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‘A community built on character’

March 3, 2014

Forward, Together Forward!Northern Illinois University honored the 2014 winners of the Forward, Together Forward Scholarships at a private luncheon Sunday.

In honor of the five Huskies whose lives were lost Feb. 14, 2008, Forward, Together Forward scholars must demonstrate strength of character through traits such as a strong work ethic, motivation, inspiration, a high regard for others, integrity and intellectual curiosity.

Among NIU’s most prestigious honors, up to five $4000 scholarships are awarded annually to continuing undergraduate students.

This year’s recipients are:

“Our Forward, Together Forward scholars are shining examples of NIU President Doug Baker’s vision for all NIU students – well-rounded and innovative scholars prepared for success and satisfaction in whatever paths they choose after graduation,” Interim Provost Lisa Freeman says.

“These scholarships are awarded on the basis of not only strong academic performance but also selflessness and service to others,” Freeman adds. “These students strive not only to improve themselves, but also to improve their peers and the world around them. As they work toward these goals, they honor the memory of five of their predecessors whose lives continue to make a difference through these awards.”

Kaitlyn King

Kaitlyn King

Kaitlyn King

Growing up in Sycamore, Kaitlyn King had little interest in attending the university in her backyard. She yearned instead “to branch out” for new opportunities and experiences.

But the outstanding reputation of NIU’s communicative disorders major changed her mind and, ultimately, changed her life.

“The NIU community has taught me leadership, the value of service, how to overcome tough times and how to celebrate accomplishments,” says King, a junior whose minor is in deafness rehabilitation.

“It has also taught me that being a member of the NIU community means understanding that having those skills is not enough,” she adds. “You must use them to help our community and build a better tomorrow.”

Unlike many NIU students, King vividly remembers Feb. 14, 2008. While the campus mourned, she and classmates from Sycamore High School wore red-and-black ribbons and assembled care packages of ribbons and candy for NIU students.

“This community came together … everyone was doing anything they could to help. It was truly inspiring,” she says. “After that, volunteering and supporting NIU and the community became things that I never stopped doing.”

Her community service includes countless volunteer hours with NIU’s Sigma Lambda Sigma service sorority, the Penguin Project, the NIU Literacy Clinic and Alternative Spring Break, which took her to Kissimmee, Fla., in 2012.

She’s a member of the Student Health Advisory Council and the Communicative Disorders Student Association, and has worked as a Northern Ambassador and as a community adviser in Douglas Hall.

“Kaitlyn is a model of integrity,” says Mary Lynn Henningsen, an associate professor of organizational and corporate communication. “Her dedication to people with special needs is grounded in her moral, ethical value of all individuals. Many students may espouse those beliefs, but Kaitlyn lives them day in and day out in her work with children.”

Joseph Palmer

Joseph Palmer

Joseph Palmer

Joseph Palmer was a high school student in Rolling Meadows on Feb. 14, 2008, but he can sense the mood on campus then.

As a reporter for the Northern Star in 2013, he interviewed DeKalb Police Sgt. Steve Lekkas about the first responders that day five years earlier.

“He said, ‘We had officers and first responders driving down from places well over an hour away. They were just there because they wanted to help. At one point, we had two auditoriums full of cops just waiting for assignments or something they could do to help,’ ” says Palmer, junior majoring in political science/international relations.

“The effect this image has had on my life cannot be understated,” he adds. “I always sensed there was something special about NIU, and having heard that story, I finally realized what it is: This is a community built on character.”

Palmer – the man once inside the Victor E. Huskie suit – is president of the Student Alumni Association, serves as a counselor at the Global Leadership and Philanthropy Camp and has earned several University Honors Program awards.

He represented NIU as a delegate to the 65th Student Conference on United States Affairs, where he and students from around the world discussed contemporary issues with government, military and civilian leaders.

“Joe carries his principles with him into every situation, not for judging others in a negative light, but from which to base his views, comments and interactions,” said J.D. Bowers, associate vice provost for University Honors.

“As a student of politics, he is keenly aware of how destructive it can be where there is no tolerance for difference or room for people to make forgivable mistakes. He is as gracious to those who have made mistakes as he is to those with whom he takes no issue.”

Lauren Noonan

Lauren Noonan

Lauren Noonan

When Lauren Noonan takes the field with the Huskie women’s soccer team, she competes only with her feet and head.

That’s not the case Tuesday nights, however, when the speech-language pathology major visits the DeKalb County Nursing Home for bingo.

“I always sit with the same man there, named Bill. Bill is unable to use his hands, so I play his card for him every time,” says Noonan, a junior. “I just love seeing his face light up every time he sees me walk into his room. This really touches my heart, and that is why I go.”

Her quest to “make someone else’s life better” also includes children, a population she plans to serve as a speech-language pathologist. The 2013 Female Athlete of the Year in Community Service also mentors a girl at DeKalb’s Clinton-Rosette Middle School whom she considers “a little sister.”

“My mentoree has a lot issues in her life, and she struggles in school, too,” Noonan says. “I can tell I have made a positive impact on her life because she has increased her grades and decreased the amount of fights she has been in.”

Noonan was selected for the prestigious LEaD Huskie and Mid-American Conference Leaders programs, received the MAC Commissioner’s Award and was named to the Academic All-MAC team for women’s soccer.

She also is a member of the Student-Athlete Academic Advisory Committee and the Communicative Disorders Student Association.

“Lauren’s leadership has been developed through hard work, sacrifice and a passion to succeed. She gives everything she has every moment of the day for whatever the task is,” Coach John Ross said. “She is one of the most physical, aggressive and mentally tough every time she takes the field. This ability to get the most from herself on every occasion provides great inspiration.”

Juan Molina Hernandez

Juan Molina Hernandez

Juan Molina Hernandez

As a fine arts major, Juan Molina wanted to attend college in “a busy and vibrant city, surrounded by art galleries and museums.”

That wasn’t quite what he found in DeKalb, but the people and connections he made here – and the sense of belonging he treasures among them – now make him shake his head and smile.

“When speaking with, or visiting, friends who attend those universities that I dreamed of going to, I realize how lonely they are. The community that I take for granted here is non-existent for them,” says Molina, a junior.

“Sure, they have beautiful campuses and museums a train ride away, but those are merely materialistic things. The connections and the knowledge I have gained at NIU are priceless.”

Value is something he knows well.

A high school counselor warned him not to “waste” his potential; he didn’t want Molina to become a 30-year-old “making art in his mother’s basement.”

But Molina admires his mother – who is from Mexico with a sixth-grade education – and cites her as an inspiration. “She is humble, strong and caring,” Molina says. “My parents’ story of poverty, struggles, challenges and regrets, and hopes for their children, motivated and inspired me to strive for success, challenge myself and obtain the life they always wanted for me.”

His involvement includes the Northern Lights Ambassadors and serving as tech chair of Golden Key International Honour Society and on the “Honorable Mentions” editorial board.

Juan Fernandez, instructor of photography in the NIU School of Art, calls Molina “a great inspiration.”

“A majority of Juan’s classmates are not familiar with topics such as the construction of cultural identity,” Fernandez said. “His ability to make aesthetically beautiful work about the struggles and difficulties or being a young Mexican immigrant dealing with the complications of assimilation is impressive.”

Christian Villalobos

Christian Villalobos

Christian Villalobos

Christian Villalobos was only 6 when she left Mexico with her mother and 3-year-old sister, entering a strange and foreign land with no idea of what might come next.

That giant leap launched a journey that would shape the junior marketing major’s life.

“The love that my mother has for her children gave me a road map of what I could overcome and achieve,” Villalobos says.

“Ever since I can remember, society has told me I would not be able to attend college. I was raised in a low-income household, run by a single mother,” adds Villalobos, who changed schools four times in first-grade to sidestep discrimination.

“I knew that I wanted to get out of my situation; I wanted to provide safety and stability to my family. As the older sibling, I made it my job to work hard in school in order to provide for my family in the future. I say my mother’s suffering as my motivation to keep going.”

In the fall of 2011, the University Honors student became the first person in her family to attend college in the United States.

Villalobos is active at the NIU Latino Resource Center, where she is a member of the Adela de la Torre Honor Society, volunteers with Monitoring for Academic Success: Freshmen Receiving Experience and Study Habits (MAS FRESH) and advocates for undocumented students via DREAM Action NIU.

“The challenges that are faced by undocumented students have come to be a personal cause for her. She has worked tirelessly on common sense immigration reform,” NIU President Doug Baker says. “She and I shared a podium at an immigration reform panel that was well-attended in Naperville. Her testimony was compelling and was very well-received. It took a great deal of courage to make that presentation, and I was proud of her.”

Christian Villalobos, Lauren Noonan, Joseph Palmer, Juan Molina and Kaitlyn King

Christian Villalobos, Lauren Noonan, Joseph Palmer, Juan Molina and Kaitlyn King