In the last days before Commencement, we'll be sharing nine stories from #ILLINOIS2017 graduates about their time at Illinois -- the challenges, triumphs and places on campus they'll miss most.
“It’s a weird, bittersweet moment. The road to the doctorate been the longest seven years of my life. Definitely a crazy shift to think about coming here at the age of 17 and then now, being 30 and leaving with three degrees.
“I knew I loved history for a long time. I thought I was going to be a lawyer, but I took part in an internship through the Graduate College called the Summer Research Opportunities program. That’s what opened my eyes to the potential of getting a Ph.D. and doing history as a full-time job. My dissertation looks at the links between Haiti and Chicago for a 250-year window. My family is actually from Haiti; my parents migrated from Haiti to Chicago in the 1960s. So this project is personal as well.
“[Illinois history professor James Barrett] told me that he would more than likely retire before I finished and we agreed that he would see me all the way through. And he has. I’m his final student that’s going to cross the finish line. That’s a really big deal for me. I will also be my co-chair, Erik McDuffie's, first doctoral student to graduate. After working with him since my undergrad days, this is also a special moment for him and I as well. Jim's last student and Erik's first student. I imagine the defense itself, I’m going to cry whenever they tell me I officially receive the doctor title. They will probably be tears of relief.
“But the hooding will be emotional just because it’s the pinnacle, it’s the last thing with the department. To have this be the final time Jim does this with a student is a huge deal and I am deeply honored.
“My biggest piece of advice is not to let anyone tell you there’s nothing you can do with humanities majors. I’m a firm believer that history is important because you know where you came from and because it teaches your critical skills. We are living in a time that’s very much defined by the need to be a critical thinker, to analyze things and be able to come to reasonable conclusions about things you read or see.
"[Being a history major] helped me rethink the world and myself.”
— Courtney Cain, future three-time graduate of Illinois with a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in history. After she officially graduates in August, Courtney will be teaching at Lake Forest College as an assistant professor of history and African American studies.
“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was really little. One of my early role models was an astronaut called Roberta Bondar. She was the first female Canadian astronaut, and second Canadian astronaut ever.
“I actually applied eight years ago, but I wasn’t qualified enough. This time, I actually felt like I was a very qualified individual and so far it’s proving to be pretty true. If I do end up becoming an astronaut, it’s going to be largely because of this place.
“I came to the university mainly because it’s a top-tier research facility. I think Illinois has a really great mix of both theoretical work as well as hands-on practical work. It’s nice to be able to sit down and calculate what would happen to a satellite if it were up in space, but it’s also wonderful to be able to walk across the hall and build that satellite.
“I was once working on a computer vision problem for research that I couldn’t solve. I’m using the textbook, Computer Vision by David Forsyth, and it turns out his office was just straight across the Quad. The world expert of exactly what I needed to know was literally in throwing distance of me. You can’t trade that.
“I’m going to miss a lot about the university, one thing being the rowing team. I was head coach of the program basically from 2009 all the way through to 2015. We started out with about 12 athletes, every boat we had was basically from the ‘80s or older.
"Competition-wise, we really struggled against a lot of the teams in the Midwest. By the time I was done, our team roster my last year was 72 athletes. It’s still a growing program, but at this point we have two national gold medals, four state championships. Being able to see that grow and continue is something I’m going try and stay a part of.
“Urbana’s actually the place I’ve lived the longest in my life. I met my wife here. U. of I. is going to be a very special place for me for a very long time.”
— A native of Ontario, Canada, Erik Kroeker is graduating with his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. Kroeker will be moving to Boston following graduation and is one of 17 final candidates for the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut selection class.
“I’m just gonna miss the feeling that I’m in a bubble when I’m here — not in a bad way — in a way that everything I need is in a two-mile radius whether that be family, my friends, my academic side and athletic side. I’m gonna miss going across the hallway and saying hi to my friends who live in the apartment next door or just texting them to meet up for lunch. I’m starting to realize that that’s not how the real world is.
“I really did not want to come here initially. It was too close to home. Once I got here—we came in early for preseason soccer — I started to enjoy it. When I was stressed out about school I would use soccer as my stress relief and kind of get away from school for a little bit. And vice versa, when I was stressed out about soccer, I would go hang out with my architecture friends or just go in to studio and work.
“The reality hasn’t hit me yet that I’m graduating. I haven’t been getting nervous, but more so anxious because there’s a lot of emotions that accompany graduation— good, bad, happy. You can always find an alum of the university who is so proud to say ILL-INI. There’s never been a time that we’ve traveled for a game that we haven’t met someone who has gone to Illinois and been proud to be a part of it.
“[Coming back as an alumna] I’d probably go to the soccer field first. Our locker room is in the Bielfeldt athletic building, so we have to walk that path every day to practice. You walk with different people, different friends. You just kind of unwind, ask people how their day was or what they think practice will be like. It’s lined with trees and once all the trees begin to change, they turn to vibrant red, oranges, and yellows.
The fact that it’s so ordinary makes it so significant.”
— Fighting Illini Soccer student-athlete Alia Abu-Douleh, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in architecture from Marion, Ill. In the hopes of eventually becoming a licensed architect, Alia will be attending the University of Maryland and pursuing a master’s degree in architecture with a concentration in historic preservation.
“I loved being at the shelter even though I got ringworm. Didn’t pay as much as the career and the hours weren’t good. Everything about working at the shelter was worse on paper but I felt so good doing it.
I used to interview people for a living. My first job was at the Big Ten network. I worked for the football and basketball season. My assignments were good, but that was the extent of it. I wasn’t loving it and I would come home at the end of the day and wonder if I was helping anybody or if what I did mattered.
“I ran for national president of the Student American Veterinary Medical Association, and was fortunate enough to be elected. That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done except for getting married. I saw a side of the profession I had no idea existed. You work on policy. You discuss the current challenges that vet students are facing; right now, the two biggest issues are student debt and mental health. I got to help make life better for vet students everywhere, and that felt like it mattered -- I did not feel that in my first career. That really fills me up, that is what charges my battery and gives me energy.
“I love the concentration of geniuses here. There are so many brilliant people here in one place, and I haven’t even met every student or teacher."
“I say that television production felt like existing and veterinary medicine feels like living.”
— Matt Holland, graduating with a doctorate of veterinary medicine as well as a joint master’s in public health. Although Holland said he entered the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine thinking he’d enter food animal practice, he now plans to establish a career in public policy, and is interested in environmental health, including antimicrobial resistance and food production. Read more about Matt’s work for the SAVMA.
“I would consider myself a nerd at heart. I love exploring different libraries on campus. I love going to the law library, the ACES library. In the main library on the first floor, there are tables within the stacks of books. I’ve always loved that.
“My home apart from campus living is definitely the Business Instructional Facility. One of the things I value most from my time here is the community feel that the College of Business has given me. Business Council is an organization that really became the group of friends that I’m now comfortable to call my family. They're my go-to people whenever I come back to campus.
“I’m originally from Montreal, Canada, and my entire family lives there. My sister and I are the first people in our family to come to an American university. My dad was an accountant so I feel like I’ve always had that business mindset. It was through my internship experiences that I was able to grasp what that would look like.
“We had one event at AbbVie where an actual Humira patient came in to talk about her battle with Crohn’s disease, and how thankful she was that she was able to be put on a product that helped her live a normal life. That touched me. With a business degree and in my career moving forward, I want my end goal to go toward helping people.”
— Olivia Bounadere, #ILLINOIS2017 graduate who will be graduating from the College of Business with a dual degree in both finance and supply chain management. After graduation, she will be working in corporate finance for AbbVie in Chicago. But first, she’ll be embarking on a backpacking trip to Europe with four other newly graduated Illinois students, a “last hurrah before we all start working.”
“I think the biggest reason that drew me to Illinois was the faculty. I started coming to U. of I. two summers before I became a freshman in college. When you look at a lot of the big band directors in the state, predominantly all of the ones who are the biggest bands and best bands, all of their directors come from Illinois. Stephen Peterson, Beth Peterson, Barry Houser and Linda Moorhouse: those people have influenced me a lot, and I still keep in contact with them. I know they will continue to be mentors for the rest of my career.
“The biggest thing I could tell incoming freshmen is to take all of it in as early as you can. Make sure you don’t take anything for granted and be open to change. There were definitely moments where I was looking to change majors. At one point, I was thinking of transferring to a different school. But I realized Illinois was definitely home. Having people who were going through the same things as me, that really helped me to figure out who I was.
“Many of my biggest life lessons have come from band. Being able to have some kind of effect on my students and make sure they are productive citizens of society and that they have these essential life skills to succeed. That’s the biggest thing I took from music education, and that’s the biggest thing I want to give back.
“I’m thankful for the four years the University of Illinois were able to provide for me. I’m a very proud Illini and always will be. I’m definitely missing campus already.”
— Josh Johnson, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music education with certification in general music, choral music and instrumental, from O’Fallon, Ill. After finishing student teaching and graduating in May, Johnson said he hopes to teach high school band.
“My path to graduation has been slower than anticipated. In’90, the Army sent me to the University of Texas-Austin for a master’s degree, and in ’92 sent me master’s degree in hand to instruct Electrical Engineering at the United States Military Academy – West Point. That tour inspired a passion to return to the faculty for a second tour, which required a Ph.D. That dream became an opportunity in ’98. When I visited, Illinois just felt like the right place. And it has been.
“What I didn’t expect was that, the Army would come back 18 months later offering battalion command. My adviser Pete Sauer counseled, ‘You can finish a Ph.D. anytime, but you only get one chance to command a battalion.’ I took the leap in summer 2000 and assumed command of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) battalion. Shortly after 9/11 occurred, my battalion deployed three EOD companies supporting operations in Afghanistan, and concurrently, I commanded the Army EOD task force supporting Secret Service security at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“After command, I was blessed with series of great jobs: two years on the Army Staff in the Pentagon, the Army War College, three years as an EOD Group Commander – including 15 months in Iraq – think The Hurt Locker (six 2010 Academy Awards), and finally two years on the Department of Defense staff again in the Pentagon. Pondering retirement in 2010, I surveyed a Pentagon cubicle farm and I decided, ‘I don’t really don’t want to be those men and women in 15 years.’
“The hardest thing has doubtlessly been my wife’s death in October of 2014 after a 9-month hospitalization for clinical trial complications treating skin cancer — melanoma is a very bad disease once it moves beyond the skin. Professor Sauer and the university were tremendously supportive. My older son withdrew from his U. of I. bachelor’s program and camped with me for nine months in Bethesda helping care for his mother. My younger son drew duty taking care of dog and home in Urbana. It took me a full six months to get back into the full swing of research, taking small bites and ramping back up. Both of my sons completed their bachelor’s degrees at Illinois.
“One of the marks I’ve sought to leave on the young men and women that I’ve encountered is that they will be leaders, whether it be two or 2,000 people. They will be well served looking in the mirror at each day’s start and asking, ‘What will I do today to influence people to act to achieve common purpose?’
“I bought my own robes, but it’s somewhat anti-climactic. My prior Army life impressed upon me the value of ceremonies, so I think it’s important that I go participate. I will have my picture taken in my robe with my adviser and son. Those photos record important events in my life’s story.”
—After a 28 ½ year career with the Army, Karl Reinhard came back to the U. of I. in 2010 to finish his Ph.D. electrical engineering. He plans to walk at the campus-wide Commencement on May 13 to be hooded by his adviser, Professor Pete Sauer. He said he’ll continue to teach at the U. of I. as a postdoctoral student as well as continuing his research on synchrophasors and electric power systems.
“I have always wanted to become a physical therapist since high school. I knew I needed to dance. Not want, I needed to.
“For my senior thesis, I’m going to be combining both of my majors and putting it into a dance piece. My research is about how respiration ventilation facilitates movement. It’s going to be performed at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, but also at our research symposium. I’m working on developing my own language in movement. I’m hoping it’s something people have never seen.
“I don’t think I would have been the same person if I didn’t come to this program. There’s a high sense of research and maintenance in the body, being able to learn and utilize your body well enough that you can dance until you’re 60. It’s really supported my dreams to become a physical therapist and teaching patients how to move in a way that rehabilitates their injuries.
“Coming here was actually very difficult. I transferred from the University of Iowa, but U. of I. has always been a school I definitely wanted to go to. I had a hard time supporting myself financially. I would commute every weekend to Chicago to work and then use that money and pay for living expenses.
“I’m a first-generation student and I also have a single mother. My mother is not formally educated, so I felt like I came in with a lot of disadvantages in terms of resources. I feel so supported when I’m here in despite all of the things I have to overcome. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel to New York through the dance department. I was able to follow a professional company while they were here and my department gave me a scholarship to train at their intensive.
“My mom is definitely going to be there. It’s huge for my family because, well, because it’s just me and my mom. I’m the first one to graduate from a university in my family and I think she would be really proud because she worked really hard for it, too.
— Mary Vo, kinesiology and dance major from Chicago. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in dance, Mary plans to continue her kinesiology studies at the U. of I. and eventually apply to graduate school.