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Bo knows the world – and UND

Brandon Bochenski returned to North Dakota to raise a family and earn a degree; but at UND, he also found a manager for his successful mayoral campaign

Brandon Bochenski, the new mayor of Grand Forks, had a college and professional hockey career that took him all over the world. On this map in his home, he points to Barys Astana in Kazakhstan, where he played for eight years before he and his wife Jennifer returned to North Dakota to raise their family. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Part One of two-part series

By the time Grand Forks’ new mayor Brandon Bochenski ended his professional hockey career while playing in Kazakhstan, there was little question about where the former UND star and wife Jennifer would raise their family.

Hockey took Bochenski, a Blaine, Minn., native, all over the United States and around the world. However, the three years he spent playing at UND from 2001 to 2004 left an indelible impression on him.

“I met my wife at UND, and as I got done with my 15-year professional career, we wanted to go back to Grand Forks,” he said. “It definitely touched me on a lot of different levels.

“I felt like the community really got behind me when I played here, and I fell in love with the campus,” he continued. “It was the people who really drew me to this town and to the university – just really good people who look out for each other and want to take care each other.”

Launching a new career

In Ralph Engelstad Arena where he began his three-year college hockey career in 2001, Brandon Bochenski stands next to a poster featuring him and linemates Zach Parise and Brady Murray. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

After seven years in the National Hockey League (NHL) and American Hockey League (AHL), and another eight years playing for Barys Astana in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Bochenski planned to launch a business career in Grand Forks. He also wanted finish something he’d started 18 years ago. At the end of the 2019 fall semester at the age of 37, he earned his bachelor’s degree from UND’s Nistler College of Business & Public Administration.

Bochenski left UND in 2004 after his junior year to turn pro with the Ottawa Senators. The same year, Jennifer, who’s from Park River, N.D., graduated from the University with a teaching degree in elementary education and early childhood development.

“I wanted to get my degree because education has always been important to me,” Bochenski noted. “Nobody in my family got their four-year degree. It was something I started that I needed to finish. I also wanted to show my kids the importance of education.”

During his last semester, Bochenski attended upper-level economics classes with Michelle Nguyen, a senior from Eden Prairie, Minn., who’s a double major in business and political science with a minor in nonprofit administration.  He discovered that as a high school student, she’d worked on the campaign of a teacher who won a seat in the Minnesota Legislature. She was also elected a precinct chair, youth director and election judge for the Minnesota DFL party.

“I knew how hard of a worker she was by seeing her in class and how much she cared,” Bochenski recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m thinking about running for mayor. Would you be interested in being my campaign manager?”

Making the jump from high school volunteer to managing a campaign was a challenge Nguyen wasn’t sure she was ready for.

“He was my friend, so when he asked me to manage his campaign, I was like, ‘Yeah, sure,” she laughed.  “It was a while before I found out he was really serious, but I’m grateful for the opportunity. It was a very big achievement for us.”

Two educational success stories

The connection between Bochenski and Nguyen was more than their mutual interest in economics and politics. Both faced struggles with difficult childhoods, and neither would have gone to college without the help of scholarships.

“He’s walked through life the way that I’ve seen life,” said Nguyen, a first-generation college student and the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. “People were quick to judge him by saying, ‘Oh, he’s just a hockey player.’ He’s worked so hard, and for me, it’s the type of success story we should be looking for in education.”

The timing of their partnership proved fortuitous because of the coronavirus outbreak. Suddenly, the traditional method of campaigning door-to-door and face-to-face was out the window. Bochenski credits Nguyen’s knowledge of social media and communications with helping get his message to voters.

“I designed everything from logos to bumper stickers to billboards to YouTube videos,” she said. “All this came from a poli-sci and econ student who doesn’t have a strong graphic design background. Brandon and I had to figure things out as we went and learn together. It was an eye-opening experience because it looks easy, but it’s not.

“Social media was a big factor for us to reach out to voters,” Nguyen continued. “However, we also developed several strategic plans that looked like traditional campaigning.”

UND graduate Brandon Bochenski and senior Michelle Nguyen attended classes together at UND’s Nistler College of Business & Public Administration. She managed his successful mayoral campaign, and he completed the bachelor’s degree he started in 2001 as a star hockey player at the University. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

On June 9, Bochenski defeated 20-year incumbent Mike Brown, winning 18 of 19 Grand Forks precincts, collecting nearly 50 percent of the votes among the three mayoral candidates. Bochenski said Nguyen played an instrumental role in his successful campaign.

“She really took it took it seriously – took the bull by the horns and ran a great campaign,” he said. “She helped in getting the message across. When we realized we couldn’t go door-to-door, we ramped up the social media, and she was right on cue to do that.

“She did a lot of work,” Bochenski added. “I don’t know how she did it and still got straight A’s. It just shows her work ethic and how focused she is.”

Political lessons learned

Nguyen noted that using technology – such as Zoom, Facetime and texting – enabled the campaign to stay in contact with volunteers during the pandemic. She believes one of the most important lessons she learned from managing Bochenski’s campaign is that candidates need to consider different perspectives.

“If you surround yourself only with people who agree with everything you say, then you’re not challenging yourself whatsoever,” she explained. “The biggest misconception in politics is that you have to find friends who think exactly like you do. It’s more important to have strong critical thinkers. I hope in the next four years, people will work together and compromise to move Grand Forks forward.”

While Bochenski ran on a platform of revitalizing Grand Forks’ economy, he also plans to continue the ongoing collaborations between UND and the community by working with President Andy Armacost. He sees the pillar institutions – UND, Altru Hospital and the Grand Forks Air Force Base – as keys to the future.

“I want to bring back that family friendly environment where Grand Forks is a town you can afford to move to and afford to live in,” he said. “There isn’t an easy answer, but we can be a little more efficient as a city and make it easier for business to come here.”

Next week: In Part Two, Mayor Bochenski discusses his views on UND’s relationship with Grand Forks.