As Neil Styczynski sought a new chapter in retirement, he found unexpected inspiration from Dr. Kate (Norcross) Newton ’10, a then 17-year-old in the prologue of her college journey.

Styczynski and Newton met during the first sequence of a four-part Spanish course taught by Victor Palomino ’68, M.A. ’70, at Heartland Community College in Normal. Newton, who had been home-schooled, was adapting to the classroom environment. She had only recently learned how to take a Scantron test.

“I circled the bubbles because I didn’t know you’re supposed to fill them in,” Newton recalled.

Styczynski had just retired from a 30-year career with IBM and, in his newfound free time, he decided to learn another language.

“Since I had taken some Spanish in high school many years prior, my wife told me, ‘Don’t ruin the curve for the kids,’” Styczynski said. “I let her know that there’s a young woman in the class—Kate—who is ruining the curve for everybody. She always comes prepared. She’s excited. She’s driven.”

“I wanted to make a difference. And the best way to make a difference is to pay it forward to people—such as teachers—who will keep paying it forward.”

Neil Styczynski

Impressed, Styczynski introduced himself to Newton. During their conversation, Newton said she aspired to become a teacher and planned to transfer to Illinois State University.

“When I took my freshman writing class, I decided this is what I want to teach,” Newton said. “It was so exciting, watching people learn how to express themselves through writing.”

Inspired by Newton’s enthusiasm and ambition while working to pay her way through college, Styczynski pondered how he could help.

“I wanted to make a difference,” Styczynski said. “And the best way to make a difference is to pay it forward to people—such as teachers—who will keep paying it forward.”

Styczynski had considered funding a college scholarship someday. But meeting Newton made him think, “If not now, when?” Styczynski and his wife, Joan, decided to establish the Neil and Joan Styczynski Scholarship at Illinois State for transfer students who want to teach and demonstrate a financial need. Newton was the scholarship’s second recipient.

“I remember getting the email that I received the scholarship and feeling incredibly fortunate and blessed,” Newton said. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to have to worry about getting a bunch of side jobs. I’m going to be able to focus on teaching, and I’m going to be able to focus on applying to graduate schools that will give me college teaching experience.’ It felt really liberating.”

Newton earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Illinois State. She went on to receive a master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she is now living her dream as a lecturer in English and in medieval studies. Newton is also the associate director for the Program in Professional Writing.

“It’s surreal,” Newton said. “There are times where I wondered if I would make it as a teacher—if I’d be able to be in a position to make an impact on others. Looking back on Neil’s gift and just the faith that he had in people like me that we could make a difference—it’s encouraged me to keep going.”

Newton said she is grateful to serve not only as a teacher, but also as a mentor for students who could become teachers themselves.

Styczynski said, like Newton, he is also “living the dream.” Along with empowering future educators through his scholarship, Styczynski has joined the field as a frequent substitute teacher at University High School, Normal Community High School, and Normal West High School. He also follows Newton’s career from afar and said he would gladly audit any of her classes.

“She’s got the passion, and passion is infectious,” Styczynski said.

Newton said Styczynski’s generosity gives her hope for the future.

“There are good people in the world,” Newton said. “I don’t know the environments that my students will go into, but I hope that they can meet people like Neil and be changed by that experience. And I hope that I can be a little bit like that—like Neil—in their lives.”

To learn more about creating a scholarship or other endowment within the College of Arts and Sciences, contact development director Kate Childs at (309) 438-7682 or