SJR Column: UIS alum Matthew Wallace
A central commitment of the University of Illinois Springfield is to prepare leaders who are capable of transforming their local and global communities. UIS graduates fulfill that expectation in myriad ways and across a variety of professions. The infinite possibilities our graduates represent were, as always, front and center as I shook their hands at recent commencement ceremonies.
But another event on campus this May provided an exceptional example of the fulfillment of that commitment. That event was a special ceremony where UIS alum Matthew Wallace was honored with the University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Award. The award recognizes University of Illinois graduates who have made significant contributions to the welfare of humanity and whose outstanding leadership and service has enriched the lives of others.
Matthew is a 2006 graduate – a member of the Capital Scholars Honors Program who earned a degree in Political Studies and then a masters degree from the prestigious Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.
Matthew and his wife, Heather, who met while attending UIS, live in Myanmar (formerly Burma), where he helped found and serves as Managing Director of Opportunities NOW (www.ONOW.org), an entrepreneurship development program that seeks to reduce poverty by providing young people with financial literacy, entrepreneurship training, mentoring and access to financial capital to support sustainable small businesses.
Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia – a country of more than 50 million people, 45 percent of whom are younger than 25. A former province of British India, Myanmar’s more recent history includes a brutal dictatorship, ethnic strife and living standards that have suffered greatly from both political and economic struggles.
How does a small town boy from Trilla, Illinois end up leading a successful business innovation program in Myanmar? “When I came to UIS I planned to study Illinois politics,” says Matthew, “but through my classes on political economy, globalization and comparative politics, I became increasingly drawn to the international field.”
“The multi-disciplinary nature of the Cap Scholars Honors Program gave us the tools to understand the power systems around us,” he continues, “and we were encouraged to shape those systems in ways that would benefit others.”
Matthew especially appreciated the teaching and mentoring of professors Bob Sipe and Hugh Harris, who challenged students to understand the underlying motivations for many decisions made by those in power. A first flight ever to Moscow for a summer internship sealed the deal for Matthew’s global perspective.
“Mae Noll, my supervisor when I was a Resident Assistant in Lincoln Hall,” Matthew adds, “was also important to my development. She consistently trusted me and encouraged me in campus leadership and was a great model of service for me.”
Matthew and Heather moved to Myanmar 11 years ago and Opportunities NOW was launched in 2012 with the goal to deliver financially sustainable positive change in the lives of young people. Since then, the enterprise has trained more than 700 youth and helped more than 400 launch their own businesses.
“Our entrepreneurs earn more money and create jobs that weren’t there before,” Matthew explains, “but the main benefit is empowering young women to develop agency in their own lives – the ability to make decisions that can positively influence the direction of their lives and the lives of others around them.”
The ONOW culture is also about providing young people a place to discover and test out their own creativity. ONOW even has a design lab where young staff help participants build chatbots, code mobile apps and design animations – having fun at the same time they’re developing valuable technical skills so necessary for their future.
Chuck Schrage, Associate Vice Chancellor for Alumni Relations at UIS, has this to say about the 2019 University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Award recipient: “Matt’s leadership and service to improve the lives of others, as well as the support anchored by his wife, Heather, is the epitome of the University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Award.”
Matthew says the award serves as recognition for the entire team at Opportunities NOW – talented professionals who spend every week “advancing entrepreneurship and financial inclusion for underserved women.”
Opportunities NOW is making a positive difference in Myanmar and we’re so proud UIS has helped make it possible for Matthew Wallace to be that difference.
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois at Springfield