Oakley Whalen, Class of May 2020
- College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
Like many 18-year-olds, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. In high school, I established a great connection with a teacher. He encouraged me to try new things. He inspired me to want to create meaningful educational experiences for people, so I chose the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications major in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES). In my college classes, I was introduced to the Organizational and Community Leadership concentration within our major – and I loved it! It focuses on learning about yourself and others. The classes teach you how to accelerate your soft skills so you can work with people with a variety of skill sets and in different environments. In one class, we conducted a needs assessment for a local business. The experience has translated into lifelong skills, such as data collection, analysis and making recommendations for improvements. In another class, I was pushed out of my comfort zone when I had to give a presentation to 50 people at a convention, speaking to them about state birds and national parks. Now I can speak confidently in front of large groups. Also, as a part of my senior capstone class, I created a personal website. I now understand the process that goes into building a website.
While at U of I, I worked for the University of Illinois Foundation. This was fortuitous to me as a first-generation college student who needed scholarships to persist. I learned quickly about the scholarship process. It was rewarding to be able to help other students by encouraging people to donate. I was able to link this work to my other job at Campus Ink, a local small business. I helped build a partnership between Campus Ink and the College of ACES to sell apparel that raised funds for the College of ACES I Pay it Forward: Students Helping Students Scholarship Campaign.
I find that building relationships during school and while working is important, because it’s those people with whom I built relationships who supported me when I needed it most. My senior year was particularly hard because my dad passed away unexpectedly over winter break. My dad was the primary parent in my life – my hero. Losing him was incredibly hard. The grief was overwhelming and made it challenging to finish college. It is so meaningful to me how much I was cared for by the people and networks that I had developed at Illinois. In particular, Nick Wherley, an advisor for one of my clubs in the College of ACES, really stepped up to help. He actually took me to the Counseling Center and made sure I got in to see someone. He checked in with me continuously and helped me transition to a part-time schedule so I could get through.
I now work for CGB Enterprises. I’ve actually already been promoted – twice! In 2019, I started with CGB Enterprises as a Human Resource (HR) Intern the summer after my junior year (a position that I landed through a conversation at the College of ACES Career Fair). The internship was a great experience and resulted in an invitation to become the organization’s first Human Resources Management Trainee. The plan was to spend time in each of the HR specialty roles, as a way of training to become a Human Resources Business Partner. But corporate America can move quickly. As a result of some reorganizations and acquisitions, an opportunity arose for me to apply to the Business Partner role earlier than planned, and the promotion came through! It has all happened so fast, but I have great support, resources, and mentors advocating for me. The transition into this role has been pretty smooth so far. I feel very lucky and fulfilled in what I’m doing right now.
If I could give some words of encouragement for current students, it would be “seek out mentors and advocates: be active, create relationships with people who have more life experience than you, then don’t be afraid to ask them for help.” Don’t be afraid to ask them for things. If you genuinely respect them, people generally want to help. I would not have gotten anywhere in my life without mentors – in high school, college, and in my current workplace. Mentors have and continue to look out for my interests, advocate for me, and give me advice.
(Last Updated: March 1, 2021)