NIU remembers Kay Forest

Kay Forest
Kay Forest

Friends, colleagues and former students of the late Kay Forest use remarkably similar words to describe the longtime NIU faculty member and retired chair of the Department of Sociology.

Passionate. Loyal. Devoted mentor. Great mind. Committed to social justice.

Whether she was teaching, writing, facilitating dialogue, or serving on a university committee, colleagues say Forest brought a sense of purpose to her work that was unsurpassed. When she died last month following a long illness, the NIU community recalled with fondness her nearly 20 years of service to the university.

Forest came to NIU in 1990 as an assistant professor in sociology, teaching courses on families, social change, gender, race and ethnicity. Trained as a family sociologist, she studied the effects of birth cohorts on women’s work and family experiences.

As her academic career advanced, Forest’s scholarly interests increasingly focused on social inequality and global justice, including welfare reform, poor people’s organizing and critical race studies. In 1995, she was nominated by El Pueblo Unido as “Most Inspirational Woman of the Year.” Four years later, she took a sabbatical leave to study the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign in Philadelphia, focusing on white racial identity, entitlement and operationalized privilege and how those phenomena sustain race relations in the U.S.

“Kay Forest was a role model for me from the first time I saw her lecture in a Women’s Studies classroom,” wrote former student Mary Shelden. “She was of petite stature, but every inch distinguished, and at the same time on fire for social justice. In a conversation with friends about what great mind we would most want to see as part of a think tank to solve the world’s problems, she was my nominee.”

The world’s problems were much on her mind as Forest’s career evolved at NIU, and she participated in numerous global initiatives in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Moved by the challenges she saw girls and young women facing in those countries, Forest was instrumental in establishing a local initiative called Teach Girls Global, which focuses on the education of women and girls in developing nations.

Photo of international flags“Kay was a compassionate intellect, concerned not just about national issues of inequality and discrimination, but about global inequalities,” said Anthropology Professor Susan Russell.

“On a trip to the Philippines, she decided to fund school supplies in an elementary school for young indigenous children high up in the mountains. She made a lot of kids really happy and motivated to learn by giving them backpacks with pens, pencils and paper. She never sought recognition for her philanthropy, and yet she embodied the essence of an academic professor who wanted to live her life by quietly making a difference in the world wherever she could.”

Closer to home, Forest was recognized as a tireless champion for her department, her university and her students. She served as director of Graduate Studies in sociology and later as chair from 2002 until she retired in 2008. During that time, she created “Sociology Week” as a way of demonstrating the many career opportunities available to students who major in sociology. That event continues in its 14th year this semester.

A perennial favorite in the classroom, Forest received the Students’ Choice Award from the NIU Student Association; Recognition of Teaching Excellence Award from the Center for Access-Ability Resources; and the Wilma D. Stricklin Award for the Enhancement of the Climate for Women on Campus at NIU.

“Kay was a passionate advocate for students and for social justice and economic equality, and that came through in her relationships, both professionally and personally,” said longtime sociology colleague Robin Moremen.

“She was a great teacher, and students came first in her mind. She always wanted to make sure that their needs were being met, and that they were on the path to success. Whatever the challenge, Kay rose to every occasion.”

Logo of Northern Illinois University Women's Studies Program: Changing minds & lives for the better!Forest’s interest in and commitment to diversity took many forms during her time at NIU. She served on the Multicultural Curriculum Transformation Task Force; served as a faculty associate in the Women’s Studies program; and established the Academic Diversity Programs Advisory Committee (ADPAC).

“Kay had in-depth knowledge of all the diversity programs on campus, so the provost asked her to create a mechanism to coordinate all of them and identify gaps and opportunities,” said Murali Krishnamurthi, acting vice provost for faculty affairs. “She started the group, drafted its charter and bylaws, chaired it for the first year, and then stepped back.

“She was a mentor to a lot of people, including me,” Krishnamurthi added. “Kay was always available to others. She helped me transform my engineering courses multiculturally, reviewed my papers on diversity issues, and even visited my classes to help me with sessions on diversity. The impact she made on me was tremendous, and I miss her terribly.”

After Forest retired in 2008, she continued to contribute her time and talents in a series of post-retirement assignments for the provost’s office. Among those were researching and writing a new university collegiality policy to guide professional interactions in NIU’s academic departments; and production of the Handbook for Department Chairs and School Directors, a comprehensive guide for new academic administrators.

“Kay loved her students, and she saw many ways to improve their experiences at NIU, including helping faculty and administrators do their jobs,” Krishnamurthi said.

“Dr. Forest was the reason I got into the sociology program at NIU,” said former student Caroline Krause. “She was also the reason I graduated. She was an amazing professor and friend.”

“I would not be who I am or where I am without her,” wrote alumnae Pat Archer. “She was just an incredible person and mentor.”

“How awesome it was to know Kay, to be in her presence, to learn from her,” wrote Center for Black Studies Director Laverne Gyant. “Thank you, Kay, for making the world a better place.”

A memorial service to celebrate Kay’s life will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeKalb. Memorials may be made to the Friends of Jane Adeny Memorial School, 320 South California St., Sycamore, IL 60178; or the Music Therapy Program of Hospice, Kish Health System Foundation, 1 Kish Hospital Drive, DeKalb, IL 60115.

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