Read about the people whose lives have been changed thanks to the generosity of our donors.
“They are the original seed planted inside a student’s head that says, 'Maybe I can be this, maybe I can do that, or maybe this dream is achievable.' Scholarships change lives.” — Heather Holmes, a College of LAS Lincoln Scholar
For some students it happens during a particularly insightful lecture or in the middle of a busy corporate internship—that “a-ha” moment when they realize not just who they are, but where their true passion lies. For Heather Holmes it happened in the middle of the woods.
The epiphany came during the summer of her sophomore year, when she had the opportunity to work at a Missouri camp for people of all ages with special needs. “The pay was minimal and, subtracting travel costs, I knew that I would end up making almost nothing,” said Heather. “That being said, I felt financial freedom through the scholarships I had received. So, I decided to pursue the opportunity. This decision changed my life. It was where I both discovered my passion and made the decision to become a physician assistant.”
For Heather, that meant learning to speak a language for which there was no written dictionary, like knowing that one camper meant she was in pain whenever she said her doll was in pain. Or that one little girl was so afraid of medical providers that the only thing that gave her the bravery to face her fears was discussing her favorite fast food. Heather soon began referring to these incidents as “Chick-fil-A” moments.
“I spent the summer learning these unique nonverbal cues alongside American Sign Language,” said Heather. “I discovered that communication barriers in health care can come in so many different shapes and sizes, and that it takes intentionality and sacrifice by medical providers to slow down the pace and truly connect with patients standing on the other side of communication barriers. This is why I decided to pursue the physician assistant path, because I felt that they have the opportunities to sacrifice their time, language, culture, and region to go in search of those patients who don’t have the ability to fit into our normal American health care system.”
Working at the camp meant helping children and adults with spina bifida, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and conditions so severe that it meant they might not be alive to see the next summer. For Heather, it was a life-changing experience.
“I was trained to interact with campers in a way that made them feel independent and in-control, while still providing guidance,” said Heather, adding that campers were never denied an activity. “We held rifles as campers with cerebral palsy pulled the trigger, used pulleys to hoist campers in wheelchairs 30 feet in the air to guide them through a high ropes course, and carried campers on our backs or in our arms through the pool so that they could swim with everyone else.” It was a lesson in compassion and understanding that moved her to the core.
“My campers have taught me that people are so much more than what they can or can’t do and that just because someone’s abilities are different doesn’t mean they are less. When we exclude a community of people because they are different than us, we are excluding all of the talents, abilities, and ideas that they could contribute to our society,” said Heather. “Oftentimes, if we’re willing to put intentionality and time into breaking down barriers we’ve built based on differences, we find that the person on the other side of the wall has more to teach us than we could possibly ever teach them.”
Heather and her identical twin sister Hannah both came to LAS from Lawrenceville, Illinois, a small, rural community with a high poverty rate. Less than 30 percent of graduates there typically go on to college. Fortunately, they were encouraged to succeed by their parents, as well as a high school chemistry teacher who was so invested in their education that he asked the school to create an additional class that would better prepare them for their first year in college. “He is an Illinois alumnus and quickly became our mentor throughout high school,” said Heather. With that support, the twins strove for excellence, graduating as co-valedictorians with the exact same GPA.
Due to financial reasons, they had decided to attend Southern Illinois University, when a letter from Illinois changed their plans. After learning that they had both received scholarships through the Lincoln Scholars Initiative, they quickly set their sights on Illinois. “The decision was instantaneous,” recalled Heather. “We chose the U of I for the well-known STEM research that provided so many wonderful opportunities for undergraduates, as well as the in-depth science curriculum taught by top researchers in the field.”
Heather, who eventually decided to pursue a degree in molecular and cellular biology, will graduate this spring and attend the physician assistant program at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago, Illinois, in the fall. Physician assistant programs are notoriously competitive. “Each school accepts only 4 percent of applicants,” said Heather. “I am one of the youngest in my class, and I truly believe that it was the opportunities that Illinois, specifically the College of LAS, provided that have opened the door for the next step of my journey.”
For Heather, who received multiple scholarships during her time at Illinois, financial donations represent more than a monetary gift. They give students the courage they need to look beyond the statistics that define them and follow their passions wherever they lead. “They are the original seed planted inside a student’s head that says, 'Maybe I can be this, maybe I can do that, or maybe this dream is achievable.'” In short, said the future physician assistant, “Scholarships change lives.”
“Donors enable students to focus not on their tuition bill, but on getting the most of what the university and college have to offer. An Illinois education is a real gift—I've loved every minute of my time here.” — Haydn Lambert, winner of the Wirt Family Scholarship
Every day, hundreds of new prisoners are incarcerated and locked up, not just behind bars but deep within a legal system that’s complex and increasingly challenging to navigate. Haydn Lambert never really thought about those issues when he was younger. Now, it’s his driving passion, thanks to one LAS class that opened his eyes to a world he’d never imagined. It was exactly the kind of transformational experience he hoped for when he came to Illinois.
Monticello, Illinois, could hardly be described as a hotbed of criminal activity. Located just 30 minutes west of Champaign, Haydn’s hometown, as he described it, is “different from the university by nearly every measure.” Different or not, life in Monticello created a student whose aspirations were like those of any other student with big dreams. “I knew that in order for me to have the kind of career I wanted—one which dealt with complicated world issues—I’d need a school that would give me not only knowledge of my field but also cultural competence and an appreciation for complexity,” said Haydn.
While the U of I may have been close to home-cooked meals and other luxuries of home, proximity wasn’t the driving factor in Haydn’s school decision. “I considered just about every state school. But I chose Illinois because it provided the interdisciplinary perspective that would prepare me to lead and solve complex issues with confidence.”
Once at U of I, he charted his own unique path, carving out dual majors in English and political science. At first glance, the two degrees may seem to have little in common, but for Haydn, they were perfect complements. “Because I’m an English major, I’m able to write more clearly and effectively about politics,” he said. At the same time, studying politics helped him look at problems and solutions through a critical and nuanced lens.
“Lately, I’ve gotten super excited about studying the causes and effects of incarceration in the United States,” said Haydn, citing HIST 219 with professor Rebecca Ginsburg as the spark that ignited his passion. “As someone who had never been impacted by incarceration, the class was transformative in two ways. First, it demonstrated so lucidly that hyper-incarceration was a problem that was happening right under my nose. And second, it made me think about some particularly challenging questions,” he said. While others may have forgotten the class the moment their books were closed, that wasn’t the case for Haydn. “I still think about the class nearly every day. It’s had a profound influence on my desire to become a public defender and advocate for system reform now and in the future,” he said.
He already has a good idea what that might look like, thanks to the Wirt Family Scholarship, an LAS scholarship offered exclusively to students in the James Scholars Program. Because of the scholarship, he was able to reduce his work hours and pursue an internship with the Champaign County Public Defender’s Office. For Haydn, it was a transformative experience, which allowed him to trade his classroom chair for a front row view of the criminal system. “I’ve been able to see many of the institutions and systems taught in my classes in a real, relevant, and meaningful context,” Haydn said.
In addition to his studies, Haydn has also served as a teaching assistant for an educational psychology class and project manager for Illinois Enactus, a social entrepreneurship organization he joined after seeing an ad on Facebook. It was there he became the co-founder of a unique organization that uses custom employment to reduce the economic inequality between adults with disabilities. According to Haydn, En-ABLE-ing Entrepreneurs started as the idea of Amanda Hedberg, another Enactus member who noticed that people with disabilities faced some really intense barriers in achieving meaningful work and economic equality. Together with another student named Jassiem Renfro, they believed they could change that.
Their first idea was a custom t-shirt printing business that would be owned and operated by adults with disabilities. “With the success of that project, we decided to expand our work and create a model that would help adults with disabilities start their own business,” Haydn said. Today, Haydn serves as the COO for what is now a 501(C)3 organization. “What started as an original idea has turned into a unique opportunity that we're confident can transform lives,” he said.
With all of that on his plate, Haydn still manages to excel scholastically, earning a consistent spot on the Dean’s List and making Bronze Tablet, which recognizes students graduating in the top 3 percent of their class. Perhaps his most astonishing achievement is the speed at which he’s accomplished it all. The third-year student will graduate in May and has already accepted a job with Teach for America. He plans to teach for two years in Chicago and eventually pursue a law degree that will allow him to serve marginalized communities.
As for his time at Illinois, Haydn said it’s been both life-changing and meaningful, and he’s grateful for the support that enabled him to follow his dreams. “Donors, especially those who provide scholarships, enable students to focus not on their tuition bill, but on getting the most of what the university and college have to offer,” said Haydn, adding, “an Illinois education is a real gift—I've loved every minute of my time here.”
“Scholarships like the one I received continue to be the saving grace and support that holds us up. Thank you for investing in our future and caring for our success." — Nidhi Shastri, winner of the Gary V. Kaiser and Patricia Kaiser Scholarship
Nidhi Shastri has been a writer, a speaker, a college radio newscaster, and a podcaster. During her time at Illinois, she has developed a wide range of communication skills and used them to help those who sometimes feel unrepresented in the broader culture. But before she could help others find their voice, she had to find her own.
For Nidhi, that journey started in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, a Chicago suburb that, while rich in diversity, was low in economic opportunities. “Over 50 percent of my high school was on free and reduced lunch,” said Nidhi. At times, she felt conscious about the economic divide she experienced.
“I sometimes felt bad looking at other more economically well-off schools, but I quickly adapted and use what I learned in practice in order to do well,” said Nidhi, who helped captain the school’s speech team to a state competition. “Though we didn’t always have the same economic benefits as other suburban schools we competed against, we had very passionate teachers, and through that I developed a strong work ethic and a passion for my community.”
After graduating high school, she briefly considered following her sister to Marquette University, but Illinois offered a better financial aid package, and something even more important—the ability to do her own thing. “I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and have an adventure on my own, and University of Illinois became a way to do that,” she said.
At first she planned to be a biology major, but things didn’t go according to plan. “I knew I was falling behind,” said Nidhi, who soon found herself wondering if she had the tools to persevere. “Though I contemplated dropping out many times, I decided to stay at Illinois and keep trying to succeed.”
Realizing that she had a passion for communicating, she decided to switch majors her sophomore year, opting for a major in political science with a concentration in law and power, and a second major in earth, society, and environmental sustainability. For Nidhi, it was love at first course guide.
“I knew as soon as I was in these two majors that these were the places I was meant to be,” said Nidhi. “I studied the intricate and complicated world of political theory deeply in my four years and applied environmental concepts to the politics I was learning.” And she took those lessons outside the classroom, advocating for political and environmental change on campus and beyond.
This past summer, she was selected to work with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, one of the largest non-profits in America, where she helped write, edit, and compile data for “Clean Jobs Midwest 2018,” a survey of clean energy employment in 12 Midwestern states. “It is one of the largest and most influential projects I have ever had the opportunity to work on,” said Nidhi, calling the experience invaluable.
At school, she took on other causes, working with Aahana UIUC, a registered student organization that helped raise money for a school in India that served disabled orphans, and becoming a multicultural advocate for University Housing, which she regards as one of her highest honors. “I get to educate residents and staff members on social justice and advocacy,” said Nidhi, who has given talks on identity and dialoguing to University of Illinois at Springfield resident advisors, as well as U of I desk clerks and dining hall staff.
For many, speaking to large groups would be a challenge, but for Nidhi it’s second nature, thanks to a three-year internship with a local college radio station that honed her speaking skills. During her junior year at WPGU 107.1, she landed a gig co-hosting a Sunday morning show called “Rock and Roll in Español.” It was there that she caught the bug for broadcasting and began producing and publishing her own podcast, Model Minority, which focuses on the lives of African and Asian immigrants in America.
Nidhi said she’s fortunate to have earned the Gary V. Kaiser and Patricia Kaiser Scholarship, which helped make much of her exploration possible. “As someone who qualified for Federal Work Study through FAFSA, I have always had a job in addition to being a full-time student. However, I often sent most of the money I earned back home to help out, which made it more difficult for me to have the same experiences as other college students. Getting this scholarship has allowed me to be able to still send money home and buy a new laptop for myself,” explained Nidhi. While she still works and teaches a class to earn money, Nidhi said the scholarship has lifted some of the weight off her shoulders and allowed her to enjoy her senior year more.
After graduating, Nidhi hopes to secure a job in TV or radio that allows her to carry on the work she has already started with her podcast, communicating important concepts in a fun and interesting way. No matter where she goes, however, she said she will always be grateful for those who helped make it possible. “As more cuts to higher education threaten the ability for students from lower-income backgrounds to move up and work toward the ‘American Dream,’ scholarships like the one I received continue to be the saving grace and support that holds us up,” said Nidhi. “Thank you for investing in our future and caring for our success.”
Read more scholar stories
Every year, the College of LAS helps students from various backgrounds and fields of study pursue possibilities by providing scholarships. The students featured above are just some of many who benefit from the generosity of donors.
View stories from previous scholarship recipients:
- Michael Mitchell Eakman Scholarship recipient, 2017-2018
- Madeline Decker Jean Crist Weagant and William G. Crist Memorial Scholarship recipient, 2017-2018
- Nicole Odulate College of LAS Lincoln Scholar, 2017-2018
Interested in donating to similar efforts to help students throughout LAS? Learn how.
Donors support professorial scholars in LAS
“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.