Mike and Tracy Roberge. (Micah Friez / Bemidji State)
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By Micah Friez

Published at 1:19 p.m. on May 10, 2024

High up in a Boston skyscraper, MFS Investment Services manages its $625 billion portfolio with experts educated by Harvard, MIT, Stanford and more.

And they all work for CEO Mike Roberge – a 1990 Bemidji State University alumnus.

“Who knew MFS, this old Boston firm, could be led by a graduate of Bemidji State,” Roberge said in his Commencement address on Friday, May 3. “I have never felt inferior. I have always been able to compete at a high level in my career. BSU has provided you the tools to be successful. Know that.”

Thirty-five floors up, Roberge sits with a vastly different view than the origin he had in southern Minnesota. He grew up working on the family farm, picking soybeans out of a field for $2 an hour, and manning the gas station his father owned. It certainly wasn’t glamorous, but it taught him how to work hard.

While paying his dues on the farm, Roberge aspired to become a first-generation college student. That dream led him to a degree, a fruitful career and now a new honor: the Distinguished Minnesotan award.

Distinguished Minnesotan Mike Roberge delivers a Commencement address on May 3, 2024, at the Sanford Center.

First presented in 1981, the Distinguished Minnesotan award acknowledges the contributions of current or former residents of the state who have performed exemplary service to the people of Minnesota or the United States. Roberge certainly fits the bill for his professional accomplishments, but that’s not necessarily how he measures good fortune.

“The question is how you define success,” he said. “Is success being the CEO of a company, or is the ultimate success having the ability to impact other people’s lives? I would argue it’s that, more than being a CEO.”

With the award and the chance to speak at Commencement, Roberge returned to a campus he quickly came to love during his undergrad. But he isn’t shy to admit it: He wouldn’t have been able to afford college if not for financial aid.

“I am a perfect example of someone if you invest in someone, people can succeed,” he said. “Giving back to people is not giving away money, it’s investing in people and allowing them to attain what they can attain.”

The nexus of philanthropy

The Roberges believe in supporting students through scholarships because they know it works.

“BSU is worth investing in because it was a huge part of his life,” said Tracy Roberge, Mike’s wife of nearly 30 years. “He wouldn’t be where he is today without it. For me, supporting something that made my husband as wonderful as he is, that’s a no-brainer.”

Their support was personified through Salena Beasley and Corrina Kingbird-Lussier during a Distinguished Minnesotan reception the night before Commencement. The two recipients of the Michael and Tracy Roberge Scholarship shared the immeasurable difference it has made in their lives through tear-jerking and inspiring speeches.

“My confidence picked up immensely because I found out people were supporting me,” said Kingbird-Lussier, who graduated from Bemidji State in 2022 and is now in law school. “It wasn’t just me. I wasn’t alone in this. There were people who saw what I was doing and encouraged that.”

Corrina Kingbird-Lussier laughs in the middle of her speech during the Distinguished Minnesotan reception on Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Bemidji. (Micah Friez / Bemidji State)
Salena Beasley smiles in the middle of her speech during the Distinguished Minnesotan reception on Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Bemidji. (Micah Friez / Bemidji State)

“When I was notified that I was a recipient of the scholarship, I was grateful and relieved because of the financial pressure of finishing my final year,” said Beasley, who graduated on Friday, May 3. “(The Roberges’) generous donations have helped so many students reach their dreams.”

So moved by their stories – and similar testimonies throughout the night from other recipients – the Roberges announced a new $2 million gift to Bemidji State to fund scholarships and other needs.

“If you’re successful in life, I feel like you have an obligation to give back to others,” Mike said. “And the satisfaction you get out of that is way more than what you give. … For me, Bemidji contributed to the success of my career, and now I have the ability to give back to students who can’t afford to put themselves through school, which was me. This (philanthropy) is the nexus of those two things.”

And the gift is more than just a dollar figure. It’s the starting point of impacting real-life people like Beasley, like Kingbird-Lussier and like so many others in similar situations. Because financial support – and the belief behind it – can and does change lives.

“I stand before you as an Indigenous woman, as a single mother, as an exhausted law student who just finished finals,” Kingbird-Lussier said, “and I carry with me the gratitude for the people who have paved the way for me to be able to do this. They have made it as easy as this journey can be, because I don’t know if I could be here without that support. So, ‘miigwech.’”

Progress and perspective

Tracy Roberge looks on as her husband, Mike, delivers a speech during the Distinguished Minnesotan reception on Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Bemidji. (Micah Friez / Bemidji State)

Tracy, who’s making her third trip to Bemidji, loves the vicarious trip down memory lane. She appreciates seeing the joy it brings Mike, and she can also envision the progress since his days in the First City on the Mississippi.

Mike knows firsthand how things are different. Maple Hall and Sanford Hall are both gone, and other campus facilities have been upgraded. His old houses and typical hang-out spots around town have received updates and face-lifts. Many other elements of campus are the same, drumming up a kind of nostalgia that a BSU grad can’t find anywhere else, but the headway is evident.

Things look a little different these days for Mike, too.

“One of the things that’s satisfying coming back here is it gives me that perspective on what I’m doing now,” Mike said. “It reminds me of the path from here to there and (how I can) invest in the next generation of people like others did for me.”

Further evidence of the impact that scholarships make lies with Mike and Tracy’s daughters. Hannah is currently attending graduate school at the University of Boston, while Emily is pursuing her undergrad at Boston College. They have opportunities of their own, in part because of support their parents received before the kids were even born.

“It’s not just the impact a scholarship is making on that individual, but the whole family if you think about it,” Mike said. “It’s the success that the individual feels, but also the success that the family feels. Having the first person in their family go to school and graduate, it’s fantastic.”

Bemidji State propelled the Roberge family forward in many ways, and so did so many others behind the scenes. All it took was planting a seed back on the family farm, having the faith to water it and watching it grow.

“Mike grew up in a house with six kids trying to get to college. Life wasn’t easy,” Tracy said. “He worked really hard for what he has. I don’t think Michael’s ever forgotten where he’s come from, how hard he’s worked. … I feel like it’s made him who he is and made him passionate about working hard, giving back and trying to get the next generation to do the same.”

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