High school and college sweethearts Mike Butera ’11 and Stefanie Kavanagh ’11 find personal and professional success in Washington, D.C.
A lot of people make connections in college that last a lifetime, but for Mike Butera ’11, a Foreign Affairs Officer with the U.S. Department of State, and Stefanie Kavanagh ’11, an associate in the Federal and International Tax Group at Alston & Bird LLP, their partnership began long before that.
“Mike and I started dating in high school, and we both decided to attend Westminster,” Stefanie says.
For both Mike and Stefanie, it was their first time out on their own. And even though they went away to school together, college was a big change.
“Westminster was the first time both of us had the independence of not living at home,” Mike says, “and we both had a lot of adjusting to do.”
Mike and Stefanie were eager to get involved on campus, and they found themselves in many of the same activities. Leadership positions often overlapped as well. In fact, Stefanie served as treasurer of the Student Government Association while Mike served as executive president.
“It certainly made for an interesting dynamic at SGA Executive Council meetings,” Mike says, “but we were both professional enough to be unbiased and not let our relationship affect how we made decisions.”
Even with so many shared activities at Westminster, Mike and Stefanie found the freedom to explore their own paths. As Mike’s study turned him toward a career in diplomacy, Stefanie’s focus helped prepare her for a career in law.
“The rigor of Dr. John’s political science classes and Dr. Bhandari’s economics classes helped prepare me for law school, which in turn helped prepare me for my current job,” Stefanie says.
For Mike, it was classes on the Vietnam War and the History of America Foreign Policy, taught by Dr. Richard Lael, that showed him the importance of understanding other worldviews in regard to diplomacy.
“I would say that my time at Westminster gave me the opportunity to develop a valuable set of skills that I’ll use for the rest of my professional career and life,” Mike says.
Two roads diverged
After four years together at Westminster, Mike and Stefanie came to a fork in the road. Both excelled as undergrads and had to decide what would come next. For Stefanie, the next step was Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, where she earned her J.D. For Mike, it was Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., where he earned an M.A. in Security Studies.
“It was incredibly tough to make it work, and I would never recommend doing that lengthy of a long-distance relationship to anyone,” Mike says of their three years apart. “However, we both had the chance to become our own independent people and to figure out what we wanted from life. It made us much stronger as a couple.”
After law school, Stefanie joined Mike in Washington, where she attended Georgetown University Law Center and earned her LL.M in Taxation. It was through an on-campus recruiting program at Georgetown that she was hired for her current position as an associate at Alston & Bird.
“I find it both exciting and fulfilling to assist clients with interesting tax questions,” Stefanie says of her work. “I was in law school for four years following my graduation from Westminster, so it’s been great to finally put all of that education to use solving real-world problems.”
That passion for solving problems is an interest she shares with Mike. Less than a year after graduating from Georgetown, he was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) at the U.S. Department of State. Through the PMF program, a training and development program so prestigious that only 5 percent of candidates are selected as finalists, he found his current position as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN/MNSA) at the U.S. Department of State. There he works to develop the U.S.’s nuclear weapons disarmament and nonproliferation policy and participates in U.S. delegations to multilateral forums at organizations such as the U.N., EU, NATO and the G7.
“The most fulfilling thing about my job is that I’m in a position to make a real contribution towards achieving a world without nuclear weapons and to protect the world from the danger of nuclear weapons spreading to other countries and from getting in the hands of terrorists,” Mike says. “Admittedly, I currently play a very small role, but I still take pride that my efforts can contribute towards making the world more safe and secure.”
A bright future
Mike and Stefanie were married in 2014 and are now living in Washington, D.C. After more than a decade together, they’ve seen each other through ups and downs, and both have appreciated watching the other grow into the person they are today.
“I’ve enjoyed seeing Stefanie come into her own as a strong, intelligent woman and begin her career in the legal field,” Mike says. “She has a very bright future, and I’m excited to see where this life takes us.”
For Stefanie, the feeling is mutual.
“Since college Mike has continued to be hardworking and passionate about his field,” Stefanie says. “We’ve both witnessed the hard work that has gone into laying the foundation for both of our careers, and I am very proud of Mike for everything that he’s accomplished.”