Jordalen honors mentor and 'pays it forward'

The small, tabletop Norwegian flag gave her away.

Visiting the office of Dr. Mary Kay Sullivan just days before his graduation, Stian Jordalen ’94 saw the red, white and blue of his country’s ensign on her desk and immediately knew the identity of his anonymous benefactor: His business and finance professor.

Jordalen had enrolled at Maryville College in 1990 to play soccer and get an education – “in that order,” he explained in a recent email. But within a year, he realized the opportunity in front of him and began dedicating more time to his studies. At about the same time, he also learned that his education – his “American dream” – was in jeopardy because of finances.

“My problems caught the attention of some fellow students and faculty. One of the outcomes of this was that MC introduced the International Scholarship, of which I became the first recipient,” he explained. “The other outcome was even more amazing to me: Someone had sponsored me with a large amount for tuition and continued to do so for the rest of my time at MC. The sponsor wished to be anonymous. I did not know who to thank for this amazing gift.”

When Jordalen’s parents came to Maryville College to see him graduate in May of 1994, his mother brought with her a small, tabletop Norwegian flag to give to the person who had made Stian’s undergraduate degree possible, financially. The family handed it over to administrators with the request that it be given to the generous donor.

“The next day, I went to say goodbye to my teachers and my mentor, Dr. Sullivan. I will never forget seeing that flag on her desk. I was in shock,” he remembered. “Not in a million years could I have guessed it. At the time I received the first anonymous scholarship, I had not yet had Dr. Sullivan for a class. How could she have done this? I had many questions inside. She told me that something similar had happened to her, and that she hoped that I one day would be able to do the same for someone else.”

That day has come for Jordalen, who emailed Sullivan last November to ask if he could add her name to an award he was funding to help young musicians pursue higher education. She gave her permission, of course, and the Mary Kay Sullivan Prize for Outstanding Young Talent in Music was announced Feb. 20, 2014, during the Winter Hits music festival in Vaksdal, Norway. Eighteen year-old Ingrid Øygard Steinkopf, a jazz pianist and flutist, is the first recipient.

In presenting the award, Jordalen told the crowd about the prize’s namesake from Maryville College. He told the story of discovering who had made an American education possible for him. He also told attendees about her encouragement on that day to “pay it forward” and challenged everyone there to do the same.

“Dr. Sullivan gave me the chance to become everything I could become, both through her financial support and through her pedagogy. She made me want to excel for the right reasons,” Jordalen said. “She is, to me, the perfect example of what a college educator should be.

“I have called her my mentor since the day I left college.”

Jordalen returned to live in his native Norway permanently after earning his MBA from the University of Montana in Missoula. He took his degrees from the United States and helped his family launch a successful truck stop/gas station in the village of Dale. Today, as CEO and part owner with his brother, Jordalen employs 20 people and reports annual sales of $10 million.

He has bought interest in local restaurants, clothing stores and even a music label. Currently, he is chairman of the local chamber of commerce and serves as vice chairman of a local business incubator. He funds another scholarship-type award – one for young athletes that he named in memory of his grandfather.

“None of this would have happened without the self belief that I gained though my experience at Maryville,” he said.

Recruited from Norway – via Chattanooga

For Jordalen, enrolling at Maryville College in 1990 had as much to do with a faulty pay phone as it did pursuing an “American dream.”

As a youth, he had lived in Tennessee as an exchange student at Hixson High School in Chattanooga, where he played soccer for the Wildcats and became friends with teammates Mark Frainie and Andy Harvey. After his year at Hixson, he returned to Norway and kept up with his American friends through frequent phone calls.

“A local telephone booth was malfunctioning, which made it possible for me to call the States for free,” Jordalen explained. “[Mark and Andy] told me they had been recruited to come to MC to play soccer and study. I said, ‘Cool, I’d love to do that.’

“One thing led to another. Maryville Soccer Coach Pepe Fernandez had been the coach at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, and I had played one of my better high school games against his team. So, Pepe called me and said he wanted me to come and join the Fighting Scots.”

Soon after that, at age 17, Jordalen was back in East Tennessee, making a name for himself on the soccer field and in the classroom, as well.

Four years later, he graduated cum laude and was nominated for the Outstanding Senior Award.

Seeing potential

Mary Kay Sullivan had not heard from her former student in several years when Jordalen’s email arrived in her Inbox last November.

“Just hearing from him came as a great and welcome surprise. But to think that he wanted to give a prize in my name was tremendously touching, overwhelming, really,” she said. “ It reminded me that we often never know when we have made a positive impact on someone, when we have planted a seed that will bear fruit.”

She remembers Jordalen as one of her most outstanding students in 25 years of college teaching.

“His intellectual curiosity, his enthusiasm for learning and his academic strengths caught my attention. Plus, he was just a really fine human being,” she said. “I saw great potential in him and very much hoped that he would be able to stay at MC to graduate.

“I have always strongly believed that each of us needs to help others when possible – and I am more comfortable, in general, to give quietly and not call attention to myself,” Sullivan continued. “When Stian was my student, I was at a stage in life where I could contribute financially to various needs.”

Sullivan credits two women with cultivating her giving spirit: the late Hazel Lou Ford VanDeventer and the late Doris Eakes, a Maryville College donor who funded scholarships and the Joe D. Eakes Chair of Business (which Sullivan held for many years).

“[VanDeventer] gave generously and usually anonymously to causes and to individuals in our community. Very few people knew of this, possibly not even her family,” she said, adding that her grandchildren include Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. “[Eakes’] stated intent was to personally ‘pay forward’ to others the benefits she had received from a successful business and to encourage those recipients, too, to ‘pay forward’ to others, rather than ‘paying it back.’”

Sullivan retired from the College in 2010 but continues to teach a few upper-level business and finance courses. She doesn’t explicitly use the phrase “pay it forward,” but she wants students to leave Maryville College knowing that they can use their earnings for good in the world.

She ends her Business 344: Finance course with this directive: “Buy stock, take stock and re-stock.”

“In Finance, we learn about the long-term benefits of investing in common stock, so that is a natural beginning for my short ‘homily,’” she explained. “I also want the students to ‘take stock,’ in terms of examining their own strengths and building on those — and recognizing the values that motivate them. As far as ‘re-stocking’ goes, when their loans are paid and when they are financially secure, I encourage them to ‘re-stock,’ to give back to the institutions that nurtured them.”

Planning a homecoming

Sullivan has never been to Norway. She bought a Norwegian-English dictionary and phrase book a few years ago but a trip never materialized.

If she never makes it to Scandinavia, though, she and Jordalen are likely to reconnect in a couple of years. He intends to bring his wife and two daughters to Tennessee for introductions: to “brother” and former Scots teammate Ali Sohrabi ’93 in Nashville; and to Sullivan and Fernandez in Maryville. Of course, he’ll show his family around the campus that played such an important role in his life.

“I would not change my educational path for anything in the world,” Jordalen said. “The MC experience was the greatest gift I could ever receive. Looking back, I realize that my four years at MC made me strong – it gave me faith in myself. It was the four most fantastic and ‘shaping’ years of my life.

“I am ever grateful for the experience.”

If you would like to establish a scholarship at Maryville College or contribute funds to the International Student scholarship, please visit maryvillecollege.edu/giving or call 865.981.8204.

Written by Karen Beaty Eldridge '94, Executive Director for Marketing & Communication