SJR Column: Commencement, May 2015

In less than a week, I’ll have the privilege of shaking the hands of 964 graduates of the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois who will join several thousand family members, faculty, staff and special guests for the 44th UIS commencement ceremony – the largest commencement in the history of the campus.

I’m anticipating an especially enthusiastic handshake when Tony O’Neal crosses the Prairie Capital Convention Center stage! Tony is what universities call a “non-traditional” student – an imprecise term that usually refers to someone who did not enter post-secondary education immediately after high school.

I’d say, by any definition, Tony is most certainly non-traditional. A forty-three-year old father of three, Tony will have earned a bachelor’s degree and, within a few days will also retire from the U.S. military after 26 years of service. Currently stationed at Camp Lincoln, he is a Master Sergeant who has traveled to more than 30 foreign countries. Tony enrolled at UIS to pursue his undergraduate degree a few of years ago because he knew a college degree would be essential for a successful post-military professional career.

When I spoke with Tony recently, he wanted me to know how much he had grown through his undergraduate experience and how much he appreciated the support of UIS faculty and staff when he was deployed on short notice to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in the middle of the Spring, 2013 semester. With exceptional advising provided by Andy Egizi, Coordinator for the Liberal and Integrative Studies Program, and with the extra efforts of many, including Professors Elizabeth Kosmetatou and Holly Kent who helped him to address unique challenges communicating between the military base in Cuba and the campus, Tony was able to stay connected, complete his courses successfully that semester and stay on track for his Spring, 2015 graduation.

Four days after his military retirement and with bachelor’s degree in hand, Tony will start his new career at Ameren, a major Illinois energy distribution company, where he will be an emergency response specialist. He’s also considering pursuing a master’s degree at UIS.

Brittany Carls and Kentrell King come from different backgrounds but will be sharing the stage at the 2015 commencement. Besides graduating on the same day, another thing these two share is their extraordinary involvement in activities outside the classroom.

Brittany grew up on a farm near Arenzville, Illinois. An Honors Program student with a major in Business Administration, Brittany has volunteered hundreds of hours with Habitat for Humanity and many other campus and community organizations. She was recognized earlier this year for her exceptional volunteer service with the Star Student Award – given annually at Springfield’s Good as Gold Ceremony to the UIS student who best exemplifies dedication to service to their campus and to the Springfield community. Brittany credits Dr. Mark Dochterman, Director of the UIS Center for Volunteer and Civic Engagement, with igniting her passion for community service and she hopes to lead her own Habitat for Humanity organization some day.

Kentrell King graduated from Crete-Monee High School on the south side of Chicago. Besides being a fulltime Communications major and working on campus in the Office of Electronic Media, local sports fans know Kentrell as a mainstay of the UIS men’s basketball team. He is a point guard who has started more games than any other player during his four years as a Prairie Star. As graduation approaches, Kentrell is especially grateful to Professor Jay Gillam, who at the end of his freshman year, convinced him to stay in school.

“Because of Dr. Gillam and Athletic Director Kim Pate,” says Kentrell, “I am going to be the first in my family to graduate from college.”

If there is a prize for the student whose family comes the furthest distance to attend the 2015 UIS commencement, I suspect that Swetha Vallamreddy may win it. Swetha will receive her master’s degree in Computer Science this year and her parents are traveling over 8,000 miles to watch her receive her diploma – all the way from the city of Vijayawada in southern India. At the same time she has enjoyed her graduate classes at UIS, Swetha has appreciated the mentorship of Munindra Khaund, who hired her as a student employee in Web Services on campus, an experience that taught her how to apply her classroom learning in a project-based team environment – exactly what she will do after she graduates. Interestingly, Swetha will not be the first in her family to earn a University of Illinois degree. Her brother graduated from UIS in 2009.

The mission of the University of Illinois is to “transform lives and serve society.” I am confident that the lives of Tony, Brittany, Kentrell and Swetha have, indeed, been transformed by their UIS experience and I’m supremely confident that they, like thousands of other UI graduates, will serve society across Illinois and around the world in the coming years. Congratulations, graduates. We’re proud of you!

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch