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Stephen Nikander Continues Family Legacy

August 1, 2018

Decades of experience in finance and more than a century of family heritage to be assets to Finlandia

There was a buzz around campus in the summer of 2017 when one day, seemingly out of the blue, a person with a familiar name walked into North Wind Books. The staff at the bookstore couldn’t help but ask all kinds of questions. That’s when they discovered that Stephen Nikander is the great grandson of Juho K. (J.K.) Nikander, the first president of Finlandia University, and grandson of Viljo K. (V.K.) Nikander, the fourth president of the university. Stephen was visiting the Copper Country for the first time.

“I was still a kid when my grandparents passed away in the 1970s, but my parents had told me stories,” Stephen said. “My parents had nice things to say about the school and the area, and I wanted to reconnect. My first experience was wonderful.”

It didn’t take long for the first experience to lead to much more. Since that visit, he’s been in the Keweenaw twice coming for the January and April meetings of the Finlandia University Board of Trustees, a group he’s now a part of.

“My family is proud of my involvement with the school,” he said. “They’re glad someone is rekindling that. Especially my mother, she’s as proud as anyone. She thought my grandfather was such a wonderful man.”

The entire family, including his father who was a commencement speaker at FinnU in the 1970s, had the chance to meet with President Philip Johnson last fall. In less than a year, Finlandia has gone from a distant and enchanting family memory, to a central focus for Nikander. He wasn’t looking to get involved only to check a box or reminisce about his family’s heritage. Instead, he’s looking to bring some unique perspective to the board.

Nikander attended Drake University in Iowa for Actuarial Science and, after playing a little bit of semi-professional baseball, moved to Los Angeles where he started as an investment accountant and eventually earned the designation of chartered financial analyst.

“I understand that collegiate finances are different than many industries, but I believe I can use my financial background to see how we can adjust and optimize the school’s financial challenges,” he said. “To me, higher education is like healthcare in many ways in that costs in both industries keep rising at rates above the normalized rate of inflation, and I’m interested to see what the dynamics are that cause that. So far, I’ve enjoyed learning about it and am happy to bring a fresh perspective.”

Ultimately, his goal is to be part of a stabilizing force for the university’s finances.

“The school doesn’t have as big of an endowment as other schools do, and there’s historical reasons why,” he said. “I’d like to change that if at all possible and help produce something that the school can rely on moving forward.”

While board governance will be exciting for Nikander, it hasn’t stopped him from enjoying his family history.

“When I arrived for my January board meeting, one of the trustees gave me a book of letters my great grandfather had written to people back in Finland,” he said. “It was an enlightening experience. The words in those letters most people in my family had never heard him say. To read his perspective on coming to this country, you put yourself in that time period. It is interesting how things started from something so small to what Finlandia is today.”

This article was featured in the Spring 2018 edition of the Bridge. You can see the full version of that publication by visiting finlandia.edu/thebridge. To subscribe to the Bridge e-mail alumni@finlandia.edu.

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