Transfer Registration and Orientation Day means new everything, from school to living arrangements to peers, which all equates to a certain level of stress. For three Illinois State University Special Education students graduating this week, that anxious time back in 2019 turned out to be the start of an important friendship circle that saw them through some challenging times.

The trio, who are all participating in winter commencement, come from different hometowns. Makeda Hubbard is from Bolingbrook, Zach Marcopulos is from Rolling Meadows, and McKenna Zimmerman is from Mount Carmel. They didn’t know each other or any of the people they met signing up for classes that day. The common denominator was that they had all come to Illinois State to continue their academic careers.

“We were all transfers from community colleges, so we were grouped together to sign up for classes,” Zimmerman said. “I’m a very outgoing person, so I said, ‘Hey, we should do the same classes so at least we’ll know somebody.’”

“They shaped us into the teachers we are today.”

McKenna Zimmerman

Hubbard and Zimmerman met first before inviting Marcopulos to join them. All three pursued the learning and behavior specialist track. What began as a spontaneous idea had the staying power that helped them arrive at this moment of academic success.

“When I got here I really didn’t know anyone,” Hubbard said. “Meeting McKenna and then Zach, I thought at least I’d know someone. This was my first group of friends here.”

Marcopulos, known for being the fun one in the group, didn’t take long to feel some serious respect for his new friends.

“McKenna is dedicated, a hard worker, and a go-getter,” he said. “And Makeda is so sweet and genuine, so intentional, grounded, and compassionate.”

He said the experience has made being a special education major much easier.

“We gave each other help, and each of us had a tough time during the last two years,” Marcopulos said. “We’ve really picked each other up.”

The students took the same classes, did projects together, met in the library regularly, and walked to class together sometimes. They even gave themselves a nickname: the “ISU Day Ones.” It wasn’t all perfect though.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit during the second semester of their first year. They moved to remote learning, and clinicals were canceled. Circumstances kept them physically apart, but they stayed in close contact via text, Snapchat, and FaceTime.

“We talked all the time,” Zimmerman said. “We’d call each other to check on how and what everyone was doing.”

Their professors also helped keep these students motivated. They described Assistant Professor Dr. Kate Peeples as “amazing.” They loved Assistant Professor Dr. Sarah Ballard for her heart and compassion. And they made a strong connection with Associate Professor Dr. Debbie Shelden.

“They shaped us into the teachers we are today,” Zimmerman said.

It was Assistant Clinical Professor Ree Hartman ’85, M.S. ’92, their practicum coordinator, who won their hearts. Zimmerman called Hartman a saint, with Hubbard adding that she will “love her forever.”

“Ree Hartman is my favorite teacher of all time, absolutely, a real blessing,” Marcopulos said. “In her first email to the class, she said we were her ‘little sheep’ and that we would be great, and she loved us. She signed it xoxo.”

Hubbard said it was Hartman’s energy that made her want to be in class, even if it was over Zoom.

“I thought: ‘I’ll do it for Ree,’” Hubbard said. “She would ask about my mother who was sick at the time. She would take the time to check on a student’s mother.”

The feeling was mutual between teacher and students. Hartman said that even when classes were remote, she felt they were invested.

“They were always engaged in the lecture,” she said. “All their work was turned in on time from all of them, and it was exemplary. Their passion and love for students are amazing.”

Now it’s time to get to work. Hubbard has been hired as a special education teacher at an elementary school in the Naperville School District, where she gained much of her clinical experience. Zimmerman starts her career in January at Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School as a special education teacher. For Marcopulos, the Blue Ridge School District in Farmer City-Mansfield, where he’s finishing up his student teaching, would like to hire him, he said, but he has other plans.

“I just accepted an internship with Encounter, the campus ministry,” Marcopulos said. Eventually, he would like to teach at the high school level, and he loves sports and is a licensed Illinois High School Association baseball and basketball official.

The “ISU Day Ones” plan to keep their friendship going after graduation. Hubbard and Zimmerman will actually be living near each other, and Marcopulos said he’ll stay in touch no matter what.

“This is not a surface-level friendship,” he said. “We held each other accountable and could speak the truth to each other.”

Hartman is excited for what the future will bring to her proteges and for what each will contribute to the profession.

“They are passionate educators who will go the extra mile for their students,” she said. “That’s the kind of people they are. I love them so much.”

This story is one of a series of profiles on Redbirds who are graduating this December. For more information about how Illinois State is celebrating commencement this semester, visit the Graduation Services website.