For Jessalyn, the current president of the Illini Union Board, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, a light that guides her even when times are uncertain. We sat down with her to talk about her journey toward self-discovery, the amazing experiences facilitated by the Illini Union, and why she believes positive thinking can help everyone through both certain and uncertain times.
Tell us about yourself.
“I come from Round Lake Beach, Illinois … kind of a remote, small town. I have my mom and my dad, my two younger siblings, and I’m the first in my family to go to a four-year university. So, this has been really exciting so far.”
Why did you choose UIUC?
“I found the University of Illinois through a family friend of ours. And it was funny, because I did not want to stay in Illinois for school. But then, in my senior year, I decided to visit because I got accepted.
“I actually came to visit the school with a concussion … I went to visit for Mediapalooza [an annual College of Media event for admitted students], and it just kind of clicked. I wasn’t nervous. It was very welcoming. … I remember walking on the Quad, just looking at everything. I was also dazed still, because I had the concussion. But I remember just being completely comfortable. And when my parents were like, ‘What are you thinking?’ I just turned around and told them, ‘Oh no … I’m coming here. We’re done.’”
What was your adjustment process to the university like?
“I didn’t do as much my freshman year because I was still settling in and making friends—you know, getting an understanding of university life. Even being four hours away, it was still a big deal for me and my family. So, it was hard at first.”
What did you do to get through it?
“Going into sophomore year, I had a whole new mentality where I said, ‘I want to be involved more. I want to expand in my career.’ So … on Quad Day, I was by myself, but I went to almost every single booth that interested me. I found Illini Film and Video, which I was involved in my sophomore year.
“I had [also] known since first semester of freshman year that I wanted to be a part of the Illini Union Board. And then sophomore year, I found them, and it truly helped me a lot with everything. That was a time where I felt really alone, and being involved and keeping myself busy with school really helped me through a hard time. And now, being a senior, I am the president, which is really big.”
What advice would you give other students who are struggling to adjust?
“Get involved as much as you can. Find things that you really like, because you’ll find people with common interests. It’s a new environment, but it’s not scary. It’s just different for a little bit, but then, eventually, it feels like home. And as long as it still feels like home, like, this is a place where you belong, you’ll eventually find your way. That’s what worked for me. I never gave up … I pushed myself to stay a little longer, and I eventually found a good rhythm.”
You mentioned how you got involved with Illini Union Board. What can the Illini Union offer students?
“For me and a lot of people that I’ve talked to, the Union is like a second home. … Being a part of the Illini Union Board, we offer a lot of events on campus. We try and cater to every single student, you know? Whether it’s taking a break from studying or having a place to come and spend time with friends, it’s just a way for them to get away.
“[We also] provide a voice for certain changes. Students have come to me and asked, ‘Hey, is there a way we can fix this within the Union?’ Anything that students think would work better, we try and communicate those changes.”
What kinds of events do you offer students, and which have you found to be the most impactful?
“Besides our spring concerts, I think some of the things we’ve been able to do is really give them a chance to express themselves—whether it’s some of our culture nights, where they’re able to share a piece of themselves while also learning about other cultures, or even our art exhibits, where people share their own pieces of art and their talents. I think it’s a great way for students to find themselves and meet a lot of new people.”
Why did you decide to run for president of Illini Union Board?
“It was something that I kind of always had in mind, but I think I was a little hesitant at first because I was only a junior at the time. But I had a lot of my friends believe in me. … and then I realized that there were a lot of ideas that I had, things that I wanted to expand on and really bring to the organization. …
“So I talked those ideas out with those that I worked with in the organization, [and] they were like ‘This is why you should run.’ I see a lot of potential in our organization to continue to grow and expand and modernize ourselves. I think we were on the right track [already], but I wanted us to continue to do that even more. There’s a lot of passion in our organization.”
How did it feel to be elected?
“It felt really good. A lot of the work that I put into was being seen, and a lot of the members really supported me. It felt like they really saw the vision that I had of where this organization could go, because we were already heading in that direction.”
What’s the most important part of your position as president, and what do you find most enjoyable about the role?
The most important part for me is just making sure that I’m listening to everyone’s voices, whether it’s the members or other students coming to me about certain things that they would like to see happen. … I think that’s one of the most enjoyable parts as well—seeing change happen and knowing that we were a part of something that helps somebody else.”
What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as president?
“Well, with everything going on, I guess … our main goal now is to really make sure that everyone is able to have a bit of a normal experience on campus, and remaining as optimistic as possible that things will get back to normal soon.”
Now in your senior year, how has your time at UIUC changed you?
“I have definitely gained a lot more confidence in myself. … I knew I could be a leader, but I think now it’s more prominent that I can be a very strong leader. … It’s easier for me to express myself, be more open with others, and make friends easily.”
“And I’ve been able to gain confidence in my career with the opportunities that I’ve been given. … I feel like I’m in a good place, that I know I’ll be fine when graduation comes around, hopefully.”
What are your plans after graduation?
“I’m hoping to find a job similar to one that I have now in a bigger company—making video content, working on some sort of marketing team. At the same time, I also want to be able to create content for people to enjoy, whether they can learn something or I just put a smile on their face. That’s something I love doing with the content that I create.”
How can content bring people together in this time of social distancing?
“I think just showing people are going out and making a difference … and just showing that people are getting through this. I think that’s definitely something that helps. … Spreading positivity, really. Because media can spread so fast these days, being able to spread positivity and positive change is just really, really, good right now.”
And you seem to be a very positive person. What’s your secret, and how can others stay positive right now?
“For me, it’s looking at the other positive moments I’ve had before something negative pops up. … I’m just holding onto that feeling as much as possible. If there’s something that you know you can do to be part of the positivity, try and do it, whatever it is. … There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, as cheesy as it may sound. For the tunnels that I’ve been through, there’s always been a light.”