2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Honorees


Achievement Award

Presented to graduates who have achieved high rank or honor in their professions, have a widespread effect on their communities, and are recognized for their achievements over the course of their careers.

David Backes '14

B.S. Organizational Applied Studies, Non-Profit Leadership

David Backes is a former professional ice hockey player with 15 years of NHL experience.  After debuting in the NHL in 2006 with the St. Louis Blues, David stayed in St. Louis for the next 10 seasons.  He continued to play for the Boston Bruins and finished his career with the Anaheim Ducks.  Backes represented the United States in 2 Olympic Games (2010 Vancouver – Silver Medal, 2014 Sochi), 3 World Championships (2007, 2008, 2009), and a World Cup of Hockey (2016). 

A Blaine native, David starred at Spring Lake Park High School as a 3-sport athlete.  He moved on to the Lincoln Stars of the USHL and was selected in the 2nd round of the NHL draft by the St. Louis Blues in 2003.  Backes came to MNSU from 2003-2006 where he studied Electrical Engineering and was named captain for his junior season before heading to St. Louis.  While in St. Louis, David returned to his studies and graduated in 2014 with an Applied Organization Studies Bachelor’s Degree and a non-profit leadership certificate.  David and his wife, Kelly, founded Athletes for Animals, a non-profit group in 2013.  Athletes for Animals is an animal welfare organization that leverages professional athletes’ platforms to benefit the lives of animals in need.  Through their efforts, the organization has been able to award over $1,000,000 in grant funding to animal advocacy groups across North America.  David and Kelly are proud parents of their two children, Stella (7) and Dawson (5), and share their home with their rescue dogs Maverick and Kona.


Harold J. Fitterer Service Award

Presented to graduates whose lives exemplify service to humankind. They have demonstrated exceptional dedication and are recognized for their humanitarian contributions and achievements.

Aaron Holm '90

B.S. Public Relations

Founder and Executive Director of Wiggle Your Toes has spent the past 15 years in both business development and management in the Information Technology and Engineering staffing, consulting, and outsourcing industry. As the result of an accident in January of 2007, Aaron lost both of his legs above the knee. Aaron’s quick and successful recovery efforts are the premise of the Wiggle Your Toes organization. In May 2008, Aaron founded Wiggle Your Toes with a mission to help other amputees regain independence and mobility. Aaron has given back to the amputee community through Wiggle Your Toes and by lobbying on capitol hill for the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA) parity act. 
Aaron resides in the Twin Cities with his wife Amanda and their three children. 


Outstanding Young Alumni Award

Presented to recent graduates who have reached personal and/or professional achievements early in their careers, have positively impacted their communities and show promise for continued success.

Nelsie Yang '17

B.S. Social Work

Nelsie Yang serves as the elected Councilmember for the City of Saint Paul’s 6th Ward. Elected at 26 and a daughter of Hmong refugees, she is the youngest and first Hmong American woman to be elected to St Paul’s City Council. Nelsie has a background in social work and social justice activism. As a council member, Nelsie leads alongside individuals, labor unions, and organizations. She is working to unite our society across race, class, and gender.