After 30 years of service to the Division of Student Affairs, Rick Lewis retired from Illinois State in 2016, but his impact on students and involvement with the University continues.
Lewis held various positions in the Division of Student Affairs, including many roles in University Housing, as director of the former Multicultural Affairs office, and 15 years as an associate dean in the Dean of Students Office. As he reflected on his experiences, he talked about the influence he had on the culture of the campus as part of the Dean of Students Office.
“We became embedded into the institutional culture. People knew that they could contact us and we were going to help. We made a difference.” Whether it was assisting a concerned parent or faculty member, or offering one-on-one assistance to a student of color, Lewis feels that these services bring value to the campus community.
By removing barriers to help students succeed in college, Lewis was able to celebrate with countless graduations. “Anytime a student graduates, it’s an achievement, particularly when it’s a student of color.” He always enjoyed greeting students at commencement, meeting their families, and thanking them for sharing their students with him, as many referred to him as “Uncle Rick.”
When talking about individualized attention, Lewis said it is “rare that an institution the size of ISU can have the kind of personal contact that we have with students. It’s one of the things that makes us unique.” He believes one of the reasons he was so successful in helping students was because of the close relationships he built with colleagues across campus. He always knew there were others who were accessible and shared his passion for helping students. Lewis laughed as he recalled staff joking with him about never being in the office. “I was always out building relationships. The campus was my office.”
As he prepared for his retirement, he knew he wanted his legacy of helping students to continue. He understood that there would always be financial barriers for low-income, first-generation, or underrepresented students, such as their ability to afford books or involvement opportunities. That’s why he created the Rick Lewis Inspiration Award, part of the Student Success and Excellence Fund. Lewis continues to donate to this fund, and assists in soliciting contributions.
He continues to be involved on campus in other ways. One of the students he has mentored throughout the years is a senior majoring in political science. Lewis meets with him monthly to track his progress toward graduation. He also serves on the Campus Climate Task Force, and while he understands that change does not occur overnight, he anticipates long-term success from that initiative.
“We must be persistent in our work to achieve a campus environment where everyone feels included, where everyone gets to be part of this community, and where everyone cares and respects each other and assists one another in reaching their goals. We need to break down the barriers of self-segregation and foster an academic environment that encourages inclusivity.”
His work on breaking down barriers extends beyond campus borders. As he approached retirement, he returned to his art, painting, and has combined his passion for social justice with his artwork. Inspired by the men of My Brother’s Keeper, a registered student organization on campus, he began painting portraits of men of color with the goal of challenging the stereotypes and misconceptions about this population.
“I wanted to challenge the audience to really look at the individual, to suspend judgment, and be open to their stories,” he said. His series, (In)Visible Men, has been displayed in numerous locations, including the McLean County Arts Center, where the models were invited to the exhibit’s opening. He reflected on that evening, when the men were “elevated to celebrity status.” He said it was an amazing and humbling experience to watch them mingle with those who may never have truly interacted with a person of color. “These men were part of breaking down these stereotypes.”
Since retirement, Lewis has continued painting, but now looks for inspiration from his travels. One of his most recent paintings features four children from the Masai Tribe in Tanzania, whom he met after hiking to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in September 2016.
Lewis continues to be grateful for his time at Illinois State University and in the Division. He shares that all of his experiences and the work that he accomplished with students is what helped him become the person he is today.
Thank you, Rick, for your continued service to Illinois State and the Division of Student Affairs!