College of LAS « Illinois

Altogether amazing generosity

Read about the people whose lives have been changed thanks to the generosity of our donors

Michael Mitchell

Michael Mitchell
“I wouldn't be where I am without the people who helped me get over the obstacles that I had.” — Michael Mitchell, winner of the Eakman Scholarship

After Michael Mitchell broke his femur for the seventh time, he thought his days of making fast breaks down the basketball court were over. And then he discovered wheelchair basketball — a unique sport that allowed him to continue playing the game he loved, despite a rare bone condition that made him prone to injuries.

"It was a godsend," says the student from Dell Rapids, South Dakota. And it's been a big part of his life ever since, eventually bringing him to Illinois where he joined a men's intercollegiate team that's one of only nine of its kind in the country.

When the young athlete visited campus in 2014, he knew he had arrived at a world-class university. What he didn't know was that it was the birthplace of the sport that had led him there. It all started shortly after World War II when Timothy Nugent, director of the Rehabilitation Education Center at Illinois, saw the benefits that physical activity provided for wounded veterans returning from the battlefront. In 1949, he created the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, and his vision quickly spread, inspiring teams across the country.

Michael knew none of this when he made his decision to attend Illinois. "I was that nerd who was actually looking at the school," he says with a laugh. He loved athletics, but wanted a school that would provide him with something more.

At Illinois, he discovered a university that offered a wide range of helpful resources. The school's reputation for excellence and innovation also appealed to Michael, who says that sense of excitement permeates the air at Illinois. "When you're in class, you're always aware that you're pushing the boundary," he says.

Inspired by the doctors who played such a large role in his life, Michael originally pursued a pre-med degree with a focus on biology. More recently, however, he's felt a strong pull toward teaching — an interest he's been able to explore thanks to a flexible curriculum that allowed him to minor in chemistry and teach as an undergraduate instructor.

"Teaching was something I've wanted to do since my sophomore year, but with basketball I always told myself I didn't have time," says Michael. Now, he's making the time — and loving every minute of it, describing it as the best part of his week, every week. "I like going to class and helping these students reach their potential," says Michael. "I think that's something that carries over from wheelchair basketball," he adds. "You learn that people can outdo themselves. And they don't even realize it."

For Michael, that realization came through the hard work of others. "I wouldn't be where I am without the people who helped me get over the obstacles that I had," he says. Now he strives to do the same for others, whether it's on the court, inspiring those with physical limitations to fully pursue their dreams, or at the front of the class, leading students who may one day shatter barriers of a different kind.

Michael says that one of the highlights of his time at Illinois has been participating in various wheelchair basketball benefit events, where the team challenges high school teachers and basketball teams to a high-speed game on wheels. "We usually rack up the score a little bit in the first quarter, and then we'll end up giving them the ball and letting them shoot. It's a lot of fun," says Michael, but more than that, it's an important reminder — that everyone has obstacles. What matters is what you do with them.

Michael teaches at the front of a classroom, a chalkboard full of equations behind him

"I think I just have a lot of potential to impact young people in a good way," says Michael, who is currently applying for teaching positions. With a few months left until graduation, he's already gaining valuable experience in his chosen field. As a James Scholar, Michael recently developed chemistry lesson plans that will be used in area high schools, having a direct impact on the type of kids he soon hopes to teach.

With basketball, honors projects, and teaching, he's had a full plate. And yet, he's also remained firmly focused on his academic career. In the past four years, Michael has made multiple appearances on the dean's list and established an academic record that's the envy of his peers. Last fall, that hard work paid dividends, when Michael, who began his senior year with a 3.95 grade point average, was invited to apply for the Eakman Scholarship. This prestigious scholarship, named in honor of Dr. Thomas Eakman, was created in 2005 to celebrate the legacy of the vice president of Academic Affairs and his 30 years of exemplary service to the university.

"It was really cool," Michael says of the honor, which he earned, garnering needed tuition support. "It was honestly one of the first times I felt like I had been significantly rewarded for something that was academically based.

For Michael, scholarships like the Eakman make it possible for exceptional students like him to pursue their dreams. In just three simple words, Michael summarizes the importance they've had in his life. "They're everything, honestly," he explains. "Financial stability is crucial to my ability to focus and my success in the classroom and on the court. As a self-supported student, my means of paying for school rests in the hopes of getting scholarships like these," explains the grateful senior. "Without this, the U of I wouldn't have been within reach."

Madeline Decker

Madeline Decker
“A lot of my tuition is covered, so I can do things like volunteer in Ecuador in the summer, and make a difference. It's really allowed me to focus on my academics and on the extracurricular pursuits that have really shaped who I've become and what I've become interested in as a person, as a future teacher, and as a student.” — Madeline Decker, winner of the Jean Crist Weagant and William G. Crist Memorial Scholarship

For some college is about getting away from home, moving to a different state or even an exciting country far around the world. For Madeline Decker, however, it was about discovering an academic gem right in her own backyard.

"Both of my parents attended the university and stayed in the area," explains the Illinois senior, who is currently completing a double major in English and Spanish, with a minor in secondary education. Growing up in Champaign, Illinois, Madeline says she enjoyed the many cultural opportunities that came with living in a campus town. She didn't plan to attend Illinois, though, until a campus tour encouraged her to give it a second look.

"As soon as I visited campus and saw it as a potential student and not as a community member, I got really excited about it and everything that's going on on campus," says Madeline. She also liked the research opportunities and small classes she'd enjoy as an English major. After seeing that, she says, "I was kind of sold."

Now a senior at Illinois, Madeline says her passion for language began as soon as she could talk. "My home was one that was definitely filled with books, and I started reading stories and telling stories at a very early age," says Madeline, who was homeschooled until the last couple of years of high school when she attended Judah Christian, a small, private high school in Champaign.

According to Madeline, her parents always encouraged her interest, building a small writing desk in the living room when she was just a child. "As I got older, that kind of came together with my interest in social justice, and I started to see how stories and language are something that can really bring people together," she says, adding that "stories have that power to give us experiences that we haven't had ourselves, so we can empathize better with the experiences of others."

Madeline plays in a circle with children

When she was 12, Madeline began exploring other cultures on various mission trips to Latin America, including two trips to an orphanage in Peru that helped foster her love of Spanish. Madeline says she was fascinated both by the language itself and by the way it enabled people to cross cultural barriers. "It just makes your ability to connect with others much more meaningful when you can speak to them in their language."

In college, she began exploring other interests, as well. She's been an editor and writer at Buzz Weekly for Illini Media, and currently enjoys working as an undergraduate assistant at the University Library Illinois History and Library Collections. The latter she discovered while writing a blog post about opportunities in English studies, which she says was basically a letter to her freshman self and all of her insecurities.

"You get a lot of interesting comments when you tell people you're an English major," says Madeline with a laugh, adding that many tried to dissuade her from her chosen path or encourage her to pursue studies in a STEM fields. As part of her research for her post, she was looking at job opportunities on the Department of English's website when she found an ad for an undergraduate position offered by the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections. She had been intrigued by the collection ever since she heard about it her freshman year, so she decided to apply. Apparently, her passion won them over.

"With very little background in history and library science in general, I got the position," says Madeline. She's loved it from the start, and she's picked up some new skills on the job, providing the graphic design for exhibits and promotional materials. "It was not something that I expected to be doing at all," says Madeline. "Life is funny that way."

She had, however, planned to do research. And at Illinois, she got her chance, participating in the undergraduate research apprenticeship program. "I think there were about 10 of us," says Madeline."Each was partnered with a graduate student and we would help them do work related to their research."

She was paired with a graduate student who was working with images of old medical journals she had captured on a trip to Spain. "They were really big, so she had to scan them in parts and then put the pages back together," explains Madeline, who gained invaluable experience with Photoshop while working on the project.

Later, the grad student helped Madeline with her own research project, comparing the treatment of disability in Spanish film and literature, which she presented at an undergraduate research symposium. Part of that involved creating an infographic poster to make the information accessible to the audience, where her budding graphic design skills came in handy. From there, she would go on to do several honors research projects in English, one of which was awarded the undergraduate Illinois Prize for Research in the Humanities.

Some of her most rewarding work at school, however, came from working with children. One semester, she got to work at her old school, tutoring several students in Spanish. On another occasion, she worked at the International Prep Academy in Champaign, a bilingual school with a mix of students who either spoke English or Spanish predominantly.

That experience fueled her interest to teach at a bilingual high school. While those are few and far between, she recently learned about one that she's interested in pursuing, thanks to an international education fair she attended. It's a K-12 school in Ecuador, and English teachers who go there get free Spanish and dance lessons, a fun perk she's looking forward to exploring.

Madeline says that, for her, scholarships have been freeing, allowing her to make the most of her time at Illinois. Over the years, she's earned several, including the Jean Crist Weagant and William G. Crist Memorial Scholarship. A merit-based scholarship for female undergraduates living in Illinois, this unique scholarship was created by Robert A. Weagant, now professor emeritus for the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in honor of his late wife Jean Crist Weagant (AB, '50, general curriculum) and her father.

"A lot of my tuition is covered, so I can do things like volunteer in Ecuador in the summer, and make a difference," explains Madeline. "It's really allowed me to focus on my academics and on the extracurricular pursuits that have really shaped who I've become and what I've become interested in as a person, as a future teacher, and as a student."

Nicole Odulate

Nicole Odulate
“It's somebody's future that you're literally helping build. ... Each dollar is somebody's step up to a better life. While it may not seem like a lot, it's a lot to somebody else.” — Nicole Odulate, a College of LAS Lincoln Scholar

"I'm trying to leave this world with something more than my name," says Nicole Odulate. It's a lofty ambition, but one that the senior from University Park, Illinois, is actively pursuing, thanks in part to the financial help she received through the Lincoln Scholarship Initiative.

As the second of five children raised by a single parent, Nicole didn't have a lot growing up in the southern Chicago suburb. But what she did have was far more valuable than money — a hard-working and supportive mom who encouraged her to aim high.

"Growing up, my mom really stressed education to us," says Nicole. "That pushed me to do really well in high school." For four years, she knuckled down and dug deep. When others were skating by, she took honors classes and strove for excellence. And her hard work paid off. In 2014, Nicole graduated sixth in her class, with a passion for psychology she discovered her senior year.

It came from observing the people she grew up with. "One of my favorite past times was people-watching," she explains. "I just like to watch how people move and how they interact." Eventually, she realized that interest could lead to fascinating field of study. "My senior year, I ended up taking a psychology course and absolutely falling in love with it," explains Nicole. "So I was like, 'Yeah, this is definitely something I want to study.'"

She thought about attending Duke, but she also wanted to stay close to her mom. So, she decided to visit Illinois, and that's when everything changed.

"I ended up coming to visit Illinois a week before decision day," says Nicole. "I came onto campus and it was so beautiful, and everybody was super welcoming to me." On top of that, there were the enticing scholarship offers. Between the Lincoln Scholarship Initiative and Presidential Scholarship Awards, she secured more than $15,000 in annual scholarships. With two other siblings already attending college and two more on the way, it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

She planned to go pre-med, but now laughs at that thought, saying she was far too outspoken to be a doctor. "I've always been my brother's keeper," Nicole says. "Standing up for people is one of my favorite things." So, after a lot of soul searching, she decided to pursue something more in that bent. With the help of summer classes going into her senior year at Illinois, she completed a minor in criminology, law, and society in one year, rounding out the psychology major and behavioral neuroscience concentration she had already achieved.

Next, it's on to law school, where she hopes to acquire the skills needed to overturn the wrongful convictions of those who sometimes falsely admit to lesser crimes to avoid a lengthy sentence. "A lot of African-Americans are not really educated in the law and the legal system," she says. She wants to help. But her plans don't stop there.

Together with her brothers, she one day hopes to launch a program that helps other kids in poverty stay out of trouble and focus on their goals. Already, she's gained a lot of useful experience in that area, volunteering with C-U One-On-One and another mentoring program where she tutors kids in math. "I know one thing that saved me, quote unquote, was having good examples, so I wanted to be that for somebody else," she says.

Madeline plays in a circle with children

Last year, Nicole started working with one young girl who had a lot of potential but was headed down the wrong track. "When I started mentoring her, it was not known if she was going to make it to high school," says Nicole. Now, she's successfully transitioned to the ninth grade and, hopefully, the start of a more empowered life. "I'm super happy for her and super proud of her," says Nicole. "Super, super proud."

In the future, Nicole hopes to turn her knack for shaping young lives into a second career. "I don't really plan to retire retire," she says, explaining that she'd really love to teach. When others are closing up shop and heading for the golf course, she plans to pursue a teaching certificate and pass on some of the lessons that have helped her life.

For now, however, she's focused on graduation. And when she does finally walk down that aisle, she knows one very special person will be cheering her on from the sidelines.

"My mom is without a doubt my No. 1 inspiration," says Nicole. "She didn't go to college, but she was able to convey to us, without having to yell or beat us down, that if you want to have a better life, this is what you've got to do."

It was a lesson that she and her siblings took to heart. Her older brother has a job waiting at VISA when he graduates this spring from Southern Illinois University. She also has a younger brother studying IT in college and a sister who will soon be going into graphic design.

Nicole says that scholarships are the reason all of that was able to happen — "1,000 percent," adding that small gifts are every bit as important as large contributions. Her scholarship was made possible by those gifts. Created to help celebrate the renovation of Lincoln Hall in 2012, the Lincoln Scholarship provides annual tuition assistance, and can be renewed for up to four years as long as recipients maintain a competitive GPA.

The grateful graduate says most don't realize the big difference a small contribution can make. "It's somebody's future that you're literally helping build when you give that $10, when you give that $20, when you give that $30. Each dollar is somebody's step up to a better life," she explains. "While it may not seem like a lot, it’s a lot to somebody else."

Donors support professorial scholars in LAS

Richard Romano
“It is a joy for us to be able to support the work of scholars who have been chosen by their own colleagues as outstanding contributors,” — Richard Romano

Outstanding professors in the College of LAS have been selected by their peers to receive named professorial positions, which provide financial assistance to support their research and teaching duties. The positions were created through gifts to the college. For example, Richard Romano (BS, '54, chemical engineering) and his wife, Margaret, established the Richard and Margaret Romano Professorial Scholar program, which selected six new professors this fall.

Romano said his entire family congratulated the "truly distinguished group of teachers and researchers."

"It is a joy for us to be able to support the work of scholars who have been chosen by their own colleagues as outstanding contributors," Romano said.

Feng Sheng Hu, the Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of LAS, said the new appointments are a point of pride for the College of LAS.

"These named positions have been created by people who care deeply for the future of the liberal arts and sciences at Illinois, and the appointees are dedicated to their disciplines, the college and university, their colleagues, and their students," said Hu. "We're grateful for them and their good work."

  • Eleonora Stoppino, professor of French and Italian, has been named a John A. and Grace W. Nicholson Professorial Scholar. The position is intended to further the study of humanities, with special emphasis and preference given to the study of literature and the history of philosophy.
  • Vera Hur, professor of mathematics, has been named a Brad and Karen Smith Professorial Scholar. The position is intended for individuals with expertise and academic abilities in the field of mathematics.
  • Ariana Traill, professor of classics; Dana Rabin, professor of history; and Carla Cáceres, professor of animal biology and director of the School of Integrative Biology, have been named Lynn M. Martin Professorial Scholars. The position is intended to honor exceptional women teachers.
  • Francina Dominguez, professor of atmospheric sciences; Prashant Jain, professor of chemistry; Ripan Malhi, professor of anthropology; Kevin Mumford, professor of history; Tracy Sulkin, professor of political science; and Monica Uddin, professor of psychology; have been named Richard and Margaret Romano Professorial Scholars. The position is not limited to any particular field of study.

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