The reopening of a renovated Lincoln Hall in 2012 represented a fresh start not only for the building and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, but for eight incoming freshmen who enrolled that fall as the first scholarship recipients of the Lincoln Scholars Initiative.
The initiative, a scholarship program for promising incoming LAS students whose financial situation might prevent them from enrolling at Illinois, named its first group of Lincoln Scholars in 2012. They were introduced during Lincoln Hall’s reopening ceremony.
Since that day, 60 scholarships have been awarded through the program, which is funded by gifts to the initiative. Now, after four years of classes, study abroad trips, internships, volunteer work, and other aspects of student life, the original Lincoln Scholars are on the brink of graduation.
Max Colon, Natalia Recko, Adam Smith, Lucy Li, Shannon Miller, Tomasz Luka, Finey Ruan, and Manfred Kubler have each left their marks throughout their respective four years on campus, and have all taken distinct paths to the eventual finish line of May’s commencement ceremony.
Although their individual experiences on campus have been unique, the common denominator has always been the Lincoln Scholars program.
When Finey Ruan arrived at Illinois from Chicago as a freshman in 2012, her plan was to graduate with a degree in molecular and cellular biology in three years and go straight to medical school. Gradually her mind changed, however, and instead of graduating in three years she’ll do it in four, with dual degrees in chemistry and integrative biology honors, after having spent a year studying abroad in England—an experience she now considers invaluable.
“It gives a lot of perspective, and it kind of gives you like a different way of looking at things that you’ve never thought of before,” Ruan said. She added: “I felt like I would not have gone that route if it wasn’t for the (Lincoln Scholars) scholarship. I might not have come to this school in the first place. I might not even go study abroad in the second place.”
During his very first day on campus, Max Colon volunteered with Illini Fighting Hunger and realized he was attending his dream school. Now, the Mt. Prospect, Ill., native is the president of Illini Fighting Hunger and a programming advisor at Allen Hall. Colon is double majoring in psychology and Spanish and is excited to remain on campus after graduation to pursue a master’s degree at Illinois’ College of Labor of Employment Relations.
“I think the Lincoln scholars program for me, has really been an opportunity for us who may not have had the privilege of attending college to say, ‘Hey I’m here, I belong here and I’m going to make the absolute most of my time here,’” Colon said.
Natalia Recko said being a Lincoln Scholar has allowed her to take advantage of opportunities she may not have had—and hadn’t even considered. While at Illinois, Recko discovered a passion for volunteering and founded the Illinois chapter of MEDLIFE, a global not-for-profit that delivers aid to poor communities. Recko will earn a degree in chemical engineering and has already accepted a post-graduation job at a Shell petroleum refinery in California.
“I came here wanting to become a doctor, but then I started getting involved in a lot of different opportunities here on campus and that really shaped myself and what I want to do,” she said. “That’s how I developed myself not as a future doctor, but as a future engineer.”
Coming from a family full of Illinois alumni, it was only fitting for Adam Smith to find his voice at Illinois. During his time on campus, Smith, a political science and communication major, has written political columns for the Daily Illini, coordinated with the Illini Democrats to bring Bernie Sanders to campus and even interned with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Smith said public service will be his post-gradation route and plans to attend to law school.
Coming from a single-parent household, Shannon Miller said the Lincoln scholarship has allowed her to fully focus on her studies and research as an integrative biology major.
During her four years on campus, Miller has found her niche as researcher and as the president of Illinois’ student chapter of the American Chemistry Society. Miller’s hard work led to acceptance into Harvard’s PhD program in chemical biology.
Tomasz Luka has found a similar freedom to explore his major rather than having to worry too much about his finances. Majoring in actuarial science, Luka has devoted his time at Illinois to his studies and recently interned with CNA Financial.
“It feels like a really big accomplishment now that I’m closer to the finish line,” Luka said, “It only hit me this semester—you’re kind of moving the status of your family up.”
Manfred Kubler will graduate with a degree in Germanic languages and literature. His post-graduation plans include attending medical school at Northwestern.
For Lucy Li, coming to Illinois as a Lincoln Scholar has helped her reconnect with her Chinese heritage. Li said being on a campus full of people who celebrate their roots has allowed her to embrace her own. Li has immersed herself in campus life by joining various international dance groups and participating in Student Senate and the UIUC National Organization for Woman. She is majoring in statistics and hopes to work for a start-up company.
“I remember when I found out I was a Lincoln Scholar and I met all the other Lincoln scholars,” Li said. “I feel like it’s definitely a huge honor to have that.”