November 06, 2009 | Myrna Anderson

Everyone is an ambassador for Calvin, says new enrollment VP Russ Bloem.

He points himself out as “the big, white guy in the middle,” surrounded by staff members from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Greece, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore,  Indonesia and South Africa. Back when the photo was taken, Russell Bloem ’75 headed the regional office for southeast Asia for Bristol-Myers Squibb.

"We made a conscious effort to develop the talent in the company and the leadership until, at one time, every person on that team had a different country of origin,” he said. “It was a lesson to me, looking at individuals not based on the package they came in, but the skills they had to do the work.”

That lesson in diversity was one of several Bloem learned through a 30-year career in the pharmaceutical industry, and he has brought that accumulated wisdom to his second career as Calvin’s new vice president for enrollment management. “I can … talk to a wide range of people from different cultures and different backgrounds that are becoming increasingly important to Calvin,” he said.

Picking out the produce

While Bloem’s career background is diverse and international, he began life in the stolidly Dutch ethnic enclave of Cutlerville, Mich. “It was a little more rural than now,” he confessed. Bloem worked hard at his paper routes and, beginning in high school, at a produce company. “You really have a feel for the seasons when you work in the place like that,” he said. “You have the peach season and the apple season, and you get to know what are the early apples … and before you know it you’re putting out the stuff for spring. My wife still asks me to pick out all the produce, ’cause I can pick it.”

As a pre-med student at Calvin, Bloem majored in biology and chemistry, lived at home and continued working in produce. He has good memories of interims he took in anthropology and history.  “Calvin was good. I appreciated it,” he said, “but I think it’s that much richer now in so many ways.”

Bloem graduated from Calvin in 1975, and his interest in medicinal chemistry—how medicines react in the human body—led him to graduate school at the University of Michigan. He earned a master’s in that field in 1977, then spent five years earning a master’s of business from U of M while working in pharmaceutical research at Warner-Lambert/ Parke-Davis. In 1983, Bloem moved to the business side of the drug business at Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb.)

Drugs in the early days of AIDS

Over the next 10 years, under several titles and in a range of locales, he directed branding and marketing efforts for cancer, anti-cholesterol, anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. In 1990, Bloem was tapped to start up the first HIV/AIDS unit in an American pharmaceutical company. “Our company had been very much a pioneer in drugs for cancer, and HIV disease we saw an analogous to that,” he said.

It was the early era of AIDS research and advocacy, when there was a stigma attached to the disease and the culture surrounding it.  “That was time of real personal development,” Bloem said. “I was interacting with a wider diversity of people than I had interacted with before.” One particularly vivid memory is a meeting at a gay and lesbian community center in Greenwich Village: “When I looked around the audience—this wasn’t Cutlerville anymore.”

Bloem gradually developed the working thesis that his opinions about how people contracted AIDS were irrelevant. What was important was that people were dying from the disease. “A federal bureaucrat, an AIDS activist and pharmaceutical business executive are very different people with very different objectives,” he said, “but one thing we had in common was getting the medications to the people as quickly as possible.” The unit Bloem created back then currently yields more than a billion dollars in sales annually.

Anywhere but Asia ...

For years, Bloem and his wife Jacqueline had pondered a possible move overseas, preferably somewhere in Western Europe. In 1994, Bloem was asked to be Bristol-Myers Squibb’s director of operations in Tokyo, Japan. He called his wife and asked what she thought about moving outside of the country. “Anywhere but Asia,” she answered.

Despite these early reservations, the Bloems enjoyed the time they lived in Tokyo, Manila, Singapore and Tokyo again over a span of 13 years. During the Singapore sojourn, the family’s three sons all attended Calvin, majoring, variously, in electrical engineering and economics, European history and English, and business communications and Asian Studies. The Bloem sons also enjoyed off-campus interims and semesters abroad. “Their student experience was quite different than the one I had, and I had a vicarious experience through them,” the father confided. “I feel that I can talk confidently about all the different areas Calvin offers because I see how well-prepared they were.”

After a final stint back in Princeton, N.J. Bloem retired from Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2009 and began casting around for a second career. “I didn’t want to just retire and play golf,” he said. Bloem’s daughter was middle school age, and the couple wanted her to spend her four years of high school in one location.

New calling

A friend who worked at Calvin told Bloem about an opening in enrollment management, which oversees the departments of admissions and financial aid and pre-college programs. “As I read the job description for this position, it seemed to be a pretty good fit,” he said. As Bloem navigated the interview process, it seemed like even more. “By the end of the process, I felt like I’d been called to this place at this point in life,” he said, "and that I’d even been prepared by the experiences I’d had.”

Bloem begins his new career as Calvin enters its second year of dipping enrollment. “For me, there’s a big learning curve around enrollment management,” he admitted, “but there’s a great, experienced team working with me.”

That staff is already appreciating Bloem’s approach: “I feel that Russ is a gentle giant who is learning the landscape of higher education while reshaping it,” said Rhae-Ann Booker, Calvin’s director of pre-college programs. “He demonstrates that he values the expertise of the team and the many benefits of working as a team.”

Bloem believes that key to recruiting new students to Calvin is the recruitment of wider Calvin community to the effort: “It’s not just this group doing everything it can and pedaling as fast as it can,” Bloem said of the admissions department. He proposes to make every friend of Calvin into a fisher of students. “If we can motivate people, if we can encourage people to think about those two or three kids in their church, and say, ‘Hey, have you considered Calvin?’ we’ll make it,” he said. “If we have that many ambassadors out there looking and encouraging, we can do it.”

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