Pioneers of the UIS Prairie

The first freshmen gather to honor their mentor

About 100 people who helped to transform University of Illinois Springfield into a four-year university held their first reunion Feb. 24, at a breakfast on the campus.

That visible display of support for UIS was a testimony to the impact felt by those first freshmen classes starting in the fall 2001, with many of them becoming the first to graduate from the Capital Scholars Honors Program a few years later. They call themselves "Cappies" and returned to campus from many places in Illinois and from widespread locations including California, Washington, D.C., and even New Zealand, where alum Ryan Morrison has settled.

click to enlarge Pioneers of the UIS Prairie
UIS alumnus Kyle Simpson, left, moderates a panel discussion with the past and current directors of the Capital Scholars Honors Program, Karen Moranski and Marc Klingshirn, during a reunion breakfast Feb. 24.

The hook that attracted them was that the architect of the Capital Scholars program, Karen Moranski, was honored the night before with the University of Illinois' Distinguished Service Award. Before the Cap Scholars program was launched, UIS and its predecessor, Sangamon State University, was an upper-division school that admitted only juniors, seniors and graduate students. UIS became part of the U of I system in 1995.

When the alumni learned of Moranski's award last fall, they organized a reunion as a show of support to a popular mentor and administrator and as an opportunity to see old friends again.

Moranski recalled during a panel discussion at the breakfast that getting the Cap Scholars program approved became politically dicey with the Illinois Board of Higher Education because other regional public universities considered the admission of freshmen at UIS a threat, as competition. Cap Scholars was eventually approved in 1999 with the requirement that it have limited enrollment. The first cohort in 2001 had 113 students, but that honors-only provision was relaxed a few years later when UIS got approval to admit other freshmen in addition to those in the honors program.

The honors program was innovative with team-teaching by up to five faculty members from different academic disciplines and a strong emphasis on the liberal arts.

Moranski fondly recalled the foundational courses nicknamed "Questions Courses" because they have such titles as "Who Am I?" and "What is Power?" While the course titles remain in the curriculum, the content fluctuates because different faculty with different perspectives teach them, and the times change, too, said the current Cap Scholars director, Marc Klingshirn. He observed that such questions for students remain pertinent in a world threatened by events in the Middle East and other places.

One of the lessons of UIS being a place for a full university experience was evident at my breakfast table, which included five of the original Capital Scholars. All still live in Illinois but none in Springfield. They still feel a bond with each other as "pioneers on the Prairie" and that drew them to the reunion.

They have the same fondness for the campus and for Springfield that many people have of their undergraduate alma maters. Their social media accounts over the weekend beamed with favorable comments about being together, partaking of horseshoes at local restaurants and beverages at Floyd's and other places.

"My heart is full and my singular ab is sore from laughter after three days celebrating the #moranskieffect with #capitalscholars," Morrison from New Zealand posted, adding it was "a reminder of the people who helped shape us into #whoweare (a question many are still answering) ... from #campusantics to #adulting it was so easy to pick up where we left off. Special shout out @krmoranski for being the guiding star in our UIS constellation of Prairie Stars."

After spending 21 years at UIS, Moranski left in 2016 for Sonoma State University in California, where she is now provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Ed Wojcicki of Springfield is a retired UIS

administrator and journalist and now freelances.

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