Both are longtime NIU faculty members whose works exemplify the concept of university engagement as “a commitment to fostering reciprocal partnerships in which problems, solutions, goals and measures of success are jointly defined” and “external communities are engaged in conscious efforts to bring scholarship to bear on regional, national or international problems.”
Ledgerwood and Thurmaier were honored April 13 during the annual faculty awards ceremony.
The Presidential Engagement Professorship award is accompanied by a $5,000 stipend, renewable annually during each year of a four-year award period. PEP professors also receive a specially minted medallion to be worn with their academic regalia.
For nearly two decades, Judy Ledgerwood has helped put NIU on the map as a global institution.
Both as a professor and as director of NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Ledgerwood has reached far and wide to create partnerships with other universities, museums, cultural institutions and individuals. She has successfully negotiated formal exchange agreements with universities in Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and has run field schools in Cambodia.
Closer to home, Ledgerwood’s engagement with Chicago’s Cambodian American Heritage Museum has helped relocated victims of the Khmer Rouge regime tell their stories and preserve their heritage. Her work on an exhibit about the 1970s Cambodian holocaust is now a permanent part of that museum’s collection.
And in her home community, Ledgerwood has started a DeKalb Rotary student chapter focused on raising money for a wide range of local and international relief projects.
“She is well known here (in Cambodia) for her work in helping the world to better understand Cambodian culture and society,” wrote Bong Sovath, rector of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnon Penh. “But it is her personal work guiding and mentoring students and training two generations of scholars for which she is best known. She has had a lasting impact in helping restart the formal study of Cambodian culture.”
“Professor Ledgerwood was one of the very first Americans who arrived in Cambodia when our country reopened to Westerners in 1989,” wrote Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“She came to help libraries and archives preserve documents that were at risk, and Cambodia owes her a debt of gratitude for teaching scores of local professionals how to physically preserve materials in their original formats,” Chhang added. “Some of the materials used in the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders were only available because of her efforts.”
Ledgerwood’s expertise is well-recognized by funding agencies: In just over a decade, she has received more than a dozen grants from organizations including the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of State, the Cambodian Ministry of Education, the Center for Khmer Studies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Henry Luce Foundation, and has traveled on a Fulbright Fellowship grant.
In addition to her work with survivors of the Khmer Rouge, Ledgerwood is also focusing on the rebirth of Buddhism in post-war Cambodia. American and Cambodian students contribute to this effort by interviewing monks, nuns and village elders to construct a history of local temples, particularly during the Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s and ’80s, and during the rebirth of Buddhism in the 1990s and 2000s.
Students on both sides of the globe describe Ledgerwood as an inspirational teacher who “goes the second mile” to make transformational learning experiences accessible to all.
“As a lower-income student, I never thought I could afford to study abroad,” wrote former student Ronald Leonhardt. “Dr. Ledgerwood worked with me on several scholarship applications that ultimately allowed me to study in Cambodia for three months. It was a life-changing experience that has led me to graduate studies at George Washington University.”
Cambodian students who study at NIU also know they have a friend in Professor Ledgerwood. Several wrote in support of her nomination, saying that she opens her home to them on holidays and at other times when they need support. That generosity of spirit was noted by a former American student as well.
“Dr. Ledgerwood teaches all of us that respect for other cultures is one of the highest expressions of civic responsibility,” wrote Kathryn Tallman. “I left NIU with a better awareness of my own responsibility to live life with empathy and kindness toward others, and I largely owe that awareness to Dr. Ledgerwood.”
His award might be called a professorship, but Kurt Thurmaier describes himself as a professional student.
That’s because he says he learns more from the people with whom he collaborates than they could ever learn from him.
An expert in budgeting at the local and state levels in the U.S. and other countries, Thurmaier has developed substantial expertise in the art of collaboration. He led faculty and staff groups in the creation of what is now the Center for NGO Leadership and Development (NGOLD), and was instrumental in designing the interdisciplinary Community Leadership and Civic Engagement degree (CLCE).
In addition to working through internal politics and challenges, Thurmaier recruited nonprofit leaders from throughout the region to help define and shape NGOLD, the CLCE degree and a new non-profit specialization within the Master of Public Administration.
Thurmaier also led efforts to create the School of Public and Global Affairs (SPGA), and is currently helping create a global seminar series that will bring Chicago diplomats and activists to NIU. At the same time, he is working on a new, interdisciplinary Ph.D. in public affairs to serve a wide range of mid-career public officials who want new tools for addressing the most vexing public problems facing Illinois communities.
Not content to limit his community-building activities to one country, Thurmaier and his wife, Jeanine, co-founded an NGO to work with indigenous partners in Tanzania. Tanzania Development Support successfully raised more than $150,000 to help Tanzanian partner NGOs build a dormitory for girls at Nyegina Secondary School, and continues fundraising for a library and community resource center there. Other projects have spun off from the original.
In one instance an NIU student on Thurmaier’s biennial Tanzania study-abroad course worked with Nyegina Secondary’s headmaster and school cooks to evaluate student diets and menu plans. Together, they reorganized the meal schedule to provide nutrients at key times during the day and improve student learning.
Closer to home, Thurmaier worked with economic development experts in six Illinois and Wisconsin counties to bridge jurisdictional boundaries. To that end, Thurmaier developed curricula aimed at building core collaboration competencies so that leaders in the two-state region would recognize opportunities for mutually beneficial joint projects.
Educating people and organizations on how to build successful partnerships is a much-appreciated contribution mentioned by several of Thurmaier’s nominators.
“DCNP is a network of non-profit organizations who work together to bring resources, professional development, and collective impact to bear on important issues facing our community. We’ve boosted the capacity and effectiveness of the nonprofit sector in DeKalb County, and we have Dr. Thurmaier to thank for showing us the way.”
Matthew Simpson, now community impact manager with the United Way of Rock River Valley, took Thurmaier’s 2013 study abroad class that helped him understand that barriers to collaboration are the same everywhere.
“We were able to interact with citizens there (Tanzania) to learn about education challenges, economic disparities, and issues facing women and children,” Simpson said. “It was amazing to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with local leaders and discuss solutions and have our ideas be welcomed. Professor Thurmaier leveraged his relationships and partnerships to make this a very rich experience for all of us.”
Elizabeth Rodriquez echoed those sentiments.
“Kurt Thurmaier has kept me accountable to myself and others,” Rodriquez wrote. “He constructs his classes in such a way as to allow all parties to work alongside each other on a mutually constructed agenda. It made all of us feel responsible to one another, and enabled us to have productive conversations even when we disagreed. He is one of the most generous people I know, and my undergraduate experience would not have been the same without him.”