Malaysian alumnus returns to SDSU to rekindle friendship bonds

Vanessa Marcano

Vanessa Marcano

Stephen Joseph is a globe-trotting civil engineer whose life jumps between projects in Singapore, residence in Australia and the occasional visit to his native Malaysia.

Despite his demanding lifestyle, he always keeps one particular SDSU memory in his heart: the nurturing friendship of Mrs. Alvina Knutson, which has survived through more than 20 years and thousands of miles.

In 1985 at the age of 22, Joseph made his first trek overseas to land in the Midwestern town many Jackrabbits have learned to call their home away from home.

Between classes, work and taekwondo practices on and off campus, Joseph met Knutson, a woman who greatly impacted the nature of his stay at SDSU.

Knutson, then in her 60s, and Joseph first met because they both worked at dining services in The Union.

But it wasn’t until one day that Joseph, in typical college-student fashion, came up a bit short of cash at lunchtime that Knutson came to his aid, sparking their friendship.

“I went to The Union to get some food, but when I went to pay, I didn’t have any money. Mrs. Knutson paid for me and I paid her back the next day,” said Joseph. “That’s when we started talking more.”

“She used to do that for students. If they came through and were short on change, she’d say, ‘No problem, I’ll take care of it for you, and you can pay me back if you want to.’ Almost everyone always did,” said Joanne Kruse, Knutson’s daughter.

“She’s an amazing lady. Being her friend while I was studying here made life easier, more enjoyable,” Joseph said, adding that after graduating in 1988, he promised Knutson to keep in touch through letters. “That’s how the correspondence and the friendship started and endured.”

Kruse said her mother loves to take young people under her wing, transferring all her “mothering” to the students after her own daughters were grown up.

“That’s why she loved working here so much,” she said.

Through the years, Joseph became very important to Knutson, like the son she never had, said Kruse.

“She just became so attached to Stephen,” Kruse said. “It was like her son away from home – she looked forward so much to his letters.”

For over two decades, Joseph and Knutson have been corresponding with each other, sharing marriages, births and other life events through the distance. And with the help of technology, the communication simply became better: from letters to phone calls and later on, e-mails.

“Mom has kept all of Stephen’s letters, and when I signed my e-mails, I put ‘Love, Jo, your South Dakota sister,'” Kruse said.

It wasn’t until 2009 when Joseph returned to the United States to see, after 21 years, his former S.D. family.

A few months before, Joseph and Kruse had been e-mailing back and forth to set up the surprise visit to Knutson.

“He sent her a card for her birthday, saying he’d be coming. She was reading and it just wasn’t registering. I told her to keep reading, because I knew it was coming … I said, ‘Stephen is coming for a visit, mom’,” Kruse said. “When she finally saw him this time, she kept saying over and over, ‘I still can’t believe you’re here’. She was really excited.”

Joseph said that the main reason for him to come back to the U.S. was to see Mrs. Knutson.

“We’ve been involved in his life, even from a distance. When he got married we sent a Harvey Dunn print to him and his wife; we wanted to send them something original from here,” said Kruse.

One of Joseph’s sons is considering his options for engineering school and SDSU is certainly on the list. “If his son comes here for school, it would be very exciting – he’s got a ready-made family here,” said Kruse.

Joseph believes making lifelong friendships is important. He advises international students to make an effort to get to know more people. “I know many of them stick together, but we came here for a new experience, so if you stick to yourself, you don’t get that experience,” he said. “I was lucky enough to know Mrs. Knutson. If I hadn’t met her, I would’ve cut ties with Brookings and it would have just been another place.”

#1.881368:2775633773.jpg:DSC_2644.1.jpg:After 21 years without seeing each other, Stephen Joseph and Alvina Knutson’s daughter, Joanne Kruse, reunite to celebrate friendship.:Vanessa Marcano