Harper College

2022 Distinguished Alumni Awards



Jim Idstein photo

Jim Idstein, CPA, MBA

In 2021, Jim Idstein of Elk Grove Village co-chaired the Party for a Cure for Childhood Leukemia Warrior Foundation charity event. Despite dozens of COVID-related no-shows and a 110-degree heat index, the event still drew 325 people and raised $42,000. It was his seventh independent fundraiser in this format.
The success of the event is no wonder, given Idstein’s commitment to fundraising over the last 13 years. In total, he has helped raise over $3 million for organizations including the American Diabetes Association, March of Dimes, various cancer groups and Habitat for Humanity.

Idstein’s record of serving his community both professionally and personally is impressive. He’s been an active member of the Schaumburg Business Association for over two decades, earning both the organization’s Ambassador of the Year and Volunteer of the Year, and has served on the village of Schaumburg’s Business Development Commission and Northwest Suburban Chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants board of directors. He was also named the Daily Herald Business Ledger CFO of the year in 2012.

His long journey began at Harper, the best place for him to start and figure out what career path to take. He recalls how a Harper counselor had him take an aptitude test. “It showed I was strong in farming and accounting,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a farmer.”

Idstein took an accounting class, which he loved, and graduated from Harper in 1973. He then earned his accounting degree from Northern Illinois University and MBA from DePaul University.

Idstein went on to work at Kayhan International Limited, a furniture dealership that supplied companies like Motorola, and served as its chief financial officer for 22 years. In 2019, he decided to start his own consulting business for small firms; today, he runs James Idstein Consulting LLC. By working for himself, Idstein can focus on his fundraising committees and stay active in the community. There are so many groups that need help, and the fulfillment he feels from fundraising can’t be beat.

“Every time I do (a fundraiser), a month before, I’m saying, ‘This is my last one,’” he says. “Then a month or two afterwards, I’m so proud of what we accomplished, I am ready to go again.”

He says it all started with Harper – with the excellent advice he received from the counselor and the discipline he learned being a student athlete on the track team.

“At Harper, you had to make your own structure,” he says.


Michael Patrick McGowan photo

Michael Patrick McGowan

For nearly four decades, Michael Patrick McGowan has been climbing the ladder at Foster Electric Company (USA), which produces speakers, headphones and related audio products. He started as an entry-level sales associate in 1984. Since 2020, he’s served as president of Foster’s North American headquarters in Schaumburg.

McGowan, of Elk Grove Village, earned two associate degrees from Harper College – one in arts, one in science – in 1980, which he says was a stepping-off point to help put him on his career path.

McGowan came to Harper for its value, he says. As a student, he had the flexibility to work part-time in the produce department at the then-Eagle Food Centers, which helped McGowan with tuition. But what he remembers most fondly about Harper today is the relationships he built there. Harper was close to home – McGowan is an Elk Grove High School grad – and he could keep in touch with his existing friends while making new connections in college.

McGowan also attended Northern Illinois University for his bachelor’s degree in economics. Then, he returned to Harper for Community Education classes, taking everything from first aid and real estate to intramural sports.
McGowan’s position has taken him throughout the States, Europe, South America and Asia – Foster’s parent company is based in Tokyo. The frequent flyer has conducted business in over 30 countries, leveraging what he’s learned from various cultures and economies to help strengthen the company.

“Since Michael’s role as president, he has made an undeniable impact in leading the initiative of their USA-based manufacturing plant, creating countless new American jobs,” McGowan’s wife, Nancy McGowan, said. “Michael has created a focus on overall employee engagement, including a dedication to promoting and encouraging work-life balance.”

McGowan says he’s thankful his family is so understanding about his travel absences, but he also is thankful to Harper for helping teach him how to better manage his time and prioritize a school/work balance.

“(Community) college was the first time I had to schedule my day and times at work and school,” he says. “Prior to that, (my schedule) was decided for me."


Joseph Plazak photo

Joe Plazak, PhD

Your favorite movie soundtracks could very well be using Sibelius, the world’s leading music notation program, for which Joe Plazak is a developer, designer and the product owner.

Plazak works for Avid Technology in Montreal, Canada, serving as the voice of the Sibelius team, implementing what customers want and deciding how the team will build those features.

Plazak’s path to Sibelius has been shaped by his time as an artist, teacher, scientist, engineer and visionary – all within the domain of music. And it began at Harper College, where he learned skills from how to read music to how to be a leader. He credits Steve Suvada, an adjunct music faculty member, for teaching what Plazak calls the formalities so he could be successful in college and beyond.

“As soon as I got on campus, I couldn’t get enough,” says Plazak, who attended St. Edward Central Catholic High School in Elgin. “It was clear to me that this was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.”

Plazak also served as Harper’s student trustee, a role that taught him how leaders need to listen before they judge. The lesson helps him today as he leads a team of software developers.

After graduating from Harper in 2005 with his associate degree in fine arts, Plazak went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and music from Elmhurst University, then a master’s and doctorate in music theory and cognition from Ohio State University. He promptly landed his tenure-track dream job as a professor and music theorist at Illinois Wesleyan University, studying music as a way to modify the way people feel, for the better. People can see something that triggers a song or hear a song that triggers a memory.

 “The brain uses music as a catalyst for binding memories together,” he says.

Plazak left his academic position in 2017 when he fell in love with a French-Canadian who worked in Canada. When he couldn’t find a job in music theory, he went back to school to study computer science from Concordia University in Montreal.
Plazak then found his job with Avid, which combines music with computer science.

“I used to teach students to read and write music notation, something I couldn’t even do when I showed up at Harper. Now I teach computers how to read and write music notation,” he says. “I never, ever would have come this far without Harper. Harper really gave me all the tools and knowledge I needed to find the next step."


Leslie AW Van Wolvelear photo

Leslie Van Wolvelear, EdD, CPA, CGMA

Leslie Van Wolvelear’s resume is brimming with degrees, certificates, awards, volunteerism and honors. But the bullet point that she’s most proud of, the item she points to immediately, is her membership on two scholarship committees.

Van Wolvelear, of Palatine, reviews scholarship applications for future certified public accountants, or CPAs, for the Colorado-based Teachers of Accounting at Two Year Colleges, the Illinois CPA Society and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, where she teaches accounting and chairs the program.

“It’s always very interesting reading their submissions,” she says. “I love being a part of that.”

She also loves telling her current students that scholarships even exist. Many don’t think they could meet the requirements – but many don’t even know the requirements, and she likes pointing them in the right direction.

That’s in large part because Van Wolvelear is a community college graduate herself. After high school, she attended Harper College for all the expected reasons students choose community colleges: She needed the guidance, and the price tag, she knew she’d find at Harper.
She went on to earn her degree in business administration in 1983, then transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago for her bachelor’s degree in accounting. In 2021, Van Wolvelear earned her doctorate in educational leadership with a focus on online education.

Her many recognitions include the title of Distinguished eLearning Educator by the Instructional Technology Council, Outstanding Educator Award by the Illinois CPA Society and nominations for the Excellence in Teaching Award at Oakton.

“I am a big believer in the community college model,” says Van Wolvelear, who also adjunct taught at Harper from 2000 to 2005. “A lot of students are not ready to go away right away. They just need a little more guidance than the four years are going to give.”
Her colleagues see her dedication to two-year colleges, too.

“She understands the mission of a community college, and she shows it in every possible way,” says Jay Cohen, who co-chaired Oakton’s accounting department with Van Wolvelear from 2018 to 2022.

And she thanks Harper for getting it all started – for teaching her the importance of time management and being her own advocate.

“If Harper didn’t exist, I don’t know how I would have afforded college, how I would have navigated college, how I would have gotten to college,” she says. “It taught me very quickly that I have to advocate for myself, which was a great life skill.



Isaac Jean-Paul photo

Isaac Jean-Paul

As head sprint coach for San Diego State University’s Adaptive Sports Program, Isaac Jean-Paul is bringing some impressive real-world athletic experience to his role. After all, he set a new world record in the high jump at the 2017 World Paralympic Championships.

He also won a bronze medal in the long jump at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games and is training for the 2024 Summer Olympics, which would make him among just a handful of athletes to ever compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics. Jean-Paul is also a published author and an accomplished motivational speaker.

The reason it’s been possible, the umbrella over his successes, he says, is Harper College.
Jean-Paul ran track in high school but struggled with grades. He looked to Harper as a place where he could compete while improving his GPA.

“It was amazing,” he says. “Words can’t even describe how impactful Harper was in my life.”

Jean-Paul holds a bachelor’s degree from Lewis University in Romeoville, where he was a national high jump champion in 2015. But first, he earned his associate degree from Harper. He was president of Harper’s Black Student Union and organized events such as a Kwanza celebration and a reunion for clubs of the former Multicultural Center. He also participated in a club that discussed Black issues in America.

Those experiences – and the mentorship he received from the club’s advisors, Dr. Travaris Harris and DuBoi McCarty – moved Jean-Paul to write a book about changing the narrative of social justice. “The Guardians of Orisha: The Hidden Stones” is the first in Jean-Paul’s fantasy series, which blends African ancestry and mythology with a superhero story.

Jean-Paul, who has a visual impairment called juvenile retinoschisis, also ran track at Harper, setting school records in the high jump and long jump. He worked with then-track coach Renee Zellner, who taught Jean-Paul how to compete with his disability. She helped him understand how he could jump, even though he couldn’t see where he was going. To no one’s surprise, Jean-Paul placed at the NJCAA National Championship.

He's quick to point out how Harper broadened his horizons.

“It brought me out of my shell to be a well-rounded person, not (only) an athlete,” he says. “I owe that to Harper.”

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Last Updated: 12/14/23