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Student-athlete makes impact on the track, in the community

Zillmer competes in the steeplechase at Nationals.

Zillmer competes in the steeplechase at Nationals in Spring 2013.

Senior special education major Kristen Zillmer is a standout cross country and track and field runner.

Specializing in long distance running, she reached nationals in her junior year and was named a team captain for 2013-2014. But as her friends, professors, and coaches would tell you, the strides she has made in all aspects of her life while at Illinois State are the result of her tremendous character, not her running spikes.

Despite the demands of being a two-sport athlete taking classes in an intense education major, Zillmer has found a way to volunteer on a regular basis on campus and in the community. She is vice president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), and has lent a helping hand to Marcfirst, Recess Buddies, Easter Seals, Festival of Trees, Day of Dozers, and Reggie Fun Zone, among others.

“I am a very active person, and I benefit from moving around and talking to people,” Zillmer said. “When I find a volunteer opportunity, I would much rather do that than stay home and watch TV.”

Because of Zillmer’s enjoyment of this work, it was unsurprising to anyone, except perhaps her, when she was named the 2013 Impact Award winner. The honor, which was presented to her during Family Weekend at The Reggies award ceremony, recognizes the student athlete who “embodies a commitment to excellence and has a desire to make an impact on the lives of others with outstanding leadership skills, commitment to academics and service to the community.”

Just two weeks after receiving this award, Zillmer was also named a Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Leadership and Service Award recipient. MVC student-athletes receive this award for demonstrating citizenship through sportsmanship and significant community service.

Among those who have helped Zillmer balance her time among obligations at the University are Jeff Bovee, head coach of cross country, and Elvis Forde, head coach of track and field.

“She is constantly thriving and striving to be the best that she can be, and that is why I have seen so much growth in her over a four-year span,” said Bovee. “She is working hard to become a well-rounded person, and she has really come a long way.”

For Forde, the student-athlete’s traits as an aspiring educator have always been apparent to him and have made their way onto the track.

“The way she goes about her work on a daily basis shows her abilities as a leader,” Forde said. “And whenever she needs to, she goes to the forefront to take charge and gets on

Zillmer visits with a student at Thomas Metcalf School student during lunch.

Zillmer talks with a student at Thomas Metcalf School during lunch.

her teammates. Her qualities as a teacher become evident.”

Zillmer’s natural ability to motivate others in practice and competition harkens back to a desire to appreciate people on a personal level and come to know what they care about. By applying this knowledge appropriately, she is able to get the most out of her teammates. This is a tactic she employs in the classroom, as well.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about special education,” she said. “Students with disabilities are so interesting, and it’s a wonderful challenge to understand what motivates them and to understand what they’re thinking.”

Zillmer’s patience and persistence are among the many characteristics that have helped her to develop her abilities as a teacher. Her dedication to improve has been witnessed by many of her professors, including April Mustian, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education.

“During my course’s challenging applied assessment project, Kristen maintained amazing professionalism and disposition for teaching,” Mustian said. “She has many qualities that I feel will make her successful in the classroom: pedagogical competence, drive, work ethic, dedication, perseverance, passion, authentic caring, collegiality, and humility, among others.”

As her career at Illinois State enters its last few semesters, the successful student-athlete is in a unique position to impart words of wisdom for freshmen who aspire to be educators and compete in a collegiate sport.

“The first thing they need to know is that there is no way they are going to graduate on time,” Zillmer said. “But more importantly, they need to make sure they plan out everything as much as they can, stay positive, and always put school first.”

Coming from a student-athlete who somehow made time for everything, this promises to be among the soundest of advice.