An Interview With Alma Mater


Alma mater usually refers to a person’s former school, but at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, it means one thing: the iconic statue on Green and Wright of a woman with open arms and a smile that would make the Mona Lisa jealous. We sat down beside Alma (she insisted on standing) to learn more about her experience as one of the most famous landmarks on campus. 

Can you tell us a bit about your role at the school?

“Well, my sculptor, Lorado Taft, dedicated me to the university in 1929 as a beacon for new students and faithful alumni, and I have been true to the orange and blue ever since. I’ve seen a lot over the years—our men’s basketball championships, the birth of HAL, and even the college’s jigsaw puzzle fad back in 1933. What brings me the most joy, though, is watching the young adults who make it all happen. Whether it’s pioneering education or advocating social justice, my students never stop growing, and a mother couldn’t be more proud.”

Alma Mater sculpture amongst budding trees in spring
Alma Mater, a mainstay on the UIUC campus since 1929, welcomes each student who passes her with open arms. She is flanked on either side by two figures personifying the university’s motto, “Learning and Labor.” Her inscription reads, “To thy happy children of the future, those of the past send greetings.”

Who are the two guys behind you?

“They’re named Labor and Learning. Learning is actually a woman, and she is holding hands with Labor to show that the two go hand in hand.”

What do you do in your free time?

“I enjoy reading and spending time outdoors. I also study traffic patterns and have recently developed a renewed interest in construction processes. Learning likes to play chess in her head. Labor often practices the ‘Coro a bocca chiusa’ number from Madama Butterfly, as he is an aspiring opera singer.”

Do the three of you ever get tired of just standing around all day?

“That’s an interesting way to put it. I don’t view our careers as ‘just standing around,’ because we are constantly welcoming new and enrolled students, actively promoting the UIUC brand, and uniting the school. The university wouldn’t be the same without us.”

Alma Mater, Learning, and Labor dressed up nice and warm for winter
Pictured here in their winter wear, Alma, Learning, and Labor don a variety of attire for big occasions throughout the school year.

With friends like “Learning” and “Labor,” some people might assume that you don’t like fun. Is that true?

“Au contraire! I make fun! I rally students old and new from all across the globe. I’m on T-shirts, tattoos, gingerbread houses. My outfits celebrate Fighting Illini victories, anniversaries, and even the coming of winter! That’s going way above the ASRC [American Statue Responsibilities Code]. We celebrate together, my students and I, every step of the way, and it is sheer bliss. Remember that jigsaw fad I mentioned? I am made of the kind of bronze that won’t tarnish.”

But it did, right?

“What is this? I don’t think you fully appreciate how hard this job is. Do you know that I have a live camera on me all the time? Twenty-four hours a day I am being filmed. You can’t imagine the pressure that comes with that kind of spotlight! And that’s not including the constant selfies and promotional videos, or the graduates who line up around the block to take pictures with me most every May. Of course, it’s worth it, but that does not make it easy. When you commit to something for as long as I have, you will understand.”

For being constructed in 1929, you don’t look a day over 40. How do you stay so young, if you don’t mind us asking?

“Oh, I make sure I get plenty of rest, drink only water, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and make sure to get some exercise.”

Alma Mater's shown before and after conservation
Feeling the weight of age, Alma took a brief hiatus from campus beginning in 2012 to be restored to her original bronze color. She happily returned to her much-missed children in April 2014, looking refreshed for her countless commencement photo ops.

Really? And that’s all it takes?

“Yes, that’s all. Well, that’s most of it. I did get a little bit of professional work done. It was structurally motivated but had some slight cosmetic benefits. But mostly, my shine is due to my healthy lifestyle and natural aging process. And also due to the rejuvenating joy I receive from my students, of course.”

What are your future goals?

“I am very content with my current placement, so I don’t envision relocation in the near future. However, I would like to help Labor expand his knowledge of opera and perhaps visit my second cousins out east, once I get the chance.”

Do you have any advice for UIUC students?

“Continue on! I watch with loving eyes. You will always find acceptance in my arms and a home on this campus.”