Students partner with retirees for insights on life
We live in a society that celebrates youth, creating an unfortunate gulf between generations. Young adults still have much to learn. Those who have reached retirement age are still eager to engage and have a wealth of wisdom gained through a lifetime of experience to share.
Illinois State recognized long ago the desirability of bridging the gap between college students preparing to enter the workplace and individuals on the other end of the spectrum—those who dedicated decades to their chosen field before retirement. The two cohorts have been coming together for 25 years on the ISU campus through mentoring and lifelong learning programs offered by Senior Professionals.
Abby Ildefonso, a senior education major and an Honors student, has benefited directly as a result. She decided as a freshman to participate in the mentoring program. “If there is someone out there who is willing to share with me real-life experiences, why not? Any insight, especially at this age when we don’t know what we will do next, is helpful,” she said.
Ed Heerdt of Bloomington has been her mentor all four years. With a doctorate in chemical engineering and a 30-year career at Shell Oil, Heerdt has enjoyed the opportunity to share his academic and professional experience with Ildefonso. She in turn is grateful for the time he has invested on her behalf.
“He has given me a lot of advice about how to present myself, things I should have prepared, things to put on or leave off my resume, and mistakes made in interviews,” Ildefonso said. “He has been really, really helpful.”
The relationship has proven beneficial as well for Heerdt, who has mentored four students over 14 years. “It’s been delightful. Each has become like extended family,” said Heerdt, who joined Senior Professionals in 2000 because of the opportunity to continue lifelong learning.
“I’m a big believer in education. Formal education gets you started on the rest of your life,” Heerdt said. He soon became involved on committees and as a mentor. His goal is to establish an adult relationship with students while connecting them to the community and creating a safety net as they go forward toward graduation.
Those objectives have not changed much since the start of Senior Professionals, which began in 1989 through the efforts of College of Fine Arts Dean Emeritus Charles Bolen, who is deceased.
Under the directive of then President Thomas Wallace, Bolen explored the idea of creating a program for retirees to interact with ISU students. The plan proposed and accepted was founded on two primary goals: start a campus mentoring program for Honors students; and expand lifelong learning opportunities for retirees through classes that explore a range of topics without tests, written assignments, or course credit.
Initially under the College of Continuing Education umbrella with Bolen as the first director, Senior Professionals shifted to Professional Development and today continues as part of Conference Services. Geography-Geology Professor Emeritus James Carter leads the board of directors, partnering with ISU employee and program coordinator Laura Kowalczyk ’91, M.S. ’96.
At first organized so that members were considered adjunct faculty who underwent an extensive interview process, Senior Professionals now welcomes retired and semi-retired individuals from all backgrounds through a simple application and a $125 donation to ISU’s Foundation.
Only 39 of the current 167 members have a professional tie to Illinois State. Others come from diverse businesses and organizations, with those involved tied to fields ranging from social services and trades to volunteerism. Beyond educators there are lawyers, doctors, engineers, business owners, insurance professionals, and bankers in the group whose members range from age 60 to 92. And while most early members were men, women now account for slightly more than 40 percent of the total.
Members receive a discount when attending Mornings with the Professors or the Academy of Seniors. The morning series offers five weekly sessions on five varied topics with five different individuals leading the discussion. Topics explored this year have ranged from pharmaceutical chemistry and the drug market to why Korea does not have spelling bees.
In contrast, the Academy of Seniors has one presenter who covers one topic for four sessions, with each session lasting two hours. Three programs offered in the spring included globalization and the new world economy, the birth of modern America, and communicating in a diverse world. The classes have grown in popularity over the years, becoming yet another example of the strong town-gown relationship ISU has established.
Dan Leifel ’66, M.S. ’71, of Bloomington was introduced to Senior Professionals as a course instructor when asked to teach on the Revolutionary War years ago. “I ended up joining the organization,” said Leifel, who worked as a lawyer with Farm Bureau and COUNTRY Financial before retiring.
Since his membership in 2005, Leifel has been active as a board member, helped with career fairs, conducted mock interviews, and mentored a dozen students. He is currently partnered with senior psychology major Brianne Madden and freshman finance student Jacob Henderson.
Like his counterparts, Leifel enjoys the opportunity to learn and socialize, but is most enthusiastic about engaging with students as a mentor, which has been a cornerstone of the program since its start.
Bolen cemented a working partnership with the Honors Program, which is celebrating its 50th year. He chose the group because it was established on campus and students involved were already identified as having leadership potential.
The opportunity still exists for Honors students, who are paired with a Senior Professional based on their academic and career interests to the extent possible. They meet with their mentor throughout each semester for conversation, building a friendship that often lasts well beyond a student’s graduation.
Leifel has had the opportunity to help students find internships, connecting them with judges and other professionals from his days of practicing law.“It makes me feel good to open doors and share advice on their ideas,” he said, noting mentors do not serve as parents and are not tutors. They are instead a resource and friend—albeit one that is much older. “Students may be dealing with someone with white hair for the first time in their life,” he said with a laugh.
His wife, Paula (Esworthy) Leifel ’71, is also involved as a mentor who is happy to keep a connection to Illinois State. Her father, Ray Esworthy, served as ISU’s chief fiscal officer for years and was head of the accounting department as well. Paula has retired from a career as a reading specialist in Bloomington’s District 87 and is working with two students as well: sophomore Amy Hooymans and freshman Dylyn Hennenfent.
Like others in the program, they enjoy participating in group activities that include an annual pizza party, fall sandwich supper, and a spring social. The spring event is unique in that three students are chosen to receive the Charles W. Bolen Award, which comes with $1,000 and recognizes not only Bolen’s legacy but students whose community service is outstanding. An endowment in Bolen’s name was established last year to help fund additional awards.
The fundraising is just one activity tied to the anniversary year, which will include several events celebrating the growth and success of Senior Professionals. Since the program’s start, members have expanded their influence beyond the mentoring by offering $1,000 grants as Service Learning Awards to Registered Student Organizations. This outreach allows the retirees to partner with ISU’s American Democracy Project, which promotes service learning and civic engagement.
Mock interviews are another avenue for participation. The group was enlisted in 1998 to help with this exercise, which became mandatory for all student-athletes during their junior year. Since then other departments have asked Senior Professionals for a similar service.
Other volunteer work includes joining ISU staff in welcoming students during orientation sessions at the start of the fall semester and operating a “first check booth” at career fairs. Members have been on hand since 2007 to help calm the nerves of students before they interact with recruiters. The retirees listen to students’ introductory pitches and do a wardrobe check that may require use of a Tide pen or lint roller, which are always on hand.
It’s the kind of help students appreciate and mentors are happy to provide. As the Leifels said with a sense of humor, involvement with students gives them something to talk about other than their physical ailments.
“These students could be our grandchildren,” Paula said, noting that she appreciates their help as well in figuring out her cell phone and computer glitches. “It’s just a wonderful way to connect to the current generation and keep from feeling that you have one foot in the grave.”
Editor’s note: Learn more about joining Senior Professionals by contacting Laura Kowalczyk at (309) 438-2818 or lakowa2@IllinoisState.edu. She also has information about events tied to the anniversary year.
Remembering Dean Bolen
A staff sergeant in the Air Force during WWII and a flutist with the Army Air Force, Charles Bolen arrived at Illinois State in 1970 to serve as the first College of Fine Arts dean. Beyond Senior Professionals, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and Friends of the Fine Arts came to life as a result of his leadership.
Although he died in 2010 at the age of 86, Bolen is remembered and respected on campus for his investment in students. His legacy lives on through the Senior Professionals Charles W. Bolen Endowed Award Fund. Contribute today by calling Laura Kowalczyk at (309) 438-2818 or by email at lakowa2@IllinoisState.edu. Online donations may be made at SeniorProfessionals.IllinoisState.edu.