In May 2003, when Pat Ridinger, assistant director for assignments, Family and Graduate Housing Office, received a phone call from Vice Chancellor Patricia Askew telling her she had won the Student Services Outstanding Staff Award, Ridinger’s response was, “Are you sure you have the right person?” Acquaintances and colleagues who have not seen Ridinger in a while are equally astonished, she says. Since having bariatric surgery in June 2002, Ridinger has dropped 185 pounds and about seven clothing sizes. Ridinger says she now feels like a different person and has rediscovered activities such as walking, bicycling and shopping that were too tiring or difficult for her to do when she was heavier.
Tell me about your career here at the university.
I have been at the university for 27 years, and I’ve been in this office for 23 years. I started with Extra Help, which was then known as ‘Illini Girls.’ I was at the personnel office for about a year. I then went to Visual Aids, which is now known as the film center, where I repaired 8 mm film. I started in the housing office at Orchard Downs as the receptionist. When my supervisor retired in the early 1990s, I took over her job.
When I began work in housing, we typed all the leases. Now it’s computerized, and it’s so much easier. We have online applications for the students, and it has really saved a lot of work in our office. I love what I do, and working with such a great diverse community has been rewarding and satisfying.
What are your responsibilities now?
I do all the assignments for approximately 800 apartments at Orchard Downs and about 200 at Goodwin and Green. I am in charge of putting all the new residents in their homes, overseeing office procedures, supervising and hiring staff and problem solving in unique situations.The majority of our residents are married graduate students but we also have some singles, single parents, visiting scholars and postdocs. We also started accommodating domestic partnerships this year.
Ten of our apartments have been turned into short-term guest housing for campus visitors who are only going to be here a few days or a week. The apartments are like hotel rooms, and linens and televisions are provided. We’re going to be turning six more apartments into short-term guest housing too.
What is unique about Orchard Downs?
We have so many different cultures here. We have over 70 countries represented at Orchard Downs, and they’re just a great bunch of people. It’s like a world in one little community.
We have a lot of programs for our international spouses, like cooking, child care and health care. We also have a multicultural health-care center and after-school programs for children. We also have a cooperative nursery.
What’s kept you here so long?
I like my job; it’s not the same humdrum routine day after day. I communicate with people from all over the world. Because of computers, sometimes it's like we know each other before they arrive on campus. I like all the staff members and everybody gets along well; we're like one big family. We have a new director, Ana Hernandez, who’s been here about a year and a half, and she’s doing a fabulous job. She likes the word ‘fabulous,’ so be sure you put ‘fabulous’ in there for her.
A couple of the international students who worked in our office, another lady and I rented a van and drove to Washington, D.C., together in the early 1980s to visit another former graduate student who was doing her internship there. She was able to show us around, and we had a good time. It's great to be able to form lasting friendships with our international students.
What kinds of hobbies or other interests do you have?
My husband Paul and I like to go camping. We just purchased a new fifth-wheel trailer, and we take two of our three dogs with us. One has to stay home and guard the house. We went up to Nappanee, Ind., around the Amish area recently. We met a lot of great people while we were there: a lot of Texans and Californians. I also like to flower garden; my husband does the vegetable gardening. My husband farms about 350 acres, and I’ve been a farm girl all my life so I enjoy helping him when I can. We have a son who also works here in housing and a 9-year-old grandson.
What prompted you to have bariatric surgery?
I had done the liquid fast and lost close to 100 pounds but put all the weight back on. I decided that at my age and size I was either going to have an accident or a heart attack. I had thought about the surgery for a long time but didn’t want to go to Chicago or St. Louis to get it done. When I heard that it was available here, I went to the support group meeting and got signed up.
I am so glad I did it. At first, I had no energy, but then my doctor figured out that I wasn’t getting enough protein. Now every morning I eat a protein bar and a cup of coffee for breakfast. The surgery made my stomach about the size of an egg. If I overeat or eat something with too much sugar, it makes me sick because the way my stomach is restructured it doesn’t have time to absorb it.
Since your surgery, what’s been the biggest change for you?
I have been told how much happier, more energetic and full of life I am since my surgery. I used to have our program director do my Christmas shopping for me. Now I love going to the malls and buying new clothes and shoes. My husband says he can’t keep me at home!