Tell someone you work at the University and the same question is consistently asked: Do you teach?
About 1,400 do at Illinois State, but many others are needed away from the classroom in jobs that are often unusual. Few employers need a supervisor of costume crafts, an athletic turf specialist or a parking meter mechanic on staff.
These are but a sampling of the unique and often overlooked roles on campus. Others include the housekeeper who keeps the president’s home spotless and a University Farm herder who treats raw sewage. Both share how their work is far from a typical day at the office.
A Spic and Span plan
Perfection defines Fran Kaufmann. With her $9.98 iron, she presses wrinkles from T-shirts. If there’s a lipstick stain on a white linen napkin, she scrubs it out with a toothbrush. Fresh sweeper marks are important, as is pulling still-warm towels out of the dryer and folding them just so.
Kaufmann has done that and far more while serving four Illinois State presidents as the University residence housekeeper. Making sure a 4,000-square-foot home remains spotless is not an easy task, especially with thousands of visitors annually. She serves them all with a smile, greeting them at the front door when one leaves an umbrella in the foyer or a cell phone behind.
It’s a job she’s loved for 16 years.
“I treat it like it’s my house,” she said. “I always try and make sure the front rooms are perfect. You never know who’s coming through the door.”
The 70-year-old was the personal housekeeper for Vic and Megan Boschini before he became president. He encouraged her to apply for the campus job, and she didn’t hesitate. Her husband, Ed, was a self-employed carpenter and they needed the insurance.
She works from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and has no plans to stop. Cleaning homes has been her job since 17, when she graduated from high school and there were limited employment options. She grew up on a farm, gathering eggs and helping her mother with chores that ranged from churning butter to tending a huge garden.
That gives her something in common with the current University residents, as President Larry Dietz grew up on a dairy farm. Kaufmann is equally comfortable with his wife, Marlene.
“They’re very joyful, always laughing,” she said. “Larry will talk to me in the morning. If he’s having a cup of yogurt, he’ll offer me one. They’re just very friendly and outgoing people.”
Never having had a full-time housekeeper, Marlene had no idea what to expect. “I was a little fearful of my own privacy, but she gives you that,” Marlene said. “When we cross paths, we visit because we enjoy each other’s company. She has a gift for what she does.”
She also has a routine. She starts cleaning on the first floor on Monday, working her way through each level until she reaches the kitchen on Thursday. It gets a thorough scrubbing. “I have 1,500 pieces of silver that I keep up,” she said in explaining Friday’s work. “It’s relaxing for me to sit and polish.”
When there’s a big event, workers arrive at 8:30 a.m. to remove furniture from the living area. She puts the leaf in the dining room table that seats 18 and runs a dust rag over the skeleton of each chair.
She leaves a note at the end of each day to let the presidential couple know of scheduled work, such as an upcoming power wash for the house, or the need to pick ripened tomatoes from the garden.
The messages have been her signature for more than 50 years.
“It’s fun coming home and finding a note. She just makes our lives so much easier so we can go on and do the things that are expected of us,” Marlene said. “Being a new president’s wife, I couldn’t do it without her. She takes good care of both the house and us. I consider her a friend as well as the housekeeper. I miss her when she’s off.”
On those days, Kaufmann has no need to pull the sweeper out at her own home. Now that her husband of 51 years is retired, he cleans the house.
A shovel and a stench
Jason Lindbom’s job stinks. Literally.
Stirring buckets of raw animal sewage, he shows what happens to the sludge that’s treated at the University Farm’s Waste Treatment Center. Or, as the sign on the door accurately describes it: The Department of Poopology.
It’s a building you really don’t want to tour without holding your breath.
“You get used to it. Everything runs downhill,” he said, laughing. “You can say anything you want about that.”
Two days a week the 1993 ag production alum works in waste treatment. The rest of the time he and six others do daily chores—from feeding sows to breeding cows through artificial insemination.
“We all help each other out,” Lindbom said as he climbed into a mud-splattered pickup, diesel engine idling. “Everybody gets the chores done, and then you do your job.”
He came to ISU in 2009 as a herder, but that doesn’t mean he’s shepherding livestock around the Lexington farm. His official title is assistant agricultural research technician, which is not what he pictured himself doing when he graduated.
“I tried an office job and it wasn’t for me,” he said. “I’ve been outside all my life.”
When he and his wife Amy’s first daughter was born, he became a stay-at home dad, running his own business selling beef semen and breeding cows through artificial insemination. He worked from home until their second daughter was in first grade. His business eventually led him to the University Farm, where he loves working with agriculture students.
“I really like teaching students how to artificially inseminate cows,” he said. “When a kid gets it, just seeing their expression makes it worth it.”
It takes a few minutes to breed a cow and 283 days for a calf to be born. The students learn how to palpate a cow, pulling on a plastic sleeve, inserting a hand into the uterus and sweeping it from side to side. If they feel something like a water balloon about the size of a cat, the cow was successfully bred. They may even feel movement.
Not your typical university job. But neither is managing a waste treatment facility. The farm treats nearly all the manure produced to reduce odor and the environmental impact of livestock waste.
Lindbom monitors the equipment that separates the solid and liquid waste and treats the sewage. The liquid is used to feed the crops. The solids are hauled to quarter-mile-long compost rows, which also contain food waste from the University’s dining centers. The Town of Normal delivers leaves and grass clippings to the compost piles. Items homeowners raked out of their yards, from golf balls to dog toys, have to be picked out. The compost is made available for landscape use.
There is a definite advantage to such physical work. At the end of the day, when his wife asks him to go with her for a workout, Lindbom passes without guilt. He doesn’t need any more exercise.
“I tell her that’s what I’ve been doing all day.”
Overcoming obstacles of international travel
Occasionally Rachel Webb gets a call from someone in the community asking about a visa, a passport or in one case, how to visit Russia. Callers think she has all the answers because she’s one of three university immigration specialists.
The job involves helping international students tackle endless issues that range from working on class schedules to trying to get a social security number, looking for a bank or picking out a winter coat when transitioning from a warm climate. She forwards on those who need help beyond her scope, referring the Russia inquiry to the Russian consulate.
“People think we have a lot more power than we do,” said Webb, who works in the Office of International Studies and Programs. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as she functions more as an advisor to students who are not just new to campus but the United States.
Sixty-three countries are represented on campus. About 2 percent of the campus population, or 450 students, are international. The majority are completing graduate degrees. Webb also works with exchange students.
Beyond creating immigration documents, she familiarizes students with regulations. She preaches their need to keep their immigration documents in a safe place at all times and report a change of address to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security within 10 days. She also educates them on the American way, such as calling for an appointment before visiting a doctor’s office.
Overcoming a language barrier is another obstacle Webb understands well. Although travel is not part of her job, she spent a year in China as an English teacher. While growing up she lived in England and has visited Scotland, Ireland, France, Vietnam, Chile, Japan, Italy and Greece, among others.
She understands what it’s like to land in a country where you can’t communicate. That happened to her in Thailand. “That’s the first country I’ve ever entered when I saw a sign and thought, ‘Uh oh, I don’t know any words in Thai.’”
Webb plans on exploring more countries, along with finishing her master’s in college student personnel administration. On her wall is a world map poked with red dots showing where she’s been, which fuels her desire to plan more exploration. So does her work with ISU’s international students.
“We have great students. I love my job,” Webb said. “They’ll come here for anything. A lot of times they think we’re the only person who can help them.”
She doesn’t disappoint, as Webb has expertise to navigate the rules and regulations. A chart on her wall shows nearly 75 visa types, along with their restrictions. “This is our cheat sheet on visa statuses,” she said. “It’s really confusing for some. If I talk about visa types, most people’s eyes glaze over, but we think it’s fun.”
Occasionally she gets involved in retrieving a student who’s traveled too far, like the one who decided to visit Canada without the necessary travel documents and was unable to get back into the country.
For the most part, the work is about building relationships with students who are struggling to adapt. Webb has many examples of her interactions, including one that occurred during a new student orientation in January 2014.
The event fell during the polar vortex that gripped the Midwest, bringing record frigid temperatures and snowfall. A student had just arrived from Brazil, which was experiencing a summer of record heat.
He shared with Webb that it was the coldest day of his life. She laughed as she recalled her response: “I told him, ‘Well, this is the coldest day of my life too!’”