January 22, 2024
Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi claims that her knowledge of concepts like urbanism and ruralism help tremendously as she makes plans for the city. She wishes more mayors were geography majors, like herself, because she believes that would make them better mayors.
Kaufusi completed her degree in global studies from BYU’s Geography Department as a non-traditional student in 2016 — one year before becoming the first female mayor of Provo. Most of her college studies were completed directly after graduating high school, but as a senior she left to marry Steve Kaufusi who was already playing professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles.
The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences selected Kaufusi to receive its Alumni Achievement Award during Homecoming in October 2023. The award comes with a price, though — in addition to enjoying an awards lunch and many homecoming festivities, Kaufusi was asked to address students with a lecture on the experiences and expertise that helped her achieve success in her professional and personal life.
On October 19, Kaufusi’s lecture was titled “A Career and Life Superpower: Teambuilding.” Throughout her life, Kaufusi has seen how having a team makes all the difference — including from the many sports teams her husband and children have been on. She outlined seven points of effective teamwork and leadership as follows:
- Seek to connect with others by greeting and making eye contact when you pass people.
- If you want people on your team, get on theirs.
- When you have your own team, treat each person with respect.
- Trust your team members. If someone on your team mistreats another team member, address it.
- Teambuilding occasionally takes courage, which may include needing to take someone off your team. Be able to fire anyone who remains a cancer to your team after appropriate coaching and corrective action.
- Hold up a lofty vision for your team.
- Love and respect people the way God loves and respects people.
Kaufusi illustrated several of her teambuilding points with personal stories. She shared how she grew up in a single parent home with a mother who worked graveyard shifts as a nurse. “We were vulnerable before being vulnerable was cool,” Kaufusi said. She explained how she felt different from her peers, was an outlier, and struggled financially and sometimes socially.
Kaufusi praised the “team” of neighbors who watched out for her and helped direct her path in life. Church leaders invited her to participate in activities. Peers encouraged her to be involved in school. School counselors even helped her become eligible for a scholarship to BYU.
Long before running for mayor, Kaufusi was an important part of community teams. She spent many years in the PTA and served on the Provo School Board for seven years, including as president. Kaufusi's love for the students was manifest in her efforts to help them succeed.
Because of her own student experience, Kaufusi understood the challenges of underprivileged youth and has always felt a responsibility to look out for the underdog, the same way others looked out for her. When she heard of a program to offer ACT prep courses to students and what the cost would be, she decided to take the initiative a step further.
Kaufusi helped recruit parent volunteers to teach the courses, encouraged generous authors to donate textbooks, and more. Together, this team offered an ACT prep course, free of charge, for students to attend on weekends. But Kaufusi’s teambuilding efforts don’t stop there.
One day, Kaufusi learned that one of her closest friends — part of a precious personal team — had passed away in a plane crash, along with her husband and two of their children. It was a devastating blow to Kaufusi and the entire community. To honor her friend and her family, Kaufusi and her core team gathered to take action. By dividing responsibilities, they raised funds from volunteers and created a playground in the family’s name. That playground now sits at Rock Canyon Elementary School and is a beacon of hope and a display of charity amongst neighbors.
By having a lofty vision, a team of organizers, and an expanded community team willing to join their efforts, great things can happen.
Once elected as mayor, Kaufusi's tenacity for action was seen once more when she asked about the progress of a new terminal at the Provo City airport. The city hadn't started the project due to low funds and pushed the plans out 20 years. “Well, what will magically happen in 20 years that will allow the airport terminal to be made?” Kaufusi inquired.
With another “lofty vision” to inspire her team, they pressed forward on upgrading the airport and were able to complete the terminal ahead of schedule. Kaufusi, herself, made many trips to Washington to gather funds and support. The terminal has now been in use for over a year and took no money from taxpayers’ dollars to create.
Kaufusi shared another experience that helped her build trust within a team. At the beginning of her term as mayor, Kaufusi sought counsel on a major decision. As she shared the issue and potential actions with a room full of men, she noticed no one made suggestions or questioned her ideas.
To “burst the bubble of soft thinking,” she asked each of them, “If you were Mayor, what would you do?” One by one, she received feedback that hadn’t previously been voiced. “Hire people that are smarter than you, and don’t micromanage,” advised Kaufusi as she explained the importance of trust.
Kaufusi saved time to field some questions for the audience. When asked about how her knowledge as a geography alumna helps her as mayor, Kaufusi couldn’t stop smiling. “Believe it or not, every day, my mind comes back here,” she said.
Learn more life lessons from past Honored Alumni.