Meet Cal Poly Humboldt’s 2022 and 2023 Distinguished Alumni

Ever since 1960, Cal Poly Humboldt has been honoring the accomplishments of its alumni through the inception of the annual Who's Who Award.

Ever since 1960, Cal Poly Humboldt has been honoring the accomplishments of its alumni through the inception of the annual Who's Who Award. In the current year, Cal Poly Humboldt takes pride in commemorating the distinguished alumni of 2022 and 2023, who have been acknowledged as exemplary leaders in their respective fields and have made remarkable contributions to their community, nation, or the University.

 This year, Cal Poly Humboldt would like to recognize the contributions of Distinguished Alumni for 2022 and 2023.

2022 Distinguished Alumni: 

Cassandra Hesseltine (‘96, Psychology) is a trailblazer in the world of film as the current Humboldt-Del Norte County Film Commissioner. Since 2010, she has been instrumental in creating temporary jobs in the region while stimulating the economy with outside dollars by assisting film productions in shooting among the redwoods. 

Before becoming commissioner, she spent decades working in theatre, TV, and film throughout California, gaining extensive experience in the entertainment business. 

Hesseltine facilitates the creation of captivating films, magazine photoshoots, print ads, TV shows, and commercials within Humboldt and Del Norte counties. She assisted in countless projects filmed in the region, including Swiss Army Man and Bird Box, and big-budget studio productions such as A Wrinkle in Time.

Hesseltine has gained respect and accolades from industry professionals locally, across the state, and worldwide. 

In 2015, as a Film Liaisons In California Statewide (FLICS) member, she worked to expand California’s TV and Film tax incentive program, helping California remain the top production center in the world. For three years, she served as the President of FLICS, showcasing her profound expertise and dedication. Additionally, she holds certification as a film commissioner from the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI). 

In 2017, she won Woman of Distinction, presented by the Kiwanis Club of Henderson Center at the Fourth Annual Women in Business Luncheon. In the fall of 2019, she was one of five finalists for Outstanding Film Commission in the world for Location Manager Guild International’s award show for her work on A Wrinkle in Time.

Jack McGurk (‘66, Biology) spent 30 years working in the California Department of Health Services. He served as chief of the Environmental Management Branch and oversaw eight environmental health programs, including medical waste management. Jack was crucial in developing the California Medical Waste Management Act legislation. His innovative medical waste reduction and pollution prevention program was honored with 2002, 2003, and 2004 Champion for Change Awards from Hospitals for a Healthy Environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded him the 2004 Region IX Environmental Award for outstanding achievement in leading those efforts. As the owner and president of Systems Improvement Initiators, Inc., he offered expertise and guidance to businesses and hospitals to help improve operations and implement cost-effective environmental solutions. Jack assisted hospitals in reducing healthcare-acquired infections through improved cleaning techniques.

Jack's commitment extends to education, as he serves as the Cal Poly Humboldt Foundation Vice Chair and created two Cal Poly Humboldt scholarship endowments for nursing and marine biology students, totaling $500,000. Inspired by his wife's battle with cancer, the nursing scholarship honors those who provided their family with exceptional care. McGurk's dedication to positively impacting Humboldt students’ lives is evident in all his endeavors.

Michael Lynch (‘11, Business Administration) is a social entrepreneur and certified professional fundraiser. He is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Improve Your Tomorrow, Inc. (IYT), an education nonprofit that, for the last 10 years, has worked to close the college opportunity gap and improve the life outcomes for thousands of young men of color across Northern California.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Humboldt and a Master’s in Public Policy and Administration from Sacramento State, Michael began his career as a Senate Fellow in the California State Legislature. He quickly became a senior policy advisor for a State Assembly member, where he staffed dozens of bills, nine of which became law. Michael serves as a Governor's appointee to the Commission on California Volunteers, a Senior Fellow for the American Leadership Forum, and a Senior Fellow for the Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program and the Sierra Health Foundation’s Health Leadership Program. Michael has been recognized among the top 25 Black Changemakers by the Sacramento Bee, 40 under 40 by the Sacramento Business Journal, and 100 business leaders by the Sacramento Magazine.

2023 Distinguished Alumni:

Kent Willis (‘69, Biology), a retired middle school science and math teacher from Fortuna, has left an indelible mark on education. Throughout his career, he received notable recognition, including being named "Humboldt County Teacher of the Year" in 1977 and earning the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Humboldt County Office of Education in 1989.

Beyond his classroom duties, Kent actively engaged in drug education, recognizing the importance of guiding young people toward a healthy and safe future. His efforts were acknowledged in 1990 when he received the Certificate of Recognition from the Humboldt County Superintendent of Education. This recognition highlighted Kent's significant contributions to improving the lives of young individuals on the North Coast.

Fortuna Middle School honored Kent as Volunteer of the Year for teaching advanced math and supporting school events. He established college scholarships for high school graduates in Humboldt County with his wife, Marsha. Kent Willis has made a lasting impact on education, inspiring and empowering students throughout his career.

Alexandra “Xan” Bernay (‘97, Journalism) is an esteemed lawyer at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, specializing in antitrust, consumer, securities, and unfair competition class-action litigation.

Among her many cases, Bernay was one of the lead lawyers in the most significant private antitrust class action settlement of all time, a lawsuit brought on behalf of merchants who argued that the largest credit card companies and card-issuing banks violated the antitrust laws by overcharging merchants who pay fees to accept transactions. The case settled for more than $5.5 billion. That case and other significant litigation have made Bernay a respected figure in the plaintiffs’ bar. Lawdragon recognized her efforts and honored her as a 2023 and 2019 Leading Plaintiff Financial Lawyer, and Super Lawyers Magazine named her a Super Lawyer in 2023.

As a lawyer, Bernay has made significant contributions through pro bono work, representing at-risk children and low-income clients in their pursuit of justice through the San Diego Volunteer Lawyers’ Program, a program committed to making legal services accessible to those in need.

In addition to her legal expertise, Xan is also an inventive mind. She invented a self-soothing product called Calmios, a fabric square designed to calm the mind and body through tactile stimulation, providing comfort and tranquility to those overwhelmed. She has also written several screenplays, performed stand-up comedy in New York and San Diego, and participated in special events hosted by The Moth, a well-known storytelling program.

Philip Anton (‘98, Music) recognizes the vital role of a liberal arts education. His passion for music propelled him toward a successful career in technology. Currently serving on the Board of the Cal Poly Humboldt Foundation and as a Vice Chair of the Boldly Rising Campaign, he actively supports their missions. Philip's philanthropic efforts include a $30,000 gift to the Native American Food Sovereignty Lab and a $280,000 pledge to the Philip and Yuriko Anton Climate Fund.

Professionally, he has worked for Sound Chaser Music Software, Microsoft, Provide Commerce, and Intuit culminating in his role as a Group Development Manager, where he contributed to the success of platforms like TurboTax and QuickBooks. Based in San Diego, Philip is highly regarded in the technology industry and valued for his passion, social impact, and professional achievements.

Peter A. Underhill (‘70, Oceanography) is a renowned geneticist and researcher known for his groundbreaking work in molecular analysis of DNA sequence variation in human populations.

Underhill completed a Master's degree in 1976 and a Ph.D. in 1981 in Marine Studies from the University of Delaware.

Since 1992, Underhill has been at the forefront of pioneering research on human Y chromosome diversification. His work has led to the development of a robust gene tree that provides valuable insights into human evolution, providing the laboratory equivalent of a time machine. One of his notable contributions was patenting a process called Denaturing High-Performance Liquid Chromatography, which allows for quick comparison of nucleotide sequences on the Y chromosome among different individuals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, CBS, and CNN, among other news outlets.

Throughout his career, Peter served as a Research Associate at Stanford University School of Medicine for 27 years until his retirement in 2017. From 1983 to 1989, he worked as a Molecular Biologist at SRI International, Menlo Park, Calif. He has shown his commitment to education and philanthropy by donating to various Cal Poly Humboldt Student Scholarships, including the Humboldt Oceanography Trust, Humboldt Student Success Scholarship, Humboldt Loyalty Fund, and the Marine Lab Enrichment Fund over the last 32 years.

Photo caption: The 2022 and 2023 Distinguished Alumni (clockwise from top left): Kent Willis, Michael Lynch, Philip Anton, Peter Underhill, Cassandra Hesseltine, Xan Bernay, and Jack McGurk.