President Larry Dietz addressed a crowd of more than 400 alumni, donors, and friends in Redbird Arena Saturday night to announce an ambitious effort to ensure success for Redbirds now and in the future. Dietz was joined by famous alumni Jane Lynch, Sean Hayes, and Gary Cole who appeared via hologram throughout the evening.

“While we have much to celebrate, there is more that we can do—and should. We have high standards and aspirations for what we can yet achieve at Illinois State. But to accomplish our vision, we need the philanthropic partnership of our Redbird alumni and friends,” Dietz said.

Jane Lynch '82 appeared as a hologram on stage alongside a hologram version "Sue Sylvester," Lynch's character from Glee.

Jane Lynch ’82 appeared as a hologram on stage alongside a hologram version “Sue Sylvester,” Lynch’s character from Glee.

That vision led university leaders to create Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State. The $150 million fundraising campaign is the most ambitious in our history, enabling the University to achieve three crucial outcomes: supporting student and faculty scholarship, educating globally aware and socially engaged leaders, and sparking continuous creativity and innovation.

“Illinois State is a premier institution for those who seek the commitment of student-centered teaching and learning, but there is no denying that the investment in higher education is significant,” Dietz said. “Some of the Redbird experiences that define the quality of an ISU education are a financial stretch for many.”

Reggie Redbird and Redbirds Rising logo

Thanks to a foundation strengthened by decades of strong leadership and passionate alumni, Illinois State has thrived in a challenging environment. This position of strength encouraged the University to launch the “quiet phase” of the campaign in July 2013. During that time the top 100 public university set three consecutive records for freshman enrollment while achieving top 10 percent graduation and retention rates.

Concurrent with this success, Illinois State University consistently achieved record fundraising. Vice President of University Advancement Pat Vickerman announced that more than $103 million had already been committed to Redbirds Rising, leaving $47 million needed to reach the $150 million mark by June 2020.

The event presented an opportunity to recognize pace-setting gifts that provided a substantial boost to campaign totals and will impact every corner of campus. These visionary gifts have taken philanthropy to even higher levels and significantly enhance the Illinois State educational experience.

“I invite you to join with others to reflect on your own Redbird experience and consider ways in which you can help future Redbirds pursue their dreams and aspirations.”

With the launch of Redbirds Rising, the University is now turning to more Redbirds to support their areas of interest. Donors can choose to support their passion at Illinois State and all gifts, regardless of allocation, will move Redbirds Rising closer to the campaign goal.

Student Connie Hoekstra talks about the important role scholarships play in her ability to attend Illinois State.

“I ask you now to imagine the role you will play in ISU’s future as we raise the level of scholarship, leadership, and innovation throughout our university,” Vickerman said.

Every indication shows an enthusiastic base of alumni and friends ready to rise to the challenge. While many universities are experiencing a drop in alumni donor participation, that number is on the rise at Illinois State. The number of alumni donors has increased over the past several years with over 25,000 alumni making a gift to the campaign.

“There’s so much momentum here at Illinois State,” said Executive Director of Annual Giving Lora Wey. “It’s exciting that so many of our alumni and friends are interested in giving back to the school they love.”

Video introducing the Scholarship Rising pillar.

Money raised through Redbirds Rising is not intended to replace state support. Instead, philanthropic dollars provide a margin of excellence that enables Illinois State to support three campaign pillars: Scholarship Rising, Leadership Rising, and Innovation Rising. Each pillar was introduced and expounded upon by guest speakers Saturday during the campaign kickoff.

Scholarship Rising

Scholarship Rising targets priorities that center on student and faculty support and was introduced by a hologram video of Emmy award-winning actor Sean Hayes.

“Through the support of scholarship we can provide unprecedented access to an ISU education and advance scholarly pursuits that help future Redbirds make their dreams a reality,” Hayes said.

Connie Hoekstra, a sophomore special education major, shared her story. Hoekstra was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma days before she had planned to depart for college on the East Coast. Her college plans were delayed as she underwent months of chemotherapy. During that time Hoekstra visited her brother at Illinois State and was attracted to the intimate feel of the campus. She changed her mind and applied to Illinois State for the following fall.

“I received a scholarship from ISU, and my financial worries lessened,” Hoekstra said. “The scholarship provided certainty in a time of great uncertainty. The scholarships I receive from ISU make all my dreams possible because my financial situation is no longer my biggest worry.”

Jan Murphy and Levester Johnson on stage at campaign kickoff

Vice Presidents Jan Murphy and Levester Johnson introduce Leadership Rising.

Leadership Rising

Leadership Rising will advance programs that help students learn to be innovative problem-solvers, which facilitate civic engagement and develop leadership.

“Now there are many ways to lead,” said Emmy award-winning actress Jane Lynch via hologram. “It’s not just CEO style leadership but also leadership of communities, families, organizations throughout our state, nation, and world.”

“One reason Illinois State is so special is our absolute focus on students,” Vice President of Student Affairs Levester Johnson said. “We are committed to helping each and every Redbird develop the leadership and professional skills needed to achieve their goals and impact their part of the world. We prepare tomorrow’s leaders by providing students with high-quality programming that offers opportunities for them to learn and practice their skills from the day they arrive on campus.”

Opportunities include increased participation in leadership programs, off-campus internships, diversity initiatives, career development, and service-learning projects.

Innovation Rising

Students addressing the importance of innovation.

Students Isaac Dallas and Christopher Davis share how innovation at ISU has helped them launch a business.

Innovation Rising is designed to prepare our students to be innovators in their fields. Veep star Gary Cole also joined the evening via hologram to introduce academic stars that are already benefiting from creative workspaces and innovative technology.

“To spark creativity and innovation students need to have the right environment,” Cole said. “These young women and men need to have the tools, some of them high-tech tools, that will give them advantages as they begin their lives and future careers.”

Student Antonio Munoz is taking advantage of the new cybersecurity program at Illinois State. “When I talk about the classes I take and what I do in them with people from other schools or professionals in the field, they are amazed,” Munoz said. “Our classes emphasize hands-on experience and learning the latest tools and techniques used in the real world. I appreciate ISU recognizing the importance of cybersecurity in today’s world.”

Vice President of University Advancement, Pat Vickerman, on stage with Reggie Redbird.

Vice President of University Advancement Pat Vickerman on stage with Reggie Redbird.

Megan Hildebrandt is using her background in music therapy to offer innovative solutions to complex problems. “The College of Fine Arts is working across the disciplines to develop applied arts that can advance modern industry and help achieve desired social outcomes,” Hildebrandt said. “I’ve seen Alzheimer’s patients who rarely speak, light up and sing whole verses to favorite songs. Hospital patients in pain relax and fall asleep. Grad school teachers in awe as their student with unmanageable behaviors follows directions to play the drum.”

Other students and faculty joined Munoz and Hildebrandt in sharing specific examples of how their academic area is using innovative technologies and partnerships to solve real-world problems.

In the 160 years since its founding as Illinois’ first public university, there have been leaders and initiatives that advanced Illinois State University to a new height of excellence.

“Tonight we’ve seen how scholarship, leadership, and innovation are rising to new levels of excellence across campus,” said Redbirds Rising campaign chair Jim Mounier ’74. “President Dietz pointed to our predecessors, great visionaries such as Jesse Fell and Robert Bone, who took action to propel Illinois State forward at critical points in its history. This is our time.”

Campaign co-chairs on stage at kickoff event.

Campaign co-chairs Jim ’74 and Carole ’75 Mounier, and Dan ’70 and Pam Kelley.

Before the close of Saturday’s event, Dietz urged Redbirds across the nation to rise to the challenge.

“I invite you to join with others to reflect on your own Redbird experience and consider ways in which you can help future Redbirds pursue their dreams and aspirations,” Dietz said.

To learn more about how you can get involved with Redbirds Rising, visit or call (309) 438-8184. Follow for campaign news and stories of impact. Click here for more photos from the campaign kickoff.

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