Taylor Burlingame knows how to handle a challenge. When she graduates this week from Illinois State University’s School of Kinesiology and Recreation (KNR) with her bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation, along with a minor in psychology, it will have been a hard-earned accomplishment. But Burlingame is a mother of twin girls, Aubree and Ellayna, who recently turned 6. She has perspective.

She chose Illinois State University because it’s her hometown school and because several family members are alums, including her husband, Zach Burlingame ’19. She chose KNR because she was influenced by her late grandmother, Winnie Clauson, and the life she led.

“I knew I wanted to follow in my grandma’s footsteps in helping people,” Burlingame said. “She was a nurse and started as an Army nurse. She always helped people and even helped bring hospice care to the community. She left a good legacy.”

Burlingame, 28, said choosing to major in therapeutic recreation made sense so that she, too, could help people and be in a community setting. Her goal is to work with people who have intellectual disabilities, which was inspired by an internship at SOAR (Special Opportunities Available in Recreation), a program that serves individuals who are unable to participate in traditional recreation programs. SOAR is a joint project sponsored by the City of Bloomington and the Town of Normal through their parks and recreation departments. For the last year, Burlingame has worked at SOAR part time.

“Until SOAR, I wasn’t sure of my direction and what population I wanted to serve,” she said. “SOAR helped me know where I wanted to go.”

Influential faculty members included instructional assistant professors Dr. Rachel Smith and Sherri Hildebrand, both of whom Burlingame described as encouraging and important in her development as a student. She described Smith as a person of great empathy and said Hildebrand brought a lot of passion to her teaching. Hildebrand had similar things to say about her student.

“Taylor is one of the most mature students I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” Hildebrand said. “Her passion for her future profession is evident in every therapeutic recreation class, and she consistently strives to excel in her course work. She’s outgoing and fun with a wonderful sense of humor that helps to create a relaxed class atmosphere. I will miss her!”

“We were doing this to set up the future for our girls and to provide them with the best life. Getting this degree has been about the whole family.”

Taylor Burlingame

For Burlingame, who was selected to be the student representative to the advisory council for her major, the best part was the friendships she formed through the experience.

“My friends made me get out of my comfort zone and encouraged me to go to conferences,” she said, including being round table leaders at a recent Title IX conference.

Burlingame transferred to Illinois State after graduating from Heartland Community College in 2018, then took a break to take care of her girls before starting school again during the pandemic. She said juggling online courses and her young family during the lockdown was a great challenge. However, as a native of Normal, she had a lot of support nearby while she worked at her job and worked on her degree.

“My mom, Tina Eades, and my siblings have been more than helpful taking care of the girls so that I could get study time,” she said. “They gave me a shoulder to lean on and a place to vent when I was feeling overwhelmed.”

She took a lot of strength from her husband of nine years and the team effort they gave toward her academic success.

“Zach is my biggest supporter,” she said. “We were doing this to set up the future for our girls and to provide them with the best life. Getting this degree has been about the whole family.”

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