Student at 50: Professor shares unique success story

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Photo courtesy of Kathleen Ditewig-Morris

Professor Kathleen Ditewig-Morris is the Internship Program Director in the Department of Communications. Ditewig-Morris discusses her journey to becoming an educator.

Instructor. Coach. Communicator. Mom. 

Kathleen Ditewig-Morris is currently a professor at the University, but she said she didn’t start off in education. 

In college, she majored in English and was unsure of the career path she wanted to take. She said she was encouraged by a professor to enter the business field, which he assured her would be full of jobs, especially for writers.

“I said, ‘I don’t really know anything about business,’” Ditewig-Morris said. “And he said, ‘They will teach you, you will learn as you go. But what they can’t teach you is how to write. You already know how to do that.’ So that’s what I did.”

Ditewig-Morris started out in marketing. She moved to Dallas, Texas, and worked as an editor at a nonprofit publication. When she came back to Illinois, she networked and got a job at Caterpillar Inc., based in Peoria.

For the next 23 years, she worked at the company as the CEO speechwriter and then moved into communication and changed management roles.

Above all, she said she prioritized being a mom. She raised her son on her own and encouraged him to practice writing. He now works with the Chicago Public Schools administration team. 

After 23 years with Caterpillar, the company was offering employees voluntary packages. 

At the age of 50, she accepted her offer into the communications program at the University to finally become a teacher. 

“It’s like a fire hose in your face,” Ditewig-Morris said on being a graduate student at 50. “That’s the way it was to the nth degree.” 

Coming from a corporate background and being thrust into one of the best communication graduate school programs in the country was a rough adjustment for Ditewig-Morris, she said.

It was also a new experience for her classmates, who were mainly recent college graduates. She said some of her peers questioned why she would come back to school after already leading a successful career. 

“I almost quit a couple times, but I didn’t,” Ditewig-Morris said. “And I’m glad I didn’t because it ended up being really, really worthwhile. So it was a huge accomplishment at that age.”

At the end of her masters’ program, the communications program hired her to teach at the University. 

She said she utilized her previous industry experiences to teach business communication and interviewing. She also runs the department’s internship program for undergraduates.

Last year, she was the winner of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

As a professor, Ditewig-Morris said she has learned more from her students than they have from her. 

“I learned how sharp people are,” Ditewig-Morris said. “And the different ways my students think. They’re all different from each other.”

She initially entered teaching with a corporate approach but quickly realized that this would not work with college students.  

“I was in college once,” Ditewig-Morris said. “You have to relax a little bit. Working with college students (is) best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I had a successful career before, but this is my favorite.” 

Because of the pandemic, Ditewig-Morris has been teaching virtually, and she said misses being in the classroom. She said she tries to recreate that same classroom energy over Zoom, but the experience is not the same.

“A great class when things are snapping and the kids are full of energy, you can’t beat that,” Ditewig-Morris said. “But it’s those one-on-one connections and students that I look for. I’m gonna miss that when I retire.”

She said she loves being a mentor and sharing her advice with students. 

“I think what matters to me the most are the students who didn’t have everything,” Ditewig-Morris said. “They’re trying to pay their way through school, work through school. You know, they didn’t have maybe even a supportive background. They’re doing this on their own.” 

Ditewig-Morris said she tries to talk to students who might need guidance or someone to relate to, in terms of her first generation and working-class background.

“I want to hear their stories,” Ditewig-Morris said. “I ask them questions, so I can try to understand them. Those are the ones that mean the most to me because those are the ones I hear back from.” 

She encourages students to expand their interests outside of their comfort zone. 

“I always tell my students don’t do what everybody else expects you to do,” Ditwig-Morris said. “Chase that wild dream while you’re in your 20s and you have the flexibility to do that. I got married too quickly the first time and had a child too quickly, and I didn’t. So I tell my students go out there and live it while you can. That’s what makes it worthwhile to me.” 

Ditewig-Morris praises students that take the time to thank their teachers. She said that like many students, teachers also get exhausted.

“I worked hard in my previous career, but this is a different kind of exhaustion, an emotional exhaustion,” Ditewig-Morris said. “And when you get that email or that note from a student, I have a file folder full of actual written cards, that, when I’m having a bad day, I’ll pull those out.”

Ditewig-Morris said she’s grateful for the time she’s spent at the University, especially within the communication department. 

“They have stood by me from the time I entered as a graduate student, all through the years I’ve been here as a faculty member,” Ditewig-Morris said. “I never had that experience before. I am eternally grateful to them, and my students. I love them to death, every single one. I’m a very grateful person.”

She said she is planning to retire in a year, which she said is a bittersweet experience. 

Yet the future remains wide open for Ditewig-Morris, who plans to move to the West Coast and is considering writing a novel. 

“When you work for 45 years, you can’t just stop,” she said. 

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