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Millikin Meets Heidelberg

Just minutes into his tenure as associate professor and athletic training program director at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, Trevor Bates '02 learned that another Millikin graduate was already working on the campus.Julie Stevenson O'Reilly '93, an assistant professor of communication and women's and gender studies, had been at Heidelberg since 2005."I was on campus all of 30 minutes before someone mentioned that there was a professor who went to the same undergraduate institution that I did," Bates says. Despite differing academic backgrounds (O'Reilly majored in communication and writing and found Heidelberg after an unfulfilling stint in the corporate sector; Bates majored in athletic training and that path led him to Heidelberg's program), the duo's paths crossed three years ago when O'Reilly joined Heidelberg's Undergraduate Curriculum Committee (UCC).

What originally began as a common Millikin link between two committee members has evolved into professional respect forged from the desire to serve and educate. O'Reilly's path to higher education began with her doctorate coursework. Seeking an intellectual and creative challenge, she switched her professional focus from journalism and public relations to American culture studies. Ultimately, she found herself in a faculty position. "I ended up finding the professional environment I had been looking for in higher education Ð it just took me longer than expected," O'Reilly says. "My students are the best part of my job, but variety and creativity are next on the list. I had such a great experience at Millikin that I am an advocate of small, private universities. Helping students improve their critical thinking and writing skills are the things that motivate me the most."

Bates also found returning to a private college atmosphere to be attractive."The small college setting allows professors and administrators to be more involved in the development of the campus community," Bates says. "Whether I'm working with a student, colleague, administrator, coach or support staff member, I enjoy the opportunity to help others achieve their goals." While neither expected to work so closely with another Millikin graduate at Heidelberg's campus, the respect they have for each other is apparent.

"It is an honor to work with Dr. O'Reilly," Bates says. "She is a confident, engaged professional who mixes the historical and modern aspects of culture to provide students with an excellent educational experience. In the last five years, Heidelberg has validated her approach by honoring her with its equivalent of the ÔTeacher of the Year' award for her ability to connect with her students in a meaningful way." O'Reilly praises Bates' contributions as well. "Trevor models a high level of professionalism for his students and colleagues and is well-respected on campus," O'Reilly says. "In addition to directing the athletic training program and serving as the chair of the UCC, he was appointed to the Academic Priority Leadership Committee and recently named associate dean of health sciences. Despite all the responsibilities and stress that often accompany these positions, Trevor maintains a positive attitude and a great sense of humor."

And while both alumni are focused on educating the world's future leaders, Bates and O'Reilly are quick to point out that their own successes were cultivated at Millikin. Bates especially credits Millikin with teaching him how to think. "Millikin taught me to dream big and exposed me to more than just the information I needed to become a certified athletic trainer," he says.

Lee Larkins '08: Taking the Reins

Growing up in the Midwest, Lee Larkins ’08 never expected to work with some of the most well-known rap and hip-hop artists of his generation. Throughout high school, he spent most of his extracurricular time showing horses in the summer, playing ice hockey in the winter and advocating for the skateboarders of Decatur. He also enjoyed taking photographs and splicing together short video projects on a set of VCRs, but he had little interest in a career in the entertainment industry.

In 2004, Larkins came to Millikin to pursue a degree in commercial art and design. He had his ups and downs as an art major. After turning in an unsatisfactory assignment, one professor said “Lee, if you were my employee, I would fire you.” It was exactly the type of honest encouragement he needed, Larkins says. As a result, he began to take his studies more seriously and kindle his interest in videography while filming his friends skateboarding throughout Central Illinois. This interest would transform into the passion that led Larkins to pursue a career in video production and eventually start his own freelance photo and video business.

Larkins spent the months following his 2008 graduation filming skateboarding events. He used these experiences to network with skateboarders, entrepreneurs and filmmakers throughout the Chicago community. Through one of these connections, Larkins was offered an internship with a senior producer at Chrewd Marketing and Promotions’ new start-up production company, Mid C Media, which specializes in music-industry advertising. Although it was a detour from his previous videography experience, Larkins could not pass up the opportunity to work on more high-profile projects.

During his internship, Larkins directed, filmed and assisted with several video assignments, including interviews with musical artists, recap sizzle reels for events, music videos, concert tours and behind-the-scenes features for music labels such as Interscope/Universal, Def Jam and Atlantic. These video projects allowed Larkins to work directly with more than 60 rap and hip-hop artists, including Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Ke$ha, 50 Cent and Big Boi of Outkast.

Although meeting celebrities and going to concerts might sound like a dream job to some, Larkins says working in the entertainment industry “takes a lot of hard work to get to the fun part.” Over the years, he has learned to work with his fair share of last-minute scene changes, celebrity demands and nearly impossible deadlines. “You not only have to learn to keep a level head but also know how to handle unexpected changes,” Larkins warns. “Everyone wants it done yesterday. So sometimes you have to put in extra time, stay up all night and ‘make it work,’ as they say.” Larkins “makes it work” by following some good advice. “One of the best pieces of wisdom I’ve picked up is ‘if you want to go far, you have to learn to be at your strongest, while everyone around you is at their weakest.’”

Despite the challenges, Larkins considers filming for the entertainment industry his new passion. In 2010, he founded Shark Fins Productions*, where he continues to work with well-known clients throughout the Midwest, while expanding his reach to the West Coast and even into the international markets of Jamaica and the United Kingdom.

“I love it, because when I work with my own company, I don’t have to go through other people,” Larkins says, “I can just take the reins.” While he may not take the reins showing horses anymore, Larkins stays true to his past and still finds time to film and support the skateboarding scene. Most recently, he filmed the invitation-only Chicago All-City Skate Competition and participated as a guest speaker at the Illinois Center for Broadcasting alongside one of his idols, pro-skateboarder Greg Lutzka. Larkins is thankful for the opportunities that pursuing video production has afforded him: “I’m always doing something new and exciting,” he says, “I couldn’t be more blessed.”


Both Ty Warden '13 and Alida Duff Sullivan '06 interviewed Larkins and contributed to this feature article. warden was a writing intern for the alumni and development office earlier this year, and sullivan is the associate director of communications.

Hugh Sulllivan '06: Choosing my own adventure

I used to make fun of my brother for playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). I didn't have anything against the game, it was just an excuse to give my brother a hard time.

When my friend texted me about a year ago, saying he wanted to start a game of D&D, I was pretty hesitant. Not only was I worried my brother would now make fun of me, I just didn't know if it would hold my attention. I don't like math, and I'm not very patient, so sitting for a long time and calculating stats didn't seem like it would be up my alley. I tried "Vampire: The Masquerade" for about a day in high school and Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) for about a day at Millikin. My track record was not good.

Still, I gave it a chance. And a year later, my perspective has completely changed. Now, I get pretty bummed if schedules conflict, and we have to skip one of our weekly sessions.

I think the main reason I wound up enjoying myself is the group of people involved. There are a few very experienced players who know the game inside and out. But everyone in the group is there to have fun, and they don't take it too seriously. Also, the Dungeon Master (DM) is a writer by profession, so his storytelling is fantastic.

The second reason is a word I heard often at Millikin: networking. The informality of D&D has led me to meet some amazing people. Our original group consisted almost entirely of my coworkers from the Decatur Herald & Review newspaper. However, as people dropped out due to lack of interest or scheduling conflicts, different players were introduced and new friends were made. During my free time, I like to make short films. Through my group of gamer friends, I have befriended fellow artists who have joined in my filmmaking endeavors as prop-makers, writers, actors and extras. The end result is that, even during my free time, I'm able to work on my craft and get people involved with me in creating art.

And that's another reason I found myself drawn into the game: the face-to-face interaction. In a video game that has a storyline, you have limited options for dialogue. In D&D, anything goes.

At the conclusion of my first D&D adventure, our DM asked what we wanted to do after our characters had collected our spoils. Just to be difficult, I said I wanted to run for mayor. I half expected him to laugh at me. Instead, the DM, who had planned far ahead in anticipation of several possible story outcomes, developed a plotline for running a political debate between the existing mayor and my elf sorcerer. (I won the election, I'm proud to report.) It was fun to be able to trip up the game's writer and send us into places we were never intended to go.

That's what I love about D&D, at least with this group: The ability to cut loose and play a game that has infinite story possibilities, all in person. It's a lot like the Millikin experience. Freshman students come in not exactly sure what it's all about but graduate feeling they have infinite possibilities. ?

Roy Riley ’07: Ironman for a cause

Roy Riley ’07 of Champaign, Ill., has completed the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, inspiring his students at the Gerber School of Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana, Ill., to reach for their dreams.

Seeking to compete in the Wisconsin Ironman, Riley wrote an optional application essay about his students’ embodiment of the Ironman motto, “anything is possible.”

The triathlon officials were so impressed with his essay and story that he was placed in the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, last October instead of Wisconsin.

“As a triathlete, the Ironman World Championship is a lifetime goal, so to say I was shocked is a complete understatement,” Riley says. “Good luck like this rarely happens to me and I was hit with the best luck any triathlete can have.”

The Kona triathlon consisted of a 2.4-mile swim in the ocean and a 112-mile bike ride, topped with a 26.2-mile marathon run; a daunting challenge for someone who has never competed in an Ironman triathlon before.

Riley set a goal just to finish, but he completed the race with an overall time of 11 hours, 47 minutes and 46 seconds, finishing 1,290th out of 1,855 competitors from around the world.

During the race, Riley wore a white visor signed by each of his students to share his experience with them.

“I am the first person any of these students have known personally who has been on national television. I thought it might boost their self-esteem if they were able to see their signatures on TV. Anything to give my students a little more hope is all I can ask for,” Riley says.

The Gerber School where Riley teaches is a residential facility for children and other residents who have mental, emotional or behavioral issues, or are born into a home that either cannot or will not support them.

Riley admits that, coming from a loving family, he has no firsthand experience with many of the hardships his students have seen, but he still wanted to show them that any challenge can be overcome.

“I wanted my students to know that I also look up to them everyday,” he says. “I will never be able to experience what they have. My family has always been my support, and I wanted my students to know they can help support as well. All of the encouragement they showed leading up to the race meant the world to me.”

Riley taught his students what the Ironman challenge was and what it takes to complete the race.

“I want my students to understand that even if something is hard you take one more step,” he says. “Our students are forced to reach further than most for higher education, so just guiding them to fill out one more application or correct one more mistake may give them a better chance at success.”

It was Riley’s hope that his students would feel “pride” when they saw him cross the finish line. He hoped they would also feel that they had accomplished something as well.

“Never giving up is my theme this year with my students,” Riley says. “I was never going to quit that race. If I had to stop running in the marathon portion, I walked. If I could not walk anymore, I would have crawled until I finished. That is what I wanted my students to understand.”

Riley's dedication to his students created a stir that thrust the unassuming teacher into the spotlight. NBC named Riley their feature athlete for the world championship, sending a camera crew to his parents’ home in Decatur and to the Gerber School in Urbana to film and interview him for a news feature that aired in December of last year.

Life in the spotlight was a challenge of its own.

“I have never been nervous in my life,” Riley says, “so this was something new. I quickly became ‘the face of Cunningham’ due to the buzz around campus.”

But as exciting as the cameras were, they weren’t his motivation for completing the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. He did it for his students.

Their struggles motivated Riley to write the essay that placed him in the World Championship. They helped make his dream come true, and he hopes his success will inspire them to reach for dreams of their own.

by Jackson Lewis '13

Johnson, Jarrett '01

Jarrett Johnson ’01 planned on becoming a civil or electrical engineer. But that all changed when a friend’s mother suggested Millikin.

Shortly after, an admission recruiter called Johnson and said he should apply for a Long-Vanderburg Scholarship, an award recognizing high scholastic achievement among students who demonstrate a commitment to diversity, leadership and community service. In 1997, he was awarded the scholarship and a music talent award, and the rest is history.

“I sold it to [my] mom as music business,” he says. “I thought I’d be involved in production side and stay in the background. Had I not come [to Millikin], I would not have realized my dream of pursuing music.”

Since then, the 2001 music grad has achieved undeniable success as a singer, songwriter and producer. A member of the award-winning a cappella ensemble formed at MU, Chapter 6, he has also worked with several music industry moguls, including Quincy Jones, David Foster and Michael Bublé.

In 2009, he and his wife, Andréa Hodges Johnson ’05, moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of Bloomington, Ill., to further pursue his songwriting and producing career.

“We realized it was time to make a change,” he says.

However, it wasn’t easy. According to Johnson, moving so far from the home he had always known was a huge leap of faith, not to mention a lot of hard work and determination.

“Living in L.A. is very expensive,” says Johnson. “You work hard to stay out there.”

Johnson started singing in his L.A. church, where he serves as a worship leader. He also began performing with m-pact, a Los Angeles a cappella group, which opened the door to an opportunity to give voice lessons.

“Every single time I start to think our time [in L.A.] is up, God just drops another blessing,” says Johnson.

His hard work and determination is paying off. Among his most recent achievements, Johnson received a Grammy Award last year for his participation as a writer, producer and vocalist on Michael Bublé’s “Crazy Love,” which was named Best Traditional Pop Album. He also is credited as a co-writer/arranger for the title track of Quincy Jones’ newest album "Q: Soul Bossa Nostra," released last year.

“My career is really starting to come to fruition now,” he says.

Johnson feels that his favorite written work, “Breakthrough,” featured on MTV’s show “Taking the Stage,” best expresses his journey.

“It’s so much more than a song,” says Johnson. “It’s a testament to what’s been happening in my life – it’s a proclamation.”

So what's the secret to his success?

According to Johnson, who shared his experience with Millikin students at a Career Connections program during Homecoming last fall, it’s all about relationships.

“Be around people that push you,” he says. “You can learn so much from them. Don’t be afraid or too proud to share. Leave your nerves and ego at the door because the work has to be done and done well.”

He also suggests taking advantage of networking opportunities and getting out there.

“Shyness is not going to get you where you want to be,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to open your mouth.”

And Johnson strongly believes in taking any opportunity he is given: “Even the smallest, seemingly mundane opportunity can open so many doors for you.”

Balancing a successful, busy career and home life can be challenging. Johnson credits his wife, Andréa, with being the real secret behind his success.

“My wife is extremely patient and supportive beyond measure,” he says.

Besides the support of his family and church, Johnson credits Millikin with preparing him for achieving success on the boulevard of broken dreams.

“Everything was in my reach by virtue of being a student here,” Johnson says. “It’s home.”

Lent, Shawn '00

Dancing for peace

Most theatre practitioners would leap at the opportunity to teach children dance, but very few would travel to the Most Mira “Bridge of Peace” Youth Arts Festival in Kevljani, Bosnia, to do so. Enter Shawn Lent, armed only with a Bosnian vocabulary consisting of eight words, yet still prepared with what she calls “the importance of creativity and hope.”

Lent was handpicked through contacts in the United Nations to teach children of an eclectic mix of cultures in this former warzone, where less than 20 years ago the Serbian military killed 300 innocents and tore apart the lives of hundreds of Bosniaks and Croats in the nearby death camp at Omarska during the Bosnian War. “In the third year of the festival, there is a little spot of joy,” Lent says, “but it still feels like the genocide was yesterday.”

Indeed, Kevljani continues to run into trouble coping with the atrocities of the past. “It just dawned on me as the parents arrived that the war isn’t that far removed, and it’s the parents’ generation.” The festival surrounds an empty and rarely used  community center that is so far failing in its purpose to bring the village together. The locks have recently been changed and the Serbs have built their own community center. The wounds of war are hard to forget.

In three-hour dance workshops held daily for different age groups, she introduced the children, teens and young adults to everything from ballet to break dancing. “In that culture, dance is used as a way to solidify your identity, along with music and costumes,” Lent says, “so it was kind of nice for the children to have the freedom of not doing their cultural dances.”

Although the children did grow together as a community as a result of the dances, Lent admits to seeing “some bullying” among them, but notes: “It was actually comforting to see typical kid banter and not nationalistic quarrels.” After a while Lent was no longer conscious of who was from what school. It ceased to matter. The cultural tension in Kevljani will not end overnight, but there is hope in the children who have fostered unity through their exploration of dance.

Lent’s passion for the community arts is ultimately what brought her to Bosnia, and according to her, that passion is “something that could only have been fostered at Millikin University.” While speaking at Millikin last year, she reflected on her time at her alma mater “doing sort of weird yet creative things. There’s a lot of taking risks and a range of experiences.”

As an undergraduate, she found that “you can really grow into yourself at Millikin,” and she did so through the help of friends and mentors like Denise Myers, associate professor of theatre and dance, who Lent compares to “a second mother” who “was always challenging you.” Myers gave Lent the push she needed to choreograph the annual children’s show, turning it into a musical theatre extravaganza complete with dancing and a choir.

After graduating from Millikin, Lent moved to an all-Muslim neighborhood in London in 2001, where she was flourishing as a youth worker and dance critic. She also was involved in the community arts which, she later discovered, was an actual field she could study.

Lent then returned to Chicago and earned her master’s degree, leading her to new heights in the British Counsel Transatlantic Network 2020 and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations International Fellowship. The fellowship brought her to the “Bridge of Peace” festival, where she has had the opportunity to use her talent to bring a community together on a grander scale. “It’s a continuation of the dream. I was in the dance field, a great career at Millikin, but it was too insular for me. I found my dream later,” says Lent. “It was having a place for dance outside of theatre.”

by Jackson Lewis ’13

Piskulic, Jeff '01

Life has its twists and turns, as Jeff Piskulic ’01 of Chile has discovered. A mortgage analyst turned English teacher, Jeff has discovered that change can be a good thing.

“I had been ready to make a move out of the mortgage industry for quite some time but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Piskulic says. “I thought about grad school, but I didn’t want to get a master’s degree in something I wasn’t entirely sure I had a passion for.”

“I came to Chile in March 2008 for a couple of weeks with some friends on vacation – it was my first time in South America – and that was when I discovered a brand new continent to explore,” he says. “I decided it was the place for me.”

So, after eight years, Piskulic gave up his job in Chicago and moved to Chile, earning his Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification during his first month there.

He now works teaching English for the largest grocery store chain in Chile, as well as few classes a week at a high school in Santiago.

“Wal-Mart recently purchased 60 percent of the company, so now there are many employees that need to learn English to correspond with Wal-Mart in the U.S. and around the world,” he says.

The biggest challenge Piskulic has encountered since moving to Chile was discovering a more complicated language barrier than he had anticipated. As a result, he found that he needed to become a student, too.

“I am studying Spanish daily, and I have improved vastly from when I first arrived, but it still can be frustrating sometimes,” he says. “Also, Chileans are known to speak some of the fastest Spanish, within which they have their own entire language of slang, so that certainly doesn’t make things easier.”

Piskulic plans to remain in Chile until this December, but after that, he may decide to return to the U.S. to attend graduate school.

“I’m really enjoying my experience here, so I certainly don’t want to leave anytime soon,” he says. “For now I’m enjoying my new job and the free time I have to relax, travel, read and study Spanish.”

by Lindsey Compton ’12

The complete article appeared in spring 2010 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.

Tolley Davis, Ellen ’00

Ellen Tolley Davis ’00 was spotlighted last November as one of “15 to Watch” by PR News Magazine, a journal for the public relations industry. This distinction honors 15 up-and-coming PR executives under age 30 who have the potential to revolutionize the field. Davis was chosen by a panel of corporate, agency and academic executives (as well as the staff of PR News) from among eligible communications experts around the globe.

Davis, senior director of strategic communications at National Retail Federation (NRF) in Washington, D.C., works to elevate the profile of the retail industry to consumers, investors, politicians and the media. Among her accomplishments, Davis coined the phrase “Cyber Monday” which refers to the peak in online shopping the Monday following Thanksgiving. “We all thought it was an anomaly at first,” Davis says, “but when it kept happening year after year, we decided to unveil the trend to the media in November 2005.” Like its counterpart Black Friday (the biggest retail shopping day after Thanksgiving), retailers, consumers and media now look to Cyber Monday as the official start to the online holiday shopping season.

Cyber shopping is becoming a prominent sector of the retail market. “Online shopping is growing substantially, and much more quickly than traditional retail,” Davis says. “Some analysts say that in the future up to 50 percent of all products will be affected by the Internet.” She helps keep the media updated about this trend by providing reporters with timely research and intelligent commentary.

How did her career in retail begin? Born and raised in Galesburg, Ill., Davis majored in communication at Millikin. “I initially thought I wanted to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, but an internship at a TV station completely changed that! I also had a PR internship with United Way of Decatur while I was at Millikin and absolutely loved it,” Davis says. “The public relations field was perfect for me because it combines all of my passions: writing, working with the media, strategy and a lot of interaction with many different people.” After graduating from Millikin, Davis worked at an advertising agency in St. Louis before moving to Washington to work at NRF. “I have referred back so many times to what I learned in communication classes,” Davis says.

Today, Davis is a widely recognized spokesperson for her field. She has appeared on “Your World” with Neil Cavuto, CNBC’s “Squawk Box” and ABC TV’s “Good Morning America.” In addition, Davis is frequently quoted in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Where will she go from here? “I don’t have any set career path or goal,” Davis says. “I’ve thought about writing a book of some sort, continuing my education and then teaching at a university, or starting my own company. For now, though, I’m quite happy talking and learning about retail. There aren’t many better jobs out there for a woman who loves to shop!”

- by Natalie Perfetti ’09

The complete article appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.

Evans, Carey ’02

An HGTV on-air personality since 2005, Evans was recently named co-host of one of the network’s home improvement series, “Don’t Sweat It,” helping homeowners with projects they don’t know how to tackle.

Viewers may also recognize Evans from her design work on two other HGTV series — “My First Place” and “Freestyle.”

For both series, Evans flies to locations around the country, where she often meets homeowners and oversees the project’s first day, shops for the project on the second day and films on the third day.

Besides lighting up the screen for HGTV, Evans can also be spotted online and in print ads for General Electric’s “Right Light, Right Now” campaign (find it at gelighting.com), including ads in the October issues of Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping and other magazines.

Evans also has her own private design business in New York.

Evans, who earned a bachelor’s degree in musical theatre from Millikin, served as stage manager at Kirkland Fine Arts Center as a student and also worked in the theatre scene shops, where she learned to use power tools and sharpened her design skills.

Immediately after graduation, she pursued her dream and moved to New York, where she paid her bills by working on displays and productions for a creative design company while looking for acting jobs and commercial work.

Recognizing that her skills and interests made her a good match for many of the new home improvement shows being developed, Evans kept auditioning with HGTV and finally heard the words she’d been waiting to hear: “You really have a good design eye.”

The complete article appeared in the winter Winter 2007-08 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.

Kruse, Cara '01

Wrestling a crocodile is nothing out of the ordinary for Busch Gardens zookeeper Cara Kruse ’01 of Tampa, Fla., although it’s nothing like herding cattle.

“I grew up on a farm working with cattle, corn and soybeans,” she says. “I never thought I’d be wrestling crocodiles, training hyenas or researching hippos, but that’s what I look forward to every day.”
 According to Kruse, the crocodiles at Busch Gardens can be up to 15 feet long and weigh almost 1,000 pounds. Rounding up one of these feisty reptiles for medical reasons or habitat changes takes at least a few zookeepers and starts with wrestling the croc to attach neck and snout ropes. Once the ropes are secure, at least four zookeepers must jump on the crocodile, with the “head” person grabbing its jaws and holding them close. Kruse has been that head person before and, not surprisingly, calls it the scariest and most tense position. It takes tremendous effort to maintain the pressure and weight needed to keep the crocodile from spinning, death rolling or causing injuries.

Croc wrestling is just one example of how there’s never been a dull moment for Kruse since she began working for Busch Gardens the summer after graduating from Millikin. She started at the park as a resident zoo camp counselor, shadowing zookeepers and teaching teenagers about the biology and conservation of managed exotic animals each summer while studying for her master’s degree from the University of Missouri - Columbia.

After completing a degree in parks, recreation and tourism and a certificate in conservation biology, Kruse stayed on full time at Busch Gardens and was promoted to zookeeper in 2003. Three years later, she was named senior animal care specialist, and last December, she was promoted to senior I animal care specialist.

“Senior I is the highest zookeeper status before moving on to a desk job, but I don’t really want a desk job yet. I’m having too much fun doing what I do,” she says.

The fun even includes cleaning the hippo tanks, considered to be among the zoo’s dirtiest jobs because hippos digest only about 60 percent of what they eat. In other words, what goes in as hay comes back out looking very similar to hay. Plus, female hippos tend to defecate in the water, making their tanks especially dirty. Zoo staff must dive twice a week to vacuum…well, you know, and clean the windows. On the upside, the tanks are also home to a hundred thousand colorful African cichlid fish, so Kruse says, “Even though you’re doing a dirty job, you feel like you’re in an African lake doing it.”

However, her job doesn’t consist of only dirty work. On a daily basis, Kruse interacts with the animals: feeding, nurturing and training them. For example, she recalls one morning when she and zoo staff went into their hippo and lemur habitat to feed the animals and found them acting strange. “Five of our ring-tailed lemurs were dancing around, standing on their hind legs, swaying and vocalizing near the edge of the hippo lake, and one of our female hippos, Moxie, was standing near the keeper entrance door … all a little strange for animals that like to sleep-in in the morning,” she says. As it turned out, Moxie was hiding a new baby hippo born earlier than expected. Hippos normally give birth in the water, but Moxie had given birth on land to a healthy, 50-pound “baby” girl.

Among all her duties, Kruse says that training the animals is the one most full of surprises. “It always amazes me just how quickly animals learn, especially animals that you don’t think would be trainable,” she says, naming their Nile crocodile, Sobek, as an example. Since he’s one of the largest in the park, it’s impossible for the staff to catch him if they must move him due to injuries or habitat renovations. So, they trained him to move in and out of a crate made specifically for his size, creating less stress for both the reptile and the zookeepers.

In addition to her work with animals, Kruse also helps interview, train and mentor new staff members and has developed an animal research class for zoo staff. She also teaches teenage campers, focusing on opportunities to complete research abroad with the EarthWatch Program, a program giving people of all ages and backgrounds a chance to study alongside field researchers throughout the world.

Last fall, Kruse went on a three-week trip to Africa with EarthWatch in a partnership effort between the program and the SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. She conducted her research at a small camp in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa with other researchers as a part of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, an ongoing research project focused on six groups of habituated meerkats that happen to be among those shown on the popular Animal Planet TV show, “Meerkat Manor.”

Kruse sometimes wonders how she got to this point, because she didn’t always want to do the work she does. “When I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up and be like Indiana Jones: teaching and traveling all over the world,” she says. “But, I think I made it pretty close. I get to teach people about conservation, and I get to travel all over the world. I haven’t learned how to use a whip or anything, but that wasn’t really on the list.”

At Millikin, Kruse stayed undecided for two years before majoring in biology, and she says she wouldn’t trade her Big Blue experience for anything. She challenges current students: “Don’t be afraid to reach outside of your comfort zone. Have a little faith in yourself and take every opportunity that comes your way … life keeps educating you long after Millikin, so don’t let yourself stop learning. Reach out for more.”

by Kate Eagler ’11

The complete article appeared in fall 2009 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.

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Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
 
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL