Influential Illini: Beyond C-U

Photo courtesy of Harold family

By Sarah Small

With more than 500,000 living alumni, the University has produced a wide range of talented individuals. Some of them are famous for their intellectual contributions to the world, such as the University’s alumni astronauts. Others like Max Levchin, the co-founder of PayPal, advanced technology. Although their achievements differ, they are all united under the University banner.

Erika Harold, 2001 graduate

As a child, Miss America 2003 grew up cheering for the Illini sports teams.

Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, grew up in Urbana and later attended the University, graduating in 2001 with a degree in political science.

“U of I was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Harold, now an attorney at a law firm in Chicago.

At the University, she was involved in the academic honorary society, Phi Eta Sigma. She also worked with the WCIA Channel 3 news.

She said growing up in Urbana made her a life-long Illini fan, and she loved going to the football games and other sporting events.

Harold said she started competing in pageants in college as a way to earn money to pay for her education.

After winning the Miss Illinois pageant, Harold went on to participate in the Miss America pageant.

As Miss America she averaged 20,000 miles a month as she traveled the country working to raise awareness for youth bullying prevention.

“U of I taught me the importance of having and finding my own voice,” Harold said.

Jean Driscoll, 1991 graduate

Jean Driscoll graduated from the University in 1991 with a bachelor’s in speech communication.

“The University of Illinois changed my life,” Driscoll said. “I was recruited to play (wheelchair) basketball in the fall of 1987. I had no idea about its history, I just knew someone wanted me on their team.”

She later became involved in track as well.

“I loved my major and I enjoyed the friends I made here,” Driscoll said. “You’re really bonding with your teammates when you’re getting up super early and traveling together and training together.”

During her first two years at the University, her coach encouraged her to compete in a marathon.

“To get him off my back I told him I’d do one marathon,” Driscoll said.

Her time qualified her for the Boston Marathon for athletes with disabilities. She became the only person to win that marathon eight times, and broke the world record for this race five times.

She also participated in the 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Paralympics and won a total of 11 medals.

Most recently, Driscoll was asked by President George W. Bush to be a member of the delegation representing the United States in the Beijing Olympics.

“I had a neat network of people,” Driscoll said. “Especially my coaches who saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself.”

Nancy G. Brinker, 1986 graduate

Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker, founder of the breast cancer fundraising organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure, graduated from the University in 1986 with a degree in LAS.

“My time at the University of Illinois was crucial to my education and development of life skills that have taken me so far,” Brinker said.

“My sister, Susan G. Komen, faced a hard battle against breast cancer at a time when no one talked about the disease, and there was little to do to treat it,” Brinker said. “As she was dying from the disease, she asked me to promise that I would do everything I could so that no family had to suffer through the disease again.”

She has served as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and currently serves as Chief of Protocol.

“(At the University) I learned quickly that everyone has a role to play and can help to drive change,” Brinker said. “I was lucky to be in the University of Illinois setting, a large, vibrant campus, to teach me a sense of activism and personal engagement.”

Tim Dierkes, 2004 graduate

Tim Dierkes, a 2004 business administration graduate, is the creator and main operator of the blogging site MLB Trade Rumors.

He said the idea to start a blog came as a random suggestion from a friend and has evolved from its start in 2005. He began the Web site as a hobby, and it is now his full-time job with a team of eight people working for him.

“With baseball, there’s a ton of fans interested in trading and free agents and who’s going where,” Dierkes said.

He met his wife Agnes during his junior year when he and a friend sat in on a class they were not registered for.

“I sat down next to her and was cracking jokes and struck up a conversation,” Dierkes said. “A few weeks later I told her I wasn’t actually in the class, and fortunately she didn’t think it was too weird.”

He said he enjoys working on the Web site and plans on maintaining it.