SJR Column: Commencement, May 2020

Yesterday, May 9, 2020, was an important day for the University of Illinois Springfield. For the 1,179 students who earned their place in the 2020 commencement program, it was a bittersweet occasion – with virtual celebrations and social media activities replacing traditional face-to-face graduation events.

Regardless of the circumstances, university degrees have been officially conferred and there is no doubt that for each 2020 graduate, their University of Illinois degree will contribute to their success as well as to the public good of their community – wherever that community may be.

As Chancellor of UIS, I’ve found there is no greater satisfaction than observing the transformative experience a university education provides – especially for students who are the first in their family to achieve the dream of a college degree. Though missing that special “handshake moment” on the commencement stage, I’ve had the pleasure of reflecting this past week with several 2020 grads about their UIS experience and their plans for the future:

Kim Alexis Espejo, a Sacred Heart-Griffin High School graduate from Springfield, chose UIS primarily because she wanted to stay close to home and she knew the Medical Laboratory Sciences program was the best in central Illinois.

“Besides my coursework, participating in student organizations and working at the Performing Arts Center have been among the most positive experiences I’ve had at UIS,” says Kim Alexis. “As co-president of the Medical Lab Sciences Club, I developed leadership skills and became actively involved in my professional organization.”

“Amandailee Adams, one of my professors in MLS, and Shannon Smith, my manager at the Performing Arts Center, have been especially important supporters throughout my educational journey.”

Kim Alexis graduates with a major in Medical Laboratory Science and minors in Biology and Public Health. She has accepted a position as Clinical Laboratory Scientist/MT at OSF HealthCare in Peoria and plans to eventually earn a graduate degree and perhaps work for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the future.

Bree Derhake, also an SH-G grad, had two priorities when she was deciding where to attend college – “great academics and a great softball program.”

“One of the most positive experiences of my college career has been being part of the UIS softball program – winning the GLVC Championship my sophomore year and competing in the NCAA Championship,” says Bree.

“I’ve also appreciated how UIS celebrates diversity in such a loving and welcoming way, which is so refreshing to have in Springfield.”

Reflecting on her time at UIS, Bree acknowledges the support of Coach Shannon Guthrie, Exercise Science Professor Angela Doehring, and Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Lowe. The lone senior on the softball team and a three-time member of the GLVC All-Academic team, Bree graduates with honors with a degree in Exercise Science. She will begin study for a doctoral degree in Physical Therapy at Northern Illinois University in June.

Since its founding almost 50 years ago, graduate programs at UIS have offered important opportunities for advanced study and career development. Thirty-seven percent of UIS students this year were graduate students and Betty Haynes and Robert Elliott were among them.

Betty was raised on a farm outside Oakford and earned a degree in Agribusiness Management at the University of Missouri. “As a participant in the Graduate Public Service Internship (GPSI) program at UIS,” she reports, “I had the opportunity to study for my masters degree in Communications (with a tuition waiver) while at the same time I gained valuable experience working for the Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service.”

“Dr. Amie Kincaid, Associate Professor and Chair of the Communications Department, challenged me intellectually in the most fun and positive ways,” Betty continues, “while GPSI Director Sherrie Elzinga has gone above and beyond as a professional resource and mentor.”

Betty has already started her “dream job” as Director of Communications for the Illinois Beef Association – a position she says she would not have attained without her masters degree from UIS.

Robert Elliott, now Dr. Robert Elliott, is one of six candidates who completed their doctoral degree in Public Administration at UIS this spring. It has been a long passage. According to Robert, he was first admitted to the program in 1999; but a job transfer, military service including a deployment to Iraq, and other responsibilities caused him to defer his studies until his return to join a cohort of peers in 2015.

“Dr. Sean McCandless, my dissertation chair, skillfully guided me through the process and challenged me to reach further than I thought possible,” says Robert.

He cites the program’s focus on an analytical perspective and the shared experience with peers from diverse backgrounds and professional expertise as being among the program’s best assets.

By Robert’s count, the May 9, 2020 commencement date falls exactly 7,696 days after he received his first program acceptance letter. “My mother was an advocate for education even though she was pulled from school after 7th grade to help raise her siblings,” he reflects. ”I just wish she could have been here to witness my achievement.”

Congratulations to the University of Illinois Springfield Class of 2020! We’re on our feet for you, applauding you, and sharing your joy in a milestone that will live in your memory forever.

You’ll always be a Prairie Stars – keep shining.

[You can enjoy a video salute to the UIS Class of 2020, including the conferring of degrees by UI System President, Tim Killeen at this link:]


Susan J. Koch is Chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Chancellor Susan J. Koch