Unfolding a legacy: How Tom Carroll works to pay it forward
Through what Tom Carroll ’84, M.S. ’89, calls the unfolding of his career, he has gone from earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in psychology at Illinois State University to working as executive vice president and chief administrative officer at RR Donnelley, an international Fortune 500 company based in Chicago that employs 68,000 employees worldwide. Now, he’s back at ISU, serving as an instructor for the Mennonite College of Nursing and leading the Leadership Academy for senior nursing students.
Coming full circle
Carroll’s life looks much different now than when he was at RR Donnelley. The transition was a gradual one, marked by the sudden death of his wife, Kay Ellen Dahlquist ’85, in 2016.
“It was a time of reassessing, redefining my life, and thinking about what I wanted to do. It meant asking, ‘What did I love?’” said Carroll of his wife’s passing.
The answer came from examining the twists and turns of his own career: from attending Illinois State to teaching “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” to BroMenn Healthcare’s workforce and physician practices and overseeing Leadership and Development for the whole of RR Donnelley.
“My whole career was like watching my life go full circle. And now it’s full circle once again,” said Carroll. “I’m back at the university, and I love it here. Coming here as an undergrad was almost like growing up.”
Now that he’s back on campus, Carroll is seeing Illinois State with fresh eyes.
“Campus is just so different, and in some ways so much the same,” said Carroll. “I remember walking from Tri-Towers and dodging traffic while trying to cross Main Street and College. Now there’s an underpass at the interaction and a bus to campus. And even Uptown! It’s so much bigger and so much more spread out.”
Carroll also brings to campus years of work experience to share.
“I’m coming back to actually teach, so I’m coming back to a place where I have a historical perspective to do work that I love,” said Carroll.
Leading future leaders
Carroll is committed to passing on his hard-earned knowledge of leadership and management. He and two Doctors of Nursing co-teach Leadership Dimension in Nursing. And his classes are popular. One section has 56 students, and the other 86.
Even more popular than his class is the Leadership Academy he facilitates. Carroll volunteers his time for the Leadership Academy, which is funded by donor support. The non-credit, 25-hour professional development was born in 2017 out of conversations between Carroll and Dean Judy Neubrander at a time when Carroll had just left his position at RR Donnelley.
“I remember having a conversation with Dean Neubrander about the Leadership Academy and thinking, ‘Why not try this? What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen?’” said Carroll.
The risk paid off. In the first year of the Leadership Academy in 2017, 20 students completed the course. In 2018, 90 students applied, and 70 were accepted into the program.
It’s through the Leadership Academy that Carroll is building a legacy on campus.
“If twenty years from now my students are stronger leaders, if they go out in the work environment and understand that they’ve got a professional voice that needs to be heard, if they have the ability to advocate for a patient against an authority figure, if they have the confidence to think ‘I’m going to speak up because I believe in what I’m saying, and I believe in what I’m advocating for,’ then I’ve created impact,” says Carroll.
From teaching students how to negotiate their first salary offers, to empowering them to pursue leadership opportunities throughout their careers, Carroll is passionate about giving voice to a formerly underrepresented population in healthcare: nurses.
“The largest employed population is really the nursing staff, but rarely is that group of people at the table around the transformation of care,” said Carroll. “Where are they? They’re at the bedside.”
Carroll is hopeful, though, that the tides are turning. “Part of my message to students is, ‘You are entering an entire business sector that’s in transformation.’ I think we’ll begin to see some changes in healthcare, influenced by the voice of what once was a bedside nurse, who has now worked his or her way up through the leadership ranks.”
Carroll’s message is hitting its mark. Senior nursing student Rachel Augius was at first apprehensive about committing time to the Leadership Academy, but her experience has been well worth the effort.
“Within the first five minutes of the first session, I knew I had made the right choice,” recalls Augius. “Tom Carroll speaks in a way that makes you want to listen. He taught us how to be confident and speak up, even when we’re scared to.”
Augius aspires to work on a pediatric hematology/oncology unit and eventually return to school to train as a pediatric nurse practitioner. “I feel so much more prepared to enter any interview, clinical, or experience in life. I believe this experience will make me a much stronger nurse in my future career and provide me with more confidence when approaching patients, families, or any hospital staff, including nurse managers and directors of the hospital.”
Giving back through time, talent, and treasure
The knowledge and enthusiasm Carroll passes on to future nurses is just one way he gives back to Illinois State. Students also benefit from the scholarship he created to honor his mother, Bobbie McCambridge. Bobbie was inspired to become a nurse after experiencing her own mother’s battle with cancer.
“The scholarship is for students who have had to scratch and fight to get here,” said Carroll. “Those students are going to work hard anyway, and all they need is just a little step up. I want to be a part of that.”
In addition to his own generous financial contributions, Carroll is also quick to promote other ways of giving back.
He offers the example of asking guests to speak to soon-to-be graduates at the Leadership Academy. Guests’ presentations cover a variety of topics, including emotional intelligence and diversity in the workforce.
“Whatever it is, come and talk to 70 people who are going out in the work environment and going to face that thing you’re talking about,” said Carroll. “Bring something meaningful to the table. It’s only an hour of your time. Whether it is your talent or your treasure, your giving will have an impact.”
Just as his own life’s interests resulted in his contributions to Illinois State, Carroll advocates for advancing the areas you’re passionate about.
“Maybe you support the College of Nursing or the College of Business, or maybe you love the sciences or the arts. Find what you’re passionate about and provide support to that area.”
Inspiring a future generation of givers
Carroll is not only lifting up future leaders on campus, but he’s also hoping to inspire a future generation of students dedicated to giving back.
While Carroll’s background is in psychology, it’s his professional relationships that motivated his own philanthropy to Mennonite. Carroll was influenced by Mennonite College of Nursing Professor Wendy Woith Ph.D., R.N., FAAN, who introduced him to Mennonite’s sister-cities program while working at BroMenn Healthcare. This led him to sponsor trips to Chicago for visiting Russian healthcare professionals, ISU faculty, staff, and students. He was also motivated by the care and leadership of Dean Judy Neubrander, who inspired the Leadership Academy.
“Maybe you can only give a little bit financially, but if you’re going to work in a hospital where other students from Illinois State are going to apply, could you be someone who would be willing to talk with graduates interested in working in that same hospital?” asks Carroll.
To all future supporters of Illinois State, Carroll highlights the University’s reputation.
“I think there is an incredible institution here with an incredible reputation in the market. At a time when colleges and universities in the state are struggling and failing, Illinois State remains successful,” says Carroll. “When you give to Illinois State, you’re investing in an organization that will be wise with your money and is wise in their decision making as a university.”
Of his own accomplishments at Illinois State, Carroll is very humble—despite being honored in 2017 with the Service Award for exceptional lifetime service to Mennonite. And like his own improbable journey back to Illinois State, Carroll can’t predict the ending to his philanthropy story.
“I don’t really know what my legacy will be, because the story is shaped by hundreds of people,” Carroll said, referring to the Mennonite College of Nursing students he teaches in class and in the Leadership Academy. “And that’s why I’m paying it forward: facilitating the unfolding of whatever is supposed to happen in the lives of people who come into my life. It’s a privilege and a blessing for me.”
Your time, talents, and treasures can benefit a university on the rise. Join Tom Carroll in his commitment to Illinois State. Your gift through Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State will inspire future leaders, bring innovation to campus, and support scholarship on campus. To learn more, read the Redbirds Rising case statement.
This article is a digital exclusive for the Mennonite College of Nursing’s alumni magazine, The Flame, coming November 1, 2019. For more information, visit https://nursing.illinoisstate.edu/100-years/
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