Rachel Jacob, NIU’s newly minted Student Lincoln Laureate, is the type of student who sets…
DeKalb, Ill. — In first grade, Ian Pearson decorated his room with a poster featuring the country’s presidents.
He knew then the path he’d eventually pursue.
“I was just interested in how decisions are made and how the country functions,” said the 21-year-old Rockford native. “Something about being a part of making society work was appealing to me.”
As he grew, so did his interests and his perspective. He saw classmates around him struggling with poverty. Many wouldn’t end up in college for reasons beyond their control.
“I graduated high school with a bunch of really bright students that, for one reason another, couldn’t afford to go to college or didn’t have the adequate resources to succeed in terms of support, and that was really disheartening to me,” Pearson said.
“I realized I wanted to work on issues of inequality.”
Since graduating from Rockford East High School in 2016 and heading to NIU as a first-generation college student, he’s done just that.
Because of his efforts both in and outside the classroom, he’ll graduate this May as the 2019 Student Lincoln Laureate, an honor reserved for the university’s top senior. The Lincoln Laureate Award is given to an outstanding senior from each of Illinois’ four-year universities for excellence in both curricular and extracurricular activities.
Serving the student body
Double majoring in political science and nonprofit and NGO studies, Pearson earned a 4.0 grade point average.
It’s a GPA he maintained amid at least 100 hours a week of involvement in organizations and activities. To say he spent his time at NIU completely engaged is an understatement.
“Rarely do we witness a student serving the student body and the university in so many different ways,” stated his nomination letter, co-written by Political Science Chair Scot Schraufnagel and Alicia Schatteman, acting director of the Nonprofit and NGO Center.
Among Pearson’s roles: speaker of the Student Association Senate, student trustee with the NIU foundation, intern in the NIU Office of Federal Relations, chair of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Student Advisory Council, president of the Political Science Student Advisory Council, president of the award-winning NIU Model Illinois Government Club and president of the College Democrats.
His work in the NIU Office of Federal Relations likely ended up preventing higher textbook prices. Instructed to read through policy briefs and look for irregularities or concerns, Pearson uncovered a planned merger between two textbook corporations. The merger would have stifled competition and perhaps led to higher textbook prices.
Because of Pearson’s exposure, NIU joined with others to stop the merger.
As president of the Model Illinois Government Club, he guided the group to an “Outstanding Large Delegation” title win.
“Mr. Pearson led the delegation in a manner that caused others to excel and produce at or above their potential,” his Lincoln Laureate nominators wrote. “His gentle nudging was always done with grace and in a manner that caused others to willingly push themselves.”
His experience at NIU has helped shaped his future goals, which include a master’s degree in public policy. He’d like to one day work in the fields of higher education, criminal justice, housing, healthcare or all of them, perhaps even go into politics one day.
“I know I want to work on the federal level, whether it’s working with the legislature as a legislative aid or as a nonprofit advocate,” Pearson said.
“Higher education is the issue I care about,” he said. “Education has the ability to improve your life’s prospects pretty much overnight.”
Accolades were never Pearson’s goal when he started at NIU. “If you told me four years ago I would be the Lincoln Laureate I would have laughed,” he said.
He came to campus to make his family, especially his late grandfather, Jim Larson, proud.
A farmer in rural Wisconsin, Larson gave up personal dreams to ensure his children and grandchildren could pursue their own.
These roots helped shaped Pearson.
“One might imagine a student is deserving of an award if they are intelligent, hardworking and engaged. Mr. Pearson is easily each of these things. But it is important to point out that he has been able to achieve so much while coming from a very humble family background,” his nominees wrote.
Pearson also has had the support of his parents, Kevin and Leslie Pearson. They’ve stood behind him and his four siblings, including two older siblings who graduated from NIU, enabling all to accomplish their goals and so much more.
“I’ve kind of run my college experience as a test to see how far a kid from Rockford can go,” Pearson said. “I really wanted to see what I could do through hard work and experiencing different opportunities.”
One organization lead to another. And another. And another.
“I really wanted to make the most of these chances because they’re not ones that happen for everybody,” he said. “I feel like if I don’t work hard, I’m doing a disservice to someone else who could have this opportunity.”
NIU’s 2019 Lincoln Laureate finalists and nominees
- Robert Carolan of Algonquin, first finalist. Double-major of political science and French, Russian minor. Among countless honors, Carolan of Algonquin served as a congressional intern, studied abroad in Russia and interned for the West African Network for Peacebuilding. He also taught English in Dakar, Senegal, interned with the American Center of Moscow and the U.S. Department of State and will intern at the U.S. Embassies in Kiev, Ukrain, and Tbilisi, Georgia. “He is a singular example of the educational and professional opportunities that await students at NIU if they have the motivation and work ethic to pursue them,” wrote nominator Shannon Becker, assistant professor of French.
- Martha Hoffman of Earlville, finalist. Journalism major, marketing minor. An active farmer, Hoffman has drawn upon her journalism skills to educate and advocate on behalf of the importance of responsible farming. A broadcast intern at WCMY and WRKX, she also has written for the nationally-circulated Graze magazine and The Times in Ottawa, and served as assistant editor for the Dutch Belted Bulletin and marketing and content co-director for Bestyet A.I. Sires. “Martha is the type of farmer and journalist that Illinois needs moving into the decades ahead,” wrote her nominator Andrea Guzman, Ph. D., an assistant professor of journalism.
- Lenora Murphy of Bowling Green, Ohio, finalist. English major. Murphy developed the student-run academic journal Stonehouse, served as president of NIU’s chapter of the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society and as student representative to the English department’s Undergraduate Studies Committee. She’s volunteered as a crisis line worker at Crisis Line of the Fox Valley and as an English as a Second Language tutor for Literacy Volunteers of the Fox Valley. She won NIU’s Outstanding Women Student Award, as well as a Dean’s Award, in the spring of 2019. English Department Chair Lara Crowley was so impressed with Murphy, she asked her to babysit her two children. “We as faculty aim to inspire our students to think deeply, to communicate effectively, to grow,” Crowley wrote in Murphy’s nomination letter. “Yet, in Nora’s case, she has been the one to inspire me.”
- Ariel Levitt of Crystal Lake, nominee. Medical Laboratory Sciences major. Levitt earned a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition, Dietetics, and Hospitality Administration in 2013 from NIU and went on to work at Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado, as well as Crystal Lake Brewing. When her father became ill, she grew intrigued by the behind-the-scenes work that goes on in medical laboratories and returned to NIU for a second degree. While earning a 4.0 GPA, she’s volunteered with the Medical Laboratory Science Club and helped with STEMfest.
- Wilfredo Najarro of Lake Villa, nominee. Double-major of Nonprofit and NGO Studies and political science, sociology minor. Najarro’s research on the legacy of Alexander Hamilton was published in the national undergraduate journal Starting Points, and he won the Richard J. Doherty and Jon F. Erickson Chicago Law Internship Scholarship. Najarro has served as an ACCESS tutor supervisor, a CHANCE peer educator, a Nonprofit and NGO Studies Ambassador and a Political Science Student Advisory Council member, and has interned with the We Care Pregnancy Clinic. He also founded the Moot Court team, part of NIU’s Model Illinois Government Delegation recognized as “Outstanding Large Delegation” in 2019, and serves as president of the Pre-Law Honors Society, among numerous roles on campus. His family moved from El Salvador to avoid that country’s civil war in the late 1990s, and Najarro remembers being teased in first-grade because of his limited English language skills. “These trying circumstances have not prevented him from excelling in every way as a college student-leader,” his nomination letter stated.
- Breanna Reynolds of Machesney Park, nominee. Fashion merchandising major, minoring in business administration and marketing. Considered an “outstanding student role model,” Reynolds has served in numerous leadership roles for NIU’s Fashion Industries Organization, including president, as well as publicity vice-chair for the national service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. She also served as peer advocate and student worker in the School of Family and Consumer Sciences and completed two internships in the fashion industry. “Among faculty and her peers, she is known for her consistently upbeat and professional demeanor, and her can-do attitude,” her nomination letter stated.
- Celine Taylor of Elmhurst, nominee. Public Health major. Taylor co-hosted a booth at NIU STEMfest, inspiring young students to pursue STEM at NIU. She also participated in a Workshop and Research Collaboration for the Sustainable Development Goals in Myanmar as Global Environmental Health Scholar. “Celine is passionate about making a difference in protecting and promoting human health locally and globally,” her nomination letter stated.
Media Contact: Jami Kunzer
Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 areas of study while serving a diverse and international student body.