When Dr. Marcia Hickrod looks back on her five-decade-plus career at Illinois State, one gig stands above the rest.

“What I did in my years as a ‘retiree,’ helping students in the CSPA program for 22 years, was the most fun I had in anything I ever did.”

Hickrod’s post-retirement career began in 1998 when Dr. Victor Boschini Jr. recruited her for what he called a “one-year stint.” Boschini, the University’s 16th president, was serving as Illinois State’s vice president of Student Affairs at the time.

The college student personnel administration (CSPA) program, part of the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations, was entering its fifth year. Dr. Neal Gamsky, vice president of Student Affairs, Emeritus developed the program and Dr. Lemuel Watson, the full-time faculty member who succeeded Gamsky, was leaving for another position. Hickrod buoyed the program by handling everything outside of teaching while a new faculty member was recruited.

“So she came in for one year, and then the rest is history,” said Dr. Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, Watson’s replacement in 1999.

Hickrod’s role was integral to the quality of CSPA students’ experiences. From a logistics standpoint, she handled admissions, advising, and processing graduation.

She began each student relationship with a one-hour advising session, but her holistic approach went well beyond the x’s and o’s of academic schedules.

“After we determined their two-year plans, I would say, ‘If you don’t need me for any other reason other than for general program questions, we can do that,’” she said. “‘But if you want to come in and see me anytime about anything, I’m here.’ That was the approach I used. And apparently, students thought of me as their grandmother, or sometimes even their great-grandmother.”

Hickrod took more than a few late-night calls and was a shoulder to cry on, a motivator, and a voice of reason when students needed personal, academic, or even career advice.

“Every week, I found myself in her office talking about her family, processing next steps in my future, and eating the Hershey’s chocolate she always had waiting for us. She was, and is, a wealth of knowledge about higher education, balancing a career and family, and all things ISU,” said Marjorie Miller, M.S. ’18, assistant director of student involvement at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Hickrod’s support often continued after Redbirds crossed the graduation stage. Emily James, M.S. ’09, now a regional director of development at Duke University, said her former advisor remains a top confidant. 

“It has been over a decade since I graduated from the CSPA program, and I still find myself turning to Marcia as much as ever,” she said. “When I have big career decisions to make, she is one of my first calls. When I have good news to share, she is one of the first to get a text message. And when I need to know what wine best compliments a lobster roll, she’s the only person I trust.”

But she did not only support students. When McCluskey-Titus landed in Normal, Hickrod had over 30 years of experience at the University. She recalls Hickrod helping her to feel welcome, introducing her to EAF’s personnel and people across campus.

Together, they helped the program reach new heights.

“Marcia was just open to anything. She and I would talk about an idea, and if I had a suggestion, she would say ‘Let’s try it!’ Or, she added to it. We also shared a lot about the students because they’re wonderful to work with. And between the two of us, we really tried to help them,” she said.

“I don’t know where the program would be if Marcia hadn’t been here.”

Hickrod was contracted to work 10–15 hours a week in her “retirement” role. However, McCluskey-Titus said she would see her colleague around the department much more than that.

“I don’t think the job felt like work to Marcia. Helping students was important to her, and they love her.”

Migrating to Normal

Hickrod almost didn’t take the part-time role with CSPA in 1998. She was recently remarried, tying the knot with longtime EAF faculty member Dr. Alan Hickrod. Their plan was to officially retire and travel the world together. They did some of that, but the EAF role was too tempting for her to pass up.

But Hickrod’s connection to EAF harkens all the way back to the mid-1960s when she and her former husband, Dr. Stan Escott, landed in Normal with their two children, Beth, 7, and Eric, 3. The Indiana natives were both offered jobs at the same time in the summer of 1966, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison knocking on her door while Escott was recruited to be Illinois State’s assistant dean of students. He convinced her to give Normal a chance.

Hickrod’s first impressions of the area were not positive.

“We rolled into town on route 9 (now the intersection of Veterans Parkway and Empire Street), and there really wasn’t much there. And so I made the pronouncement that I was going to spend two years here for him to make up his mind, and do what he wanted to do there. And then I would get a choice as to where we would go next.”

But it didn’t take her long to warm-up to the campus. Hickrod said the University was a smaller, close-knit community back then, and EAF was just getting started with Drs. Don Prince, Ben Hubbard, Alan Hickrod, and Clayton Thomas.

“Everyone wanted to be in the EAF department. It was the new thing,” she said.

Hickrod’s first role at Illinois State was teaching and advising students in the Department of English.

At the time, Illinois State was at the beginning of its transition from a teacher’s college to a multidisciplinary university.

The advising piece still had kinks to work out, though. Advisors were being placed at random with college students, irrespective of their major or year in school.

In fact, Hickrod’s first advisee was a physics major.

“I knew next to nothing about advising a physics student. So after that meeting I went and told the head of advising, ‘This doesn’t make any sense. It really is quite stupid,’” she said.

A year later, Hickrod found herself on the committee that would solve the problem. 

“We put together a college-by-college advising model. Students began working with their major advisors by the end of their sophomore years, similar to what we have now with U-College and the departments.”

She later became the coordinator of the Academic Advisement Center, a role she held from 1972–1981.

Doing it all

When Stan and Marcia separated in the early 1970s, he also left the state, taking a job with the University of Cincinnati. That made Hickrod a single mother to Beth and Eric, then 14 and 10.

It was during that time that she was encouraged by an EAF professor, Dr. Benjamin Hubbard, to get her doctorate.

“I remember him telling me, ‘If you get your Ph.D., you can do anything you damn please. If you don’t get your Ph.D., you will do what somebody else tells you,’” Hickrod said.

Hickrod earned her Ph.D. from EAF in 1980, specializing in higher education. Her dissertation looked at student success strategies for freshmen in college.

The accomplishment took an immense juggling act between full-time work, school, and motherhood.

“I can definitively say I was definitely exhausted, sometimes.”

Her perseverance is part of a personal story she has shared at the appropriate times with CSPA students.

“I was fortunate to have several strong female role models during my time in the CSPA program, including Dr. Marcia,” said Miller. “I am so grateful for the confidence she instilled in me and the guidance that she continues to provide.” 

A year after she completed her doctorate, Hickrod was again asked by EAF’s chair to serve the Board of Regents, a position that would require her to commute to Springfield almost daily.

EAF was so confident Hickrod was the right person for the job that they provided childcare support and lent her a car to get there.

She would play an important role in developing the Administrative Professional (AP) position for universities, in addition to getting it approved.

“Back then, staff members were all civil service employees,” she said. “Creating the AP designation would allow for more flexibility within the university system.”

The proof of that work is in the pudding. The AP position remains a staple for Illinois’ public colleges and universities.

A new standard for adult learning

In the 1980s, the University was looking for new ways to offset a declining college-age population trend across the U.S. Again, Illinois State’s president, this time Dr. Lloyd Watkins, turned to Hickrod to get it up and running. 

“I said, ‘But I don’t know anything about adult students, other than, of course, I was one.’”

Then he told me, ‘That’s why I want to send you to Harvard.’”

Hickrod completed a program at the Harvard Institute of Adult Learning, but she also helped to develop new approaches for supporting adult learners. At the time, it was expected that the same tried-and-true models used for undergraduate students should work just as effectively for adult learners.

“Of course that is not so,” Hickrod said. “So we developed a systems matrix model for adult learners.”

That thinking was considered radical, at the time. But the new approach led to the successful creation of an adult learning program within the College of Continuing Education and Public Service. In addition, Hickrod became a sought-after trainer.

“Ï spent several years flying around the country teaching adult educators that you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

By the early ’90s, Hickrod had culminated an impressive resume of over 70 published pieces, presentations, and workshops. She also served on three different editorial boards and was a member of nine organizations related to advising, adult learning, again, women’s leadership, and higher education administration. She was recognized for her research and service nine times, including the department’s highest honor, the EAF Fellow award, in 2019.

For most, retirement would be their next logical adventure after 30 years of service. But Hickrod was just getting started.  

A perfect fit

Hickrod’s impact on the CSPA program is difficult to quantify. She coupled a wealth of higher education experience with a caring attitude that touched students’ hearts. In the good times, and in the bad, Hickrod’s office was a safe space for celebration, reflection, and growth.

“Marcia worked with students who were put on probationary status,” McCluskey-Titus said.

“She upheld university policies, but she could talk to them like a grandparent. She would say, ‘Hey, you can do better, and you need to do better.’”

She said that many of the students who were willing to talk through their challenges with Hickrod turned things around.

“They just needed a little kick in the butt from somebody other than a faculty member.”

When it came to attracting new students, Hickrod and McCluskey-Titus were front-and-center at graduate recruitment fairs for several years. But those efforts waned after the results of the program spoke for themselves, literally.

“It was just word of mouth. I would see interested students come to me as juniors,” Hickrod said.

Each year, 100 or more applicants would cross their desks, matched only in quantity by the quality of the applications.

“We truthfully could have picked students at random and still have had a wonderful cohort of 20, each year,” Hickrod said.

So many stories

Just about every CSPA alum has a memorable story about “Dr. Marcia” to tell. 

“So many options here,” quips Charlotte Coberley ’20, residence director at Northeastern University in Boston.

“I think one of my favorites would have to be either the day Dr. Marcia called me “sassy” on a livestream of my Hooding Ceremony for graduate school. Or, truly, any time we would sit in her kitchen and talk about life. Regardless of the circumstances, Dr. Marcia always finds a way to make people smile or laugh through conversation. She has an engaging and quick-witted personality that breathes life into any space she’s in. Some of the best conversations I have ever had were at her kitchen table over a glass of wine, with ice, of course!”

Another former student, Miller shares a story about Hickrod “kicking it” on the weekend with her advisees.

“During my first year of grad school, I was talking to Dr. Marcia about my weekend plans and mentioned that I was going to the Gamma Phi Circus with some friends from CSPA. Her face lit up and she asked if she could come along—and of course I was thrilled she wanted to join us! I remember that experience so fondly because it is such a testament to her passion for ISU and spending time with students.” 

And finally, here’s another story from James, who shares the time Hickrod decided to invest in the future CSPA students, the program, and student affairs.

“My favorite memory is of the journey we took to establish an endowed scholarship in her name. I was working for the development office at ISU and Dr. Marcia was unable to drive due to a new cochlear implant she received. She didn’t want to miss her hair appointment and asked me to drive her. In the car we talked about the tremendous impact she made on her students and the special place in her heart for adult learners. I was a nontraditional student at the time, taking classes at night and working in the development office during the day. I appreciated all the work she put into making higher education a welcoming place for those with backgrounds that differed from the norm. Marcia shared that her biggest hope was that she could support students who, like her, went back to school later in life and were determined to get a degree. She didn’t want added financial worry to be the reason they didn’t pursue their education. The Marcia Escott-Hickrod Non-Traditional Student Endowed Scholarship was born, and I have been a proud contributor to it annually.”

There are countless more inspiring and fun stories CSPA alumni could add. Regardless of their individual backgrounds, they call Hickrod a strong leader who inspired them to “be more.” She set a standard that has affected the way about 500 student affairs professionals approach their roles on college campuses.

And every step of the way, Hickrod showed her respect for them as individuals and the career paths they had chosen. 

“One of the things special about working with the students that I was working with is the fact that they were caring. They were in the right field,” Hickrod said.

“They were interested in working on a college campus, helping undergraduates learn in their mistakes and to grow as people.”

All told, who knows how many undergraduate students have indirectly benefitted from this mentality.

Hickrod said her earliest memories of EAF are playing bridge in the 1960s with families and enjoying dinners as a university community. Her extensive career is a reminder that each person’s individual contributions are connected, important, and lasting.

Final thoughts

Based on her approach to serving others, her importance in higher education is best summed by one of her former advisees.

“What I have learned from Dr. Marcia these past few years cannot simply be taught as a class lesson, nor can it be replicated or manufactured through webinars, conferences, or academic degrees,” said Coberley.

“How I connect with students is a direct byproduct of the support and care that Dr. Marcia has provided to me since the moment we met. Though she may be retired, she remains the epitome of what a student-centered student affairs advocate looks like; to be able to say that I have been mentored by Dr. Marcia is a gift that I do not take for granted.”