It didn’t take long for Illinois State University senior Jara Pinkham to spark a connection with Jerry and Connie Kerber.

They were paired up at a recent event bringing together Illinois State’s most generous donors, including the Kerbers, with graduating students like Pinkham. Connie Kerber worked in special education for 25 years in the Normal-based Unit 5 school district, where Pinkham just accepted a special education teacher position. Donor and student became mentor and mentee—all of them Redbirds.

“The two of them were jabbering at a thousand miles an hour,” said Jerry, a 1974 graduate and former president of Illinois State’s Alumni Association board. “It was a great conversation.”

Larry Dietz speaks to donors

President Larry Dietz speaks to donors and students at Greet Our Grads on Saturday, April 23, 2016.

Those connections were made throughout the event, called Greet Our Grads, held Saturday, April 23, outside the University Residence. Thirty students networked with more than 50 donors from Illinois State’s 1857 Society, which recognizes those who’ve made lifetime gifts of more than $50,000 to the University. Its name is a nod to the University’s founding in 1857.

The 1857 Society is comprised of visionary donors who give to a variety of campus areas and initiatives that reflect their personal passions, with one constant—they all invest in the lives of ISU’s students.

“We launched the Greet Our Grads brunch to provide an opportunity for donors to interact with a sampling of these students they have helped nurture over the past four years,” said Jillian Young, director of stewardship and donor relations for University Advancement. “It was an especially valuable event because the Class of 2016 participants also had the unique privilege of receiving mentorship during the brunch from this successful group of alumni and friends.”

Pinkham said it was an honor to represent the Department of Special Education at the event. Her conversation with the Kerbers also veered into mentorship, with the Kerbers stressing the importance of networking and how beneficial it is to be an excellent communicator.

“This event really showed how much the donors truly care about the University and the students benefiting from such a quality education,” said Pinkham, who also mingled with President Larry Dietz. “It really makes me proud about being a Redbird and soon being an alumna of the University.”

Jerry Kerber was also impressed by the first-time event, which preceded the Redbird football spring game.

Yes, Illinois State’s 1857 Society donors give money to the University, but that’s not all, he said.

“We have so much more that we want to contribute,” Kerber said. “This mentorship, it’s invaluable. You can’t put a price on it. That’s what these young people are looking for, any way they can get it.”

The newest group of 1857 Society donors will be inducted at October’s A Tasty Tour event.

Learn more about how private giving impacts Illinois State University.

Ryan Denham can be reached at