One of U. of I. senior Stuti Mehta’s most memorable experiences at Illinois may have been dinner with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Illini Union Board student director Ryan Karamitsu
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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To be precise, it was dinner with Emmy Award-winning puppeteer Carroll Spinney, the person in charge of the Muppets on TV’s “Sesame Street.”
“That was a great experience,” said Mehta, of Glendale Heights, Ill., reflecting on her dinner with Spinney and his wife last November prior to Spinney’s lecture on campus. “They had so many stories, so many experiences. I definitely will remember that.”
Spinney’s talk was sponsored by the Illini Union Board, and, at the time, Mehta was IUB’s director of traditional programs.
IUB, the oldest and largest student programming organization at Illinois, organizes an eclectic mix of activities and events that tickle the brain, the funny bone, the palate and the imagination, including dances and dance performances, concerts, stand-up comedians, lecturers, magicians and movie screenings. IUB also orchestrates traditional events such as African-American Homecoming and activities during Homecoming week and during Moms and Dads weekends.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, IUB sponsored more than 90 events, with attendance of more than 32,400, Mehta said.
In addition to 15 student members – the president and three vice presidents plus 11 directors – the board comprises representatives from the Alumni Association, the Staff Advisory Council and the Faculty-Staff Social Committee. Lowa Mwilambwe, the Illini Union’s director, and Laurel Rosch, the associate director, are ex officio, nonvoting members.
Eight committees, each led by one of the student directors, are responsible for developing programming in each of IUB’s interest areas, which include arts, cultural, weekend entertainment, and musicals and drama. The remaining three directors focus on development, marketing and policy.
Emily Silva, a 20-year-old junior from Lombard, Ill., said she was “just looking for a place to fit in” when she decided to join IUB her freshman year.
“The whole Greek life is just not my cup of tea,” said Silva, who has dual majors in global studies and Italian. “I was looking for a different niche, and a friend from high school told me to apply to become a director on IUB.”
At the beginning of every semester, IUB hosts an Information Night to recruit new members, but students also can volunteer at individual events without becoming a member – extra hands are always needed to stage events.
Mehta, who is approaching both the end of her term as the group’s president and her graduation from the U. of I. in December, almost didn’t attend the IUB Information Night that was held on a cold and snowy January evening of her freshman year.
“But I decided, ‘I’m in college now! I should embrace the opportunity,’ ” Mehta recalled. “And when I saw how much opportunity there was within IUB … and how just within one organization, you can be involved in so many different things. I really liked that aspect of it.”
Every fall, students who want to serve as directors or executive officers can apply for positions on the board. Although prior experience coordinating large-scale events is desirable, it’s not mandatory. Applicants seeking the presidency, though, are required to have prior experience as an IUB director.
Candidates are selected and interviewed by the executive officers and directors, and those who make the cut are appointed to one-year terms that run from December to December.
Students who serve as committee members are vitally important to the board’s activities, too, and their contributions shouldn’t be overlooked, said Silva, the board’s vice president of programs.
“It’s really the committee members who come up with the ideas for what kinds of events they want to put on, what they want to see on campus and what they think the students might be interested in,” Silva said. “Really, all the brainstorming comes from them, and they are really valuable members of our board.”
Ryan Kuramitsu, a 20-year-old social work major from Glenview, Ill., also joined the board as a freshman after having volunteered as an usher during activist Jamie Tworkowski’s lecture on campus. Tworkowski is the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, a nonprofit organization focused on helping people who are suffering from addiction or depression, and Kuramitsu is an admirer of the activist’s work.
“When I got to talk with him at the event, I realized that if I actually joined the board instead of just showed up out of the blue volunteering, I could go to dinner with these people and help bring these people to campus and plan and invite other students,” Kuramitsu said. “I could take what I’m passionate about personally – some social justice issues, writing and film – and use it to make other students happy too.”
One of IUB’s longest-running and most popular programs is Illinites, an alternative to the bar and party scene, where friends can have fun in a safe, alcohol-free environment one Friday night a month. Illinites’ free entertainment, free food and door prizes are the trifecta for many a cash-strapped, hungry student looking for something different to do.
Illinites offers an ever-changing mix of physical recreation – bowling, billiards, laser tag, volleyball or other team sports – and more contemplative activities such as handicrafts, which have in the recent past included Build-A-Bear Workshops and pillow making.
Ask any of the members or directors what they find most fulfilling about IUB, and their eyes light up as they recall the satisfaction of staging events that brought enjoyment to their peers. A point of pride for Silva was the “roller-skating and root beer floats”-themed night that she organized last November when she was director of Illinites. A protective floor was laid down and the union’s Illini Rooms were converted to a roller rink for the evening.
“When things go right, all the pieces fall into place and all the work you’ve done really pays off, and you see hundreds of people leaving an event that you planned, thinking ‘Wow, this was really, really good,’ ” Kuramitsu said. “I like the responsibility. So if an event goes badly, that’s not someone else’s fault down the chain, that’s something that you or your committee failed to do. But what happens far more often is you have an awesome event.”
In addition to arranging programming, IUB members serve as the Illini Union’s liaison with the student body, providing students’ perspectives on many facets of the facility’s operations.
“We’ll go to them when we’re looking to implement policy changes, maybe for even something as small as a rate change in the hotel all the way up to ‘We’re thinking of doing this differently in the bookstore, what do you think?’ ” Rosch said. They also assist with some assessment activities to gather feedback from students in general about the union.
Board members’ opinions were pivotal in the design and construction of a new computer lab and study lounge that opened Oct. 7 on the union’s lower level. Union staff, noticing a need for computing/study space that accommodated collaborative work and that was more than a room with rows of computers, sought the board’s approval and input at the outset and at each step of the design.
“With 12 different directors, IUB has taught me a lot about compromise and working with different individuals,” Kuramitsu said. “We all are very passionate about our individual areas.”
“IUB has been a big part of my college career and it will always be close to my heart because it brought me so many experiences,” said Mehta, adding that her event-planning experience from IUB was the perfect complement to her academic disciplines of advertising and political science. When her aunt and uncle in India started a business selling lace, she was able to help them plan marketing campaigns for their showroom.
“IUB is good confidence-building as well,” Mehta said. “It allows you the opportunity to explore different aspects of yourself. I didn’t know I would be able to handle a difficult audience member during the question-and-answer of a speaker’s talk. I’ve grown through the organization, and that has been very good. It’s given me a home away from home on campus.”