Meet the McKearn Summer Fellows


Click to watch a video about one of the McKearn fellows.

This summer, 10 of NIU’s best and brightest students participated in a program featuring a variety of experiential learning opportunities. Activities included an etiquette training session and lunch with alumni, a weekend retreat at Lorado Taft, and a visit with alumnus and renowned artist Bruce Niemi at his sculpture gallery and garden.

The students were brought these opportunities thanks to alumni John and Cassandra McKearn, whose support enabled NIU to offer the pilot session of the McKearn Summer Fellows Program. The program was developed by the Office of the Vice Provost, the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning, and the University Honors Program. The McKearns’ vision was brought to life with the help of Anne Birberick, vice provost; Julia Spears, associate vice provost of engaged learning; and J.D. Bowers, associate vice provost of University Honors.

According to Bowers, “The program was designed with the ends in mind; start with student learning outcomes that result in the integration of knowledge with practice, innovation, and self-awareness, and apply those outcomes to every experience that was provided. The result was 10 students who transcended their own learning capacities in ways that they could not even have imagined prior to their involvement in the program.”

The McKearn fellows participated in activities centered on research and artistry; leadership development; and civic, social, and global engagement. They also produced faculty-mentored projects that varied from researching the development of sleep behavior in young children, to examining how the presence of non-governmental organizations affects repression in various governmental structures, to designing a video game featuring a positive female protagonist.

McKearn fellow Patrick Price says that his project involved producing detailed scientific sketches of wildlife across campus and “showed students how beautiful their campus really is and how much we take for granted.” He adds that he hopes his work inspires alumni and donors and reminds them “what is beautiful about their alma mater.”

Fellow Juliana Leprich’s project involved working as an associate producer on a documentary film being made by Randy Caspersen, assistant professor of media studies. “I want to go into documentary filmmaking, so this experience has been invaluable,” Leprich says. “We’ve also been able to interact with alumni, and it has been really cool to hear their stories and make those connections. I never thought I’d get an experience like this as an undergraduate.”

President Douglas Baker recognizes the value of the program, noting how the fellows “have spent the summer immersed in research projects that have expanded their understanding of the world, taught them new skills, and helped them  establish new and valuable mentoring relationships.” He adds, “Those opportunities bring classroom learning to life and prepare our graduates to succeed in their chosen fields.”

Spears agrees. “These projects can provide unparalleled opportunities for engaged learning experiences that help students with academic and career development or in their preparations for graduate school.” She goes on to note the program’s lasting impact: “Once the students leave NIU with their bachelor’s degrees, they are the ones who are leading change out in the community.”

In addition to Bowers, Spears, and Birberick, the faculty and staff members of the “McKearn Team” include Jason Goode, assistant to the associate vice provost of University Honors; Kimberly Volmer, Women’s Studies Program graduate  assistant; and Stephanie Zobac, assistant director of the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning. The alumni hosts who volunteered their time and resources to the program include Nancy Baldwin, Howard Blietz, John and Nancy Castle, Kenneth and Ellen Chessick, David Hewson, Anthony Iosco, Jess Jankowski, Robin Kelly, Bruce and Suzi Niemi, and Jeffrey Yordon.

In a letter addressing the fellows, John and Cassandra McKearn describe their vision for the program: “When we started to design this fellowship program, we very much wanted to create a more enriched, more varied, and more world- balanced educational experience. You already have a great classroom and laboratory environment—we wanted to bring you learning opportunities and experience that will be important as you move forward from NIU.”

From the sounds of it, they have done just that.

Read the complete letter and learn more about the fellows and their projects at