia Uldrick (founder of the SC Governor’s School of the Arts and Humanities) as the director of The Singing Christmas Tree with the Greenville County Youth Orchestra for 11 seasons including 4 seasons performing at the Kennedy Center.
Rusty was named Teacher of the Year for both Riverside High School and Greenville County Schools. In addition to teaching, he was active in the SC Music Educators Association serving as a clinician / conductor for middle school choral festivals, judging All-State Chorus auditions and conducting All-State Chorus rehearsals. He also served as President of the SC American Choral Directors Association. During his teaching career he has hosted Student-Teachers from Converse, Furman, Bob Jones University, University of SC, North Greenville University, and Limestone College.
Rusty was recruited to Sumter High School to assist in a rebuilding program. He returned to the upstate to teach Band and Chorus in Spartanburg District 3 where he was named Teacher of the Year at Middle School of Pacolet. His final full-time teaching position was at Byrnes High School in Spartanburg District 5 where he rebuilt a choral program that shared a concert with Christian artist Ken Medema, and performed in Carnegie Hall to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Shawnee Press [music publishing company]. For nine years he conducted the Spartanburg All-County Chorus for the annual Bill Drake Christmas Festival.
In addition to being a full-time music educator, Rusty has served as choir director and / or organist for a number of upstate churches including 25 years at Fernwood Baptist Church in Spartanburg. About the time he attempted to retire, he adopted one of his high school students named Cody, so he had instant family. In the summer 0f 2018, they took a month to travel to many of the National Parks in the west. After 38 years in public schools, Rusty continues to work with choirs in Greenville and Spartanburg schools and serves as a substitute for Band, Chorus, and Orchestra teachers. For three years he has been an adjunct professor at Furman University teaching Choral Methods, Choral Literature, conducting the Men’s Chorale, and supervising music Student-Teachers. He continues to serve as a church musician at United Methodist Church of the Covenant in Spartanburg.
The 2021 Recipient of the Community Service Award is Ashley Page Bookhart ’13
Ashley is a proud graduate of 2013 graduate of Converse College (B.A.) and a 2015 University of South Carolina graduate (MSW). Ashley is employed with the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health. Ashley is passionate about ensuring all South Carolina residents have access to healthy affordable foods. At USC she serves as a Program Coordinator for the SNAP-Ed team and works to implement nutrition policy, system and environmental change with nonprofits, libraries, and food policy councils.
Through her work with USC she has been able to create numerous community gardens, farmers markets, youth summer meal and afterschool sites, free produce giveaways and other food access initiatives around the state.
Ashley has served as the Chair for the Columbia Food Policy Council since 2019 and recently transitioned to the Past Immediate Chair. She is also one of the founders of Growing COB, a community garden initiative in Calhoun, Orangeburg and Bamberg Counties.
The 2021 Recipient of the Mae Elizabeth Kilgo Spirit of Converse is Caroline Watts Morris ’64
Caroline Watts Morris, was proud to become a part of the Converse family as a freshman in 1960, and happily joined the Converse Alumnae Board in 2003. She is a native of Greenville SC and enjoys spending time with her two daughters, as well as their husbands, her five beautiful grandchildren, and her puppy Cooper. She served the county of Greenville and state of SC as a deputy clerk in the 13th Judicial Circuit in General Sessions Court managing the capital cases and the grand jury for 33 years. After retirement, she served as a court interpreter of American Sign Language.
While on the Alumnae Board, Caroline served on the R and R (now Recognition Committee; CARRE (Converse Alumni Recruitment and Retention Effort), TAPP, connecting alumni with their local chapters; and nominating committees. She chaired the silent art auction to raise funds for the Mac Boggs Memorial Garden. She co-chaired her class 50th year reunion events and loved reconnecting with her classmates and being welcomed into the Golden Club in Twichell. She served as vice president and president of the alumnae board, and as ex officio member of the Converse Board of Trustees. While president of the alumnae board, she initiated the summer reading list for alumnae, an alumnae welcome tent for incoming freshmen, and the addition of an International position on the alumnae board. She and other board members created a social media presence for the alumnae board on Facebook and procured acceptance to the networking system on LinkedIn for graduates seeking employment. She enjoyed the parties for new freshmen and their mothers, helping the freshmen move into their dorms on move-in day.
Caroline is currently a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, having recently enjoyed a visit to the School for the Deaf and Blind while presenting braille American flags. She is also a member of the Reedy River Chapter of Colonial Dames XVIIth Century as well as the international secretary for the Marjoribanks Family of Scotland. She loves serving in various roles at First Presbyterian Church Greenville and social chair of the Merrifield Park Community Club. She served as chaplain for the Greenville Council of Garden Clubs as well as president of the Greenville Garden Club.
The 2021 Recipient of the Young Alumna Award is Andrea Stokes ’07
Andrea Stokes is the Founder of Swahlee, an ethical fashion brand that creates safe, fair jobs for young women in northeast India who face barriers to employment. She strongly believes in the power of meaningful job creation to end poverty and uplift women, impacting lives for generations to come.
While working in international community development, Andrea observed a pattern: when girls lack education and economic opportunities they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Later while working with human trafficking survivors, she saw this same need for safe and fair employment options to prevent re-exploitation when the girls became young adults.
Realizing the potential of business as a strong and effective force for social change, Andrea founded Swahlee in 2018. Swahlee crafts effortless, timeless styles for active, modern, global women. Based in India, Swahlee’s sustainable collections are made with all-natural artisan textiles and upcycled, repurposed fabrics.
Andrea’s passion for creating transformative opportunities for women began as a History and Politics student at Converse. She is inspired daily watching the young women she works with at Swahlee become independent and grow in confidence and leadership. She anticipates the day they become change agents in their own communities. You can learn more at www.swahlee.com or @swahleeco.
Congratulations to the 2021 Recipients of the CONVERSE 100 Award
Chelsea Jaccard Kaufman ’03
Chelsea Jaccard Kaufman is a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where she has served since 2010. She has delivered foreign assistance and enacted US international development policy in Uganda, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Washington, DC, and most recently, Mozambique. Through the course of her career, she has learned Arabic, French, and Portuguese. Before joining USAID, Chelsea worked in Northern Iraq, attended grad school at American University, and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, teaching art at a deaf school. Chelsea has committed her life to ensuring that everyone in the world has the opportunity to live healthy, free, and productive lives, no matter where they were born. Kaufman travels the world with her family; husband, Richard Kaufman, fellow FSO with the Department of State, and their two children, Pierce (5) and Elise (2). But it all started right here at Converse, where the Model League of Arab States gave her exposure to the world and Dr. Joe Dunn taught her that there are no limits to what a woman with a scarf and some sunglasses can do.
Caroline Rinehart Stewart ’70
As I review my life’s path, it is very easy to say it all started at Converse when I realized with a sense of surprise and delight that I could actually major in a subject that seemed so relevant: Psychology! And better yet, sociology could be my minor! It was that point I really took an interest in academics. After graduation, I spent a summer internship on the psych ward of the University of Virginia Hospital, followed by getting a Masters in Counseling from the University of Virginia.
Vocationally I have been a guidance and admissions counselor in a variety of settings over the years. In addition I have been fortunate to also balance the roles of wife, mother, grandmother, community volunteer and board member during that time. Twenty years ago, however, something dramatically shifted in my life and I found myself back in graduate school earning a Masters in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University, Baltimore. That led to more training in hospital chaplaincy at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and ultimately to Virginia Theological Seminary. In June 2006 I was ordained as an Episcopal Priest. Since that time, I have served a variety of parishes, been the Interim Episcopal Chaplain at Hopkins, served on the faculty of The Center for Spiritual Support Training at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, school chaplain at 2 independent schools, and currently as Executive Director of The Center for WellBeing at The Church of the Redeemer. The Center is a resource for the parish and the city of Baltimore focusing on emotional and spiritual education and engagement.
I close with how I began….my life long interest in psychology which germinated at Converse, is now part of my current passion: I am a Certified Instructor in Mental Health First Aid. Thank you Converse for having been such a primary factor in the direction my life took…and is taking!
Donna Anderson Yamini ’78
Donna Yamini, Feng Shui Master, imagination expert, artist, chef and founder of two charitable organizations, knows the value of change and the rewards of taking a chance. After more than ten years in the cosmetic and spa industry and moves all over the world, she changed career fields and has made a name for herself in the world of Chinese metaphysics and the Culinary Arts. Yamini received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Converse College in Spartanburg South Carolina. She spent close to twenty years as a successful executive in the fashion, cosmetic, and spa industries, while pursuing further studies in art and feng shui.
In the late nineties, Yamini’s desire to teach, create, and share her passion for feng shui and art led to a somewhat risky career change. Her client base soon grew to prestigious companies like Neiman Marcus, Escada, Stanley Korshak, The Dallas Museum of Art, The Crow Collection of Asian Art, Southwest Airlines, Advanced Global Communications, Design Solutions, Oppenheimer, Merrill Lynch, Toni and Guy, The Crossings and The Royal Family of Saudi Arabia. Yamini’s position as the primary artist to the royal family afforded her the ability to provide work for over 300 artisans around the world and the luxury of developing new processes for her ceramic work.
Capitalizing on her skills as a sculptor and ceramic designer for the Saudi royal family, Yamini created her own jewelry line, based on the principles of feng shui, called Feng Shui for the BodyTM. Each piece of handcrafted semi- precious jewelry utilizes the five elements of feng shui and the trigrams of the I – Ching. The collection has been showcased at Neiman Marcus, Lilly Dodson and Escada, to name a few.
She concluded her Masters in feng shui with Grand Master Yap Cheng Hai of Malaysia in January of 2003. In October 2005 Yamini completed her second Master/Instructor Status with the Mastery Academy of Chinese Metaphysics. 2007 brought the honor of Masters of Distinction in Ba Zi, an ancient form of Chinese Astrology. She also served as the Academy’s US Representative and North and South American Master Instructor, providing the best in Classical Feng Shui Education on two continents.
Yamini was a sponsoring member of the “Gather the Women’s International Congress: Weaving a World that Works” (www.gatherthewomen.org). The October 2003 Congress gathered 333 women from around the world to work on solutions for a better planet. Named Executive Coordinator for the 2004 – 2005 terms, she hosted the Gather Women International Congress in Dallas, Texas. Over 200 women from over 40 countries and 20 United Nations Partner Organizations attended this incredible, interactive learning event. The event hosted 40 of the world most influential women leaders from all walks of life, including, authors – Jean Shinoda Bolen, Susyn Reeve, Barbara Max Hubbard, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, Actress and United Nations Spokeswoman – Linda Gray, founder of 34 Million Friends – Jane Roberts, Founder of Peace x Peace – Patricia Smith Melton, Musician – Jana Stanfield and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee – Ada Aharoni. Gather the Women International Congress 2004 was the largest ever international event to use the principles of feng shui, to format the environment of an event.
Yamini is also an award-winning celebrity chef – having prepared private dinners for such greats as, Edgar Mitchell, Deepak Chopra, Caroline Myss, Stephen Simon, Gregg Braden, Master Joey Yap, Dr. Joe Dispenza, and Mahatma Gandh’s grandson, Arun Gandhi and Kenchen Rinpoche.
Kylee Jean Heap ’02
Over the past 18 years, Kylee championed primary market research for the pharmaceutical industry earning over 50 publications as co-author in peer-review medical journals and medical conference poster presentations. Her contributions helped inform branded drug valuations, clinical trial design and international marketing strategy. In 2020, she pivoted to launch her own communications consultancy serving small businesses and non-profits in digital marketing, social media strategy, content marketing, and brand management. And, she is a publicist for selected authors and international speakers.
Kylee seeks opportunities to give back to the community by actively volunteering for her church and its school, the Junior League of Greenville, and more. She has completed multiple half marathons across the country, enjoys any hike that reaches a waterfall, appreciates exploring the history of a destination, and savors time spent making memories with loved ones.
Ami Price ’01
Ami Price earned a BS in Finance and a BA in Accounting from Converse College.
Mary Graham ’80
Mary Graham is founder of Mary Graham Consulting, a strategic planning consulting firm focused on helping communities and community and economic development organizations. Graham founded the firm following a 35+ year career in the economic development and chamber of commerce industry.
Graham is an active member the United States Air and Space Forces Civic Leader program. She has served in the program since 2016. The program is comprised of civic leaders who serve as advocates for the Air Force and report directly to the Secretary of the Air Force and Chiefs of Staff of Air and Space Forces.
Graham is also a member of the South Carolina Military Base Task Force Executive Committee. She was re-appointed to the Charleston At-Large seat in 2019 after serving many years as the Chamber of Commerce’s appointment. The Task Force focuses on ensuring South Carolina supports the military and their families.
Graham served as the Chief Strategy Officer for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. She worked for the Chamber for 29 years in various capacities and help lead the Chamber and community through a major Base Realignment and Closure effort in 1993. Following the 1993 BRAC, the community lost the 3rd largest US Naval Base in the country. Graham worked to develop the community’s first ever economic development strategy to replace job loss. Over the next 20 years, Graham helped to guide the update and implementation of five subsequent strategies. The results include the transformation of the region’s economy from service-based to STEM-based, the creation of thousands of jobs and the development and implementation of a regional workforce strategy to fill the needed skill gaps.
Throughout her career, Graham worked with public officials at the federal, state and local levels and business leaders in the development and implementation of strategies to address economic growth and facilitate job creation. Additionally, Graham’s expertise includes analysis and interpretation of regional and local economic data and policy analysis.
She is a member of the Trident Technical College Foundation Board of Directors and Executive Committee. She received the Commander’s Public Service Award from Joint Base Charleston in 2017. Graham holds a Bachelor of Economics from Converse College and is nationally certified by both C2ER and the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. She is married to The Honorable Thomas L. Carter, the former United States Ambassador to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), retired MAJGEN, USAF.
Julie Madsen Smith ’70
After finishing two degrees at Converse, Julie remained in Spartanburg where she has enjoyed being active in the local music community through work at various churches, private piano teaching and working with various vocal groups.
Currently, Julie is the Organist/Pianist/Handbell Director at Saint Paul UMC in Spartanburg (1972-Present); accompanist for Spartanburg Festival Chorus (1997-Present) and staff accompanist at Converse College Petrie School of Music (1985-Present). Her work and dedication to Converse has given Smith the opportunity to work with many talented students who have gone on to their own careers in music, as well as working with guest artists.
Julie’s husband, Roland (also a Converse graduate), and I have two adult children and two teenage grandsons with whom we share the joys of music. Music is a big part of all our lives.
Tiana Pires Carter ’10
Tiana Carter is the Senior Director of Culture and Engagement for Waste Management (WM) , the leading environmental services provider in North America. As a visionary who uses innovative thinking to move business and people forward, Tiana leads WM’s inclusion and diversity strategy reaching more than 50,000 employees.
Prior to joining WM, Tiana served as the Vice President, Business Development and Innovation, at Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, a social impact startup focused on creating strategic diversity workforce solutions for over 90 leading brands.
Tiana resides in Houston, Texas with her husband and two daughters.
Krystal Jackson Kinsey ’12
Krystal Jackson Kinsey is a proud Converse College Alumna from the Class of 2012 and is honored to be a Converse 100 award recipient. Kinsey currently lives in a suburb of Austin, TX, and has since 2018. Kinsey and her husband have two girls, Amelia and Eliza. Here comes Converse College Class of 2038 and 2042, a Pink Panther family through and through!
Kinsey is the Assistant Director of a private Academy and has been very involved with her city and community since moving to Hutto. She served as the chair of my neighborhood’s Social Event Committee and worked with the Hutto Police Department to put on one of the best National Night Out events Hutto had ever seen! Kinsey is a member of the Howard Norman Elementary PTA and was appointed to the Ethics Review Commission by the Mayor of Hutto in 2019, where she continues to serve. Kinsey’s increased involvement with the city has led her to a slot on the ballot this May (2021) to be elected to Place 5 on City Council. Kinsey is a huge supporter of the Hutto Women’s Alliance.