SJR Column: Alumni, April 2015

A recent study discussed in a previous column demonstrated that the overall economic impact of UIS on the local economy each year is an impressive $176.8 million. Though financial resources the campus spends locally on university operations and money students spend in the community account for sizeable portions of that number, the largest contribution to the local economy is generated by students who graduate and then remain in Sangamon County to pursue their careers.

The fact is, of the 34,496 living UIS alums, including those who graduated when the campus was known as Sangamon State, 10,813 live in Sangamon County. UIS is truly Springfield’s university!

The business community is one segment where the impact of UIS alums is particularly important to the local economy. During the past four decades, hundreds of UIS grads have established their own businesses here – employing others, providing services and creating value.  Julie Zara, a native of Harvey, Illinois, graduated from SSU in 1986 and is now co-owner of Zara’s Collision Center, an award-winning local business. Megan Henley Brown from Tovey, Illinois, graduated in 2002 and is owner and president of Trendsetters Design, a successful floral design business. Eric Robinson, whose hometown is Lincoln, Illinois, completed a master’s degree in 1991 and is a founding partner at Frontline Public Strategies, a national award-winning public relations firm. Stephanie Johnson from Edwardsville completed her UIS degree in 2003 and created Just Right Eating. Randall Witter, whose hometown is Rock Island, earned his master’s degree in 1974, co-founded and is now president of Cook-Witter, a well-respected Springfield lobbying firm.  Prominent business leaders and UIS alums also include: Sarah Phalen, President and CEO of Illinois National Bank; Micah Bartlett, President and CEO of Town and Country Bank; and Mark Donovan, Senior Vice President at Illinois National Bank.

The non-profit sector is another area where UIS alums are demonstrating their leadership while making our community a better place to live, work and grow. Nina Harris is a great example. A Springfield native, Nina completed both bachelors and masters degrees at UIS.  She now serves as President and CEO of the Springfield Urban League, one of the most successful community-based service organizations in the country. Alum Bill Furry, also a Springfield native, is Executive Director of the Illinois State Historical Society.  Kelly Thompson is a Glenwood native who graduated in 2002. She is Executive Director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Illinois and was named Non-profit Director of the Year in 2013 by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Victoria Ringer, also a two-time grad, is the Executive Director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., an organization that promotes Springfield’s historic central business district.  Gina DeCroix Russell is a 2002 UIS grad and is the Ballet Mistress of the Springfield Ballet Company. Julie Kellner, a 1986 graduate, is Executive Director of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois and Jennifer Gill, who earned her masters degree from UIS in 1997 is Superintendent of the Springfield Public Schools. UIS alum Neil Calderon is a local educator and leader. He teaches Social Studies at Springfield’s Southeast High School.

It is often said that you can’t walk around a corner in the halls of state government without running into a UIS alum and I can verify from my own experience that it’s true! UIS alums have been working at every level of state government since the campus was founded in the 70s as Illinois’s “public affairs university.” On any given day, about 300 UIS students are working in state government as interns, often the first step to a career in public service. Tyler Scherer was one of those interns and is now a Budget Analyst for the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. UIS alum Samantha Gaddy is a Senior Policy Advisor for Governor Rauner and grad Sara Wojcicki-Jimenez serves as Chief of Staff for First Lady Diana Rauner. Preston Hardge was part of the prestigious Graduate Public Service Internship Program; he is now the Communications Coordinator for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.  Alum Scott Kaiser is Assistant Secretary of the Illinois Senate while Rikeesha Phelon (with two UIS degrees) is Press Secretary for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton. Paris Ervin, a 2002 alum from Collinsville, is the Director of Communications for Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs while Dave Joens, who is originally from Lombard, Illinois, is the Director of the Illinois State Archives.

In just a few weeks, commencement speaker Thom Serafin, another prominent alum who owns a successful business in Chicago, will address about a thousand graduating students at the largest commencement ceremony in UIS history. I like what Chuck Schrage, our leader of alumni relations, has to say about them.

“Regardless of where they come from or where they live”, he says, “these new members of the UIS alumni family will remain vital stakeholders in our campus throughout their lives – making valuable contributions through their service, advocacy and philanthropy at the same time they demonstrate, by their own success, the great value of their University of Illinois degree.”


Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch