Opening Doors: Alums Reach Back to Help Promising Grads

Peter Hills graduated from Bemidji State University in 2017 with a double major in business administration and accounting, and aspirations of becoming a public accountant. His goal: joining a mid-size company within a day’s drive from his hometown of Grafton, N.D.

Hills wasn’t intent on starting out with a large, prestigious firm. But two successful BSU alums had already blazed that trail and wanted to help pave the way for others like them.

David Odegaard ‘66, a retired partner at Deloitte, a global giant in financial consulting, and Xihao Hu ‘97, an executive vice president at TD Bank, one of North America’s largest banks, believe in paying it forward. 

But that gets ahead of this story, which began with the generosity of others more than five decades ago. Odegaard was the first beneficiary.

A standout athlete, he came from a small-town farm family and attended Bemidji State on an athletic scholarship. He played football and basketball and graduated with a degree in accounting and economics. He never met the people who contributed to his scholarship but has been forever grateful.

Midway through his highly successful career, Odegaard funded several BSU scholarships, including one in accounting,  so he could help others find a foothold to begin their careers. In 1996, Hu, an accounting student and native of Shanghai, China, received one of those scholarships. Odegaard, who spent most of his career with Deloitte in Seattle, happened to be based in Minneapolis at the time.

“One day, I got this letter from this young Chinese student,” he recalled. “He had received a scholarship, and he wanted to meet me. I got his transcript and there wasn’t a B on it. And his CPA score was the highest in the state. Everyone could see his potential.”

While Hu earned a position with Deloitte on his own merits, Odegaard helped him make a successful transition by introducing him to colleagues. Odegaard and his wife, Brenda, also hosted Hu and his parents for dinner at their Minneapolis home shortly after he joined Deloitte.

Hu well remembers that dinner — and the unlikely journey that brought him to the table.

An only child from a family of modest means, he came to Minnesota in 1994 after reading a newspaper advertisement about Bemidji State. Tuition seemed affordable, so Hu decided to come in pursuit of a quality American education.

“I did not realize how small Bemidji was compared to Shanghai,” said Hu, who recalls reluctantly boarding a a small turboprop in Minneapolis. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and winter came a lot sooner than I expected.”

At the time, Hu’s English was “passable” but such courses as philosophy, creative writing and Dr. Art Lee’s history courses were challenging.

“I read a lot of books for his classes: ‘Catch 22,’ ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and Dr. Lee’s ‘The Lutefisk Ghetto’,” he said, “all great books that gave me a lot of perspective.”

What especially impressed Odegaard was how well Hu did in spite of the language barrier.

And he continued to excel. In 2000, Hu transferred to Deloitte’s Chicago office and in 2007 he became a partner in Washington, D.C., with the firm’s financial accounting and reporter services, all by the age of 33.

Hu joined TD Bank Group (formerly Toronto-Dominion) in 2010 as senior vice president and chief accountant in Toronto, a position he held until he was transferred to the bank’s U.S. subsidiary in 2015. He was honored in 2012 with the BSU Young Alumni Award.

In 2016, he returned to Bemidji for Homecoming and participated in an Alumni Leaders in the Classroom session, which is where Hills entered the unfolding story.

Hills met Hu in a small-group session that followed the leadership panel and expressed his interest in an internship. Hu forwarded his name
for an interview at TD Bank.

“I just let the process play out, but afterward, I heard Peter was the best in the interview,” Hu said. “His grades speak for themselves, but more important than grades is how he carries himself.”

Hills completed an internship with TD Bank last summer, and with the endorsement of the bank’s U.S. chief financial officer, he started in October as a financial analyst at the U.S. headquarters in Cherry Hills, N.J., just outside Philadelphia.

“Had I not met Xihao, I never would have looked at TD Bank,” Hills said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but it has opened my eyes. It makes me feel like the sky is the limit.”

Although Hu has sentimental ties to Bemidji State, that’s not the only reason he was interested in BSU graduates.

“Bemidji has a very rigorous program in accounting,” he said. “I want those kids to have every opportunity to compete at the big firms.”

Hu, who happens to work out of the same building as Hills, is pleased to be joined by a new BSU graduate.

“I like to keep the bank here with good talent,” he said.

Hills never imagined a career so far from home but is happy that Hu gave him a chance.

“At TD, the learning potential is unlimited, pretty much all thanks to Xihao,” he said. “He took me and my boss to lunch when I got to TD and gave me a tour of the executive floor. I am grateful that he can take the time to make me feel important, even with his crazy, busy schedule.”

Although Hills has never met Odegaard, he shares in the spirit that his fellow alum set in motion — of helping future graduates make successful starts to their careers.

And he hopes to pay it forward himself.

“I see how important networking is and how connections can really get you far when you’re just starting out,” Hills said. “I want to give back all that’s been given to me.”

Odegaard would like to see this tale of kindness and connections at Bemidji State continue to come full circle.

“You give someone a hand and they turn around and give someone else a hand,” he said. “It’s the way it should be.”

Written by Cindy Serratore