In an effort to celebrate and recognize alumni who have excelled both professionally and personally, Texas State has awarded several Bobcats with the Distinguished Alumni and Young Alumni Rising Star awards.
James Taylor ('81), John Navarrette ('87), Gloria Campos Brown ('76), Dr. Deborah Bergeron ('87) and Johnny Weisman ('72) are recognized as 2020 Distinguish Alumni Award honorees. Mark Estrada ('06, '10), Cortney Lebens ('10) and Kuro Tawil ('12) are recognized as 2020 Young Alumni Rising Star honorees.
Part one can be located here.
James S. Taylor
After growing up in Mexico, alumnus James S. Taylor continues to express his love and appreciation for his country’s culture and richness throughout his professional career.
Taylor’s decision to attend Texas State was a familiar road for him as many of his family members, tracing back to the 1930s, attended the university. Still, it was not the decision to attend Texas State that paved his path to success, rather it was his passionate decision to major in international studies.
“My dad was working for the U.S. Government, and so I was really drawn to the culture and the history but also was kind of perplexed that our U.S. and Mexico government didn’t really get along,” Taylor said. “This is when I was growing up, and so I was interested in looking at how I might help provide a positive understanding of each country to each other.”
Following his goal, Taylor is now the founding partner of Vianovo, LP, a communication consultancy, serving to translate foreign knowledge to businesses on both sides of the border.
In addition to Vianovo, Taylor is also a co-founder of Grupo Compadres, a member of the advisory board of the Texas Book Festival, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. He has been an honorary consul of Spain since 2018.
Following his pattern of giving back to his community, Taylor has once again found his way back to Texas State as he is also a member of the advisory board of The Wittliff Collections.
Taylor says he always knew bridging a better understanding between the U.S. and Mexico was a goal of his.
“I knew that I was gonna be my best if I were in the position where I am, but being able to pin-point what that would look like I didn’t really know,” Taylor said. “But I knew broadly what was going to make me happy, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to develop these businesses that allow me to leverage my understanding and knowledge of the market in both countries.”
Still 35-40 years into his career, Taylor says he finds transparency and honesty to be the best foundation for a business.
“There is a saying in Spanish that I really apply with, you know my employees, business partners and clients, and it says something like ‘Cuentas claras amistades largas’, clear accounts, long relationships,” Taylor said.
Humbled by Texas State’s Distinguished Alumni award, Taylor acknowledges he did not get to where he is on his own.
“I embrace that honor with great pride and joy, but I also know that there are many people who have helped me along the way both academically, my professors, but also individuals and relationships that I’ve developed over time that can speak to my character,” Taylor said.
With that, Taylor explains creating connections while in college is vital to one’s success.
“A lot of times you know you will need someone to vouch for you," Taylor said. "When I was at Texas State, I made a point to get to know my professors because you're gonna need in your applications either for graduate school or for a job, you're going to need someone to speak of your ability."
Along with this, Taylor advises students to continue to focus on their goals and stay true to their interests.
“I would encourage students to commit to their paths," Taylor said. "There’s gonna be twists and turns because journeys are not straight lines, but I know that if they can focus on keeping their ultimate interests in the front of their aspirations they will be able to live a very fulfilling life professionally and as an individual."
As the first in his family to attend college, alumnus John Navarrette says it was the work ethic instilled by his father, as he was sent to work chopping cotton with his grandparents during a summer in junior high, that set the path of endurance for his now fruitful career.
“I told myself, I said, 'you know, I’m gonna go to school, I’m gonna make the best grades, I’m gonna make something of myself, I’m gonna work smarter not harder',” Navarrette said.
Navarrette attended Texas State as a non-traditional student at the age of 32 and is now the current president of CenturyTel Investments of Texas Inc. After working his way up in the telephone business 10 years prior to the start of his college career, Navarrette was asked by his boss if college was still a goal for him, to which he replied that it was.
“A lot of people say that you have to be in the right place at the right time, but you also have to prepare to be in the right place at the right time, and I think Texas State did that,” Navarrette said.
During school, he used his real-world knowledge and experiences to propel him academically. He says it was his business classes, which forced him to work in teams, that broke him out of his shell. This concept is seemingly important to Navarrette as he encourages students to learn from every experience possible and to get to know people of all majors so that they can become well rounded.
Almost a day after graduation, the son of the owners of the phone company, who at the time was retiring, asked Navarrette to take over the company, claiming that they had been waiting for him to graduate to offer him the job.
“That told me right there, had I not graduated from Texas State I probably wouldn’t have had this opportunity to extend my career,” Navarrette said.
In addition to serving as the president of CenturyTel Investments of Texas Inc., Navarette has also sat on national boards with the United Telephone Association, is the director and chairman of the Texas Telephone Association and has received the Neville Haynes Award.
He says his success is owed to Texas State and he and his wife always find ways to give back to the university through donations to the athletics department, McCoy School of Business and the College of Fine Arts and Communication.
Having an office that he describes as “Bobcat Land”, Navarette expresses his love for Texas State and its beautiful campus. He looks to motivate students to enjoy their college careers and everything that comes with it, especially the dorm life, which he says is something he missed out on as a non-traditional student.
“Learn from every experience because that’s gonna help you when you go out into the real world,” Navarrette said.
Back in the early 2000s, superintendent of Lockhart ISD Mark Estrada’s dream job was to become a high school basketball coach.
He came to Texas State to study exercise sports science, which comes with a teacher certification and history. It wasn’t long before he realized his ambitions expanded beyond the basketball court.
“Once I started actually teaching, [I liked] the school leadership part,” Estrada said. “I had some opportunities early in my career to step up as a leader on my campus and that kind of snowballed into other opportunities to push for organizational change and advocating for all kids.”
Leadership is a large part of his role as superintendent. He oversees a public school district of more than 700 staff members and over 6,200 students in pre-k through 12th grade. He also works with the district’s board of trustees to ensure every child is receiving a quality education.
He credits Texas State with helping him improve his leadership qualities, especially when he returned to the university as a graduate student earning his master’s degree in secondary education.
“There’s certainly all the technical skills that you learn about being a teacher that helped me be successful,” Estrada said. “Probably, more importantly, is the mindset that has been ingrained in my DNA as a leader. Things like equity [is] a huge part of who I am as a leader. Another part of my leadership mindset that I got from my master’s program is really about having a heart for people.”
In his time as a Bobcat, he learned how to empower others, encourage collaboration and foster engagement. He is intentional about making sure the focus is never just on him and instead provides everyone an opportunity to be heard.
Much like he didn’t set out with the initial plan of becoming a superintendent, he knows many current college students also aren’t sure about what their futures hold. He encourages students to celebrate the feeling of not knowing.
“Live life boldly and do things that are going to stress you out,” Estrada said. “People coming out of college have to be ready to take risks and not live a life of missing opportunities. When things present themselves to you, jump on those things that may be scary or may feel uncomfortable. They are going to stretch you and give you opportunities to grow as a person and as a professional.”
In addition to the gratitude he feels for Texas State and the life path it helped set him on, he also misses simpler things like the river, the Taproom and The Square. He encourages everyone to take advantage of those things, as well as getting out and forming bonds with as many fellow students as one can.
“Don’t put limits on yourself. You belong. You’re just as talented as anyone else in this world,” Estrada said. “Be committed to outworking people, to being more persistent than other people, because that’s what’s going to help you be successful in life.”
Before Cortney Lebens graduated from Texas State in 2010, she had every ambition to be a fashion designer. Although her childhood dream of designing ice skating costumes spiked her interest in pursuing a degree in fashion merchandising, she had no idea how far it would take her.
“I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Lebens said. “I’ve always wanted to start something new and be creative.”
With innovative sustainability initiatives and extensive efforts to protect and celebrate the culture of Belize, Muy’Ono provides a hospitality experience unlike any other. As the CEO of not one, but two companies by the age of 30, she humbly acknowledges that it was the values she developed at Texas State that have inspired and guided her throughout her journey.
“While I learned many valuable technical skills in my studies, it is what I have learned about myself that has been the most important part of my education,” Lebens said.
To Lebens, Texas State is not only the college she attended or where she came of age but a community of alumni, professors and students who have been integral to her life. Her best friend, business partner and assistant are all Bobcats. She has also hired several graduates to work in the company office.
Lebens says that aside from education, Texas State has provided her with an instrumental networking platform that allows her to identify top-notch talent for her business.
“Wherever I look, I see Bobcats supporting other Bobcats," Lebens said. "We seem to be everywhere."
It is this platform, and her love and trust for the organization, that has led her to become a co-lecturer in the Housley Principled Leadership Program, an on-campus organization that encourages students to take on leadership roles, experiment broadly and challenge their beliefs.
She encourages students to take leadership courses through organizations like this to explore and learn more about themselves and help them define their own path, a component she believes is the most valuable in terms of growing a professional future.
“In leadership, it is critical to have a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, your personal mission and values and those are core to the position I’m in today,” Lebens said.
In addition to enjoying evenings at Cheatham Street Warehouse and tubing on the San Marcos River like she once did, Lebens encourages young Bobcats to work hard, maintain a positive attitude and stay curious.
“Soak it all up, meet as many people as you can, always push yourself to do the hard thing and don’t take this time for granted,” Lebens said.
For more information about the Distinguish Alumni and Young Alumni Rising Star Awards visit Texas State's alumni website.
To learn about Distinguish Alumni honorees Gloria Campos Brown, Dr. Deborah Bergeron and Johnny Weisman as well as Young Alumni Rising Star honoree Kuro Tawil, visit part one of The University Star's coverage.