As a first-generation college student, Jimi (Burke) Bechtel, ’03, was grateful for the support she received from outside her family while looking into colleges.
Bechtel learned of Baker from her neighbor in rural Hamilton, Kansas. Bill Ulrich, ’91, shared fond memories of his experiences on the Baldwin City campus. When she began her college search, she focused on smaller schools, and Baker emerged at the top of her list. Bechtel updated Ulrich on her college plans, and her success in academics and interest in the university inspired him to cover the cost of books her first semester.
“At that point, I told myself that when I was in a place financially, I would give back to Baker so that others could benefit the way I was benefiting,” she said.
Although Bechtel has been making regular contributions for several years, a year ago she identified a program that held special meaning to her. She began financially supporting Baker’s first-generation student program after she participated in a mentor call via Zoom through Zeta Tau Alpha sorority and connected with a first-generation student who was in the middle of a job search.
“It was during my discussions with her and other readings and podcasts that made me realize that first-generation students still have a big hurdle to overcome,” Bechtel said. “I always promised myself that I would attempt to give back like others had done for me, and first generation is where I decided that I wanted my dollars to go.
“In my experience, first-generation students do not have this background and support system of individuals who have had success in a college setting. There is so much that first-generation students have to learn about that isn’t solved by a generous scholarship package. Yes, that gets you on campus, but it doesn’t guarantee success. These students need support in a variety of ways, and I am hoping that my donation will help them get what they need.”
One of the biggest challenges Bechtel faced as a first-generation college student was during her junior and senior years when job hunting and trying to find an internship. She could not afford to stay in Baldwin City during the summer, and Kansas City was a nearly three-hour drive from her hometown.
“I would get discouraged because my parents did not work a corporate job in Kansas City and could not help me land an internship or assist with job interviews,” she said. “This was my biggest struggle. I wanted to be able to use the education that I had worked hard for, and it was so hard for me to navigate the job search process without a network. I think about my own children, and I know between myself and their aunts and uncles, if they are interested in any sort of career that comes with a college education that we will be able to find them a mentor that will assist them.”
Active on Campus
At Baker, Bechtel was an active member in her sorority and held various leadership positions. She ran track her freshman year and participated in Student Senate, Cardinal Key, and Delta Mu Delta, the national honor society for students of business administration.
“I cannot even begin to list the impacts Baker had on me professionally,” she said, “the friendships being the most important thing for me. I cherish my Baker friendships and memories, and they are a big part of me. Now that I have two children, I find myself sharing Baker with them every fall by visiting the university.”
In high school, Bechtel had been active in Future Business Leaders of America. She attended the national FBLA convention in Chicago her senior year and represented Kansas in the Accounting II category. She enjoyed the experiences in FBLA and wanted to continue on that path for a career, so she majored in accounting and business.
“Every professor I had in the accounting and business department was wonderful,” she said. “Martha Harris was very encouraging as a woman in accounting and business, and Lee Green was the Harlaxton professor my semester there. I was lucky enough to take his two classes in England to keep my graduation date on track. Gary Irick was so knowledgeable in accounting, and Kevin McCarthy has reached out to me a couple of times throughout the years and was always very kind.”
After beginning her career as a corporate income tax auditor for the Kansas Department of Revenue in Topeka, Kansas, Bechtel moved to Texas, where she was a cost report auditor for Mutual of Omaha.
“Professionally, I believe that the education prepared for a seamless entry into the workforce,” she said. “I spent my 20s working in Dallas, Texas, and worked alongside graduates of the large Texas universities. It was rare for me to encounter anyone who knew where Baker was, but I feel like I always held my own skill wise with the Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech grads.”
Inspired by her sorority sisters who had pursued careers as dentists, doctors, and veterinarians, Bechtel was intrigued by the idea of a career helping others, so she earned a master’s degree in health care management.
“When I moved to Dallas, it was a hotbed for various health care businesses,” she said. “I found that I enjoyed working in the business side of health care. I do not directly interface with patients but like to think that by assisting in the behind the scenes of health care that I can hopefully relieve some of the administration burden of these medical professionals and allow them to do what they do best, treat patients.”
Bechtel, who lives in Wichita, Kansas, has been a senior regulatory adherence analyst for UnitedHealth Group for nearly three years. Before the pandemic, United, which is based in Minnesota, offered several remote positions, and that attracted her to seek employment with the organization. Another benefit her employer offers is a matching gift program.
“If your employer offers a company match, use it,” she recommended. “It has been an awesome feeling to see United’s company match kick in and see a place that I love so much get two times the benefit: my own money and the employer match. Also, Cheryl McCrary [assistant director of donor relations] has been great to work with, and once I focused on an area specifically that I wanted my money to go to, she set everything up. It is so important to me that my money is going to first-generation students. If it makes their lives easier in any way, then that makes me happy. A lot of people took a chance on me, and I want to give back.”
Written by Steve Rottinghaus, ’14 MSM