For Susan and Stephen Kern M.B.A. ’80, giving to Illinois State is not just about lifting up future Redbirds. It’s a way to honor their mutual history with campus and ensure the vitality of the University they’ve come to love.
The couple’s earlier years, and the scholarships Susan received during undergraduate and graduate school, make them empathetic to students for whom educational costs are prohibitive.
As a male student attending a public institution in 1964, Steve was required to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). After talking with officials about the impending Vietnam draft, Steve decided to voluntarily enlist, and earned $100 per month after returning to the states.
“It doesn’t sound like much,” said Steve. “But that paid for our $89 per month student housing.”
“I don’t think a student would live in it today,” said Susan with a laugh.
Despite their challenging circumstances, the Kerns pressed on in their careers and added two sons to their family. While completing her Ph.D., Susan patented a bi-radiant, energy-efficient oven. Steve built a plywood prototype of the oven in their garage.
A fateful phone call set the trajectory of the Kerns’ life, bringing them to Bloomington-Normal where they would both lead successful careers. Employed by State Farm Insurance Companies in West Lafayette, Indiana, Steve was encouraged by his manager to call Illinois State University and inquire about a position for his wife Susan, who had recently earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Housing, Equipment, and Environmental Design at Purdue University.
That day, Steve spoke with the then Chairman of the Department of Home Economics and Industrial Technology Joe Talkington, who replied enthusiastically, “This is manna from heaven!” Earlier that morning, Talkington had been approved to hire two Ph.D.s for the department. State Farm agreed to transfer Steve to the company’s corporate offices and the Kerns moved to Bloomington-Normal, where they still reside.
Their connection to Illinois State grew in the mid-70s when Steve decided to use his benefit under the G.I. Bill to pursue additional courses at Illinois State. While taking pre-requisite classes for the M.B.A. program, Steve discovered he was only a few classes shy of taking the C.P.A. exam. He passed the exam and enrolled in night classes at Illinois State.
“I was initially concerned about how Illinois State’s M.B.A. program ranked compared to other programs,” said Steve. “But I shouldn’t have been worried. The program was quite rigorous!”
The benefit of being in a night-time program, was that the classes were filled with working professionals.
“I remember one class on inventory management in which a few classmates did inventory management for Revere Copper,” recalled Steve. “The professor said to them, ‘At our next class, tell us what you’re doing in inventory management.’ So the students came prepared with print outs and showed us what they’d been working on. The entire program worked to integrate students’ knowledge and our professors’ expertise.”
After Steve graduated with an M.B.A., he went on to pass the Certified Public Accounting exam. Susan earned the role of vice president for University Advancement. During her tenure in the position, Susan worked on Illinois State University’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign, Redefining Normal. The campaign and its lead-up work, Educating Illinois, challenged the public perception that a state school didn’t need private philanthropy.
The campaign’s consultant said Illinois State could raise $50 million. After all, Illinois State had yet to receive its first $1 million gift. Under Susan’s direction, the University raised $97 million and received the first of many $1 million gifts in its history.
“Illinois State has made a remarkable transition from a low emphasis on philanthropy to an outstanding effort during the Redbirds Rising campaign, exceeding all of its goals ahead of schedule,” remarked Susan. “What a wonderful 20-year story.”
The Kerns are deeply committed to Illinois State. A major gift during Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State endowed the Susan T. Kern Special Opportunity Endowed Scholarship Fund, which provides scholarships for special opportunities that advance women’s careers. The Kerns have also established planned gifts to support their scholarship, the College of Business, and other funds near to their hearts.
Steve also gives to the Actuarial Science Program Fund, citing the excellence of the Actuarial Science Program and its recognition by the Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society.
“Illinois State has an outstanding actuarial program, one of the best,” said Steve. “The program fund supports the needs of the department, from scholarships to exam prep.”
With their careers in the rearview mirror, the Kerns’ love for Illinois State is still palpable. The couple comes to campus two to three times per week for lectures and events, and Steve plays on the ISU TeeBirds Golf League.
“Our careers are in this community,” said Steve. “We’re dedicated to our community and improving it. And Illinois State is a part of that community.”
Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State continues to enhance scholarship, leadership, and innovation on campus. To join Steve and Susan Kern in lifting up Illinois State, visit Giving.IllinoisState.edu/donate and make your gift today.