Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
August 11, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — Phyllis Cunningham is more than a retired professor from the Northern Illinois University College of Education.
She’s also a courageous role model and guiding force for the youth of Illinois and the United States through her vision of a more peaceful and diverse nation. She’s honest, loyal and committed. She’s a strong and persuasive woman.
So says 16-year-old Adama Sidibe, a recent DeKalb High School graduate who successfully recommended Cunningham as one of 14 “Lincolnland Legends” for 2009.
“Thanks to Dr. Phyllis Cunningham,” Sidibe writes in his nominating essay, “I have realized that what matters the most is our contributions to the community we live in and the society at large. Because of her organization, I have both Latino friends as well as white and African-American friends, and race doesn’t seem to be a big issue any longer. We learn to accept our differences and recognize that this nation is for us to share.”
Designed to encourage Illinois high school students to honor people who inspire and motivate them, the program is administered by Illinois Dollars for Scholars.
Students who participate in the Lincolnland Legend program create and instill a sense of pride in living in Illinois and develop an appreciation for outstanding Illinoisans who have overcome life obstacles and/or accomplished significant goals.
Sidibe won a $4,000 scholarship for his essay; he and Cunningham traveled to Springfield for the awards ceremony at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library. Next year, Illinois Dollars for Scholars will award a $500 scholarship to a DeKalb High School student in honor of Cunningham.
Cunningham, who taught adult education at NIU from 1976 until her retirement in 2002, is pleased by Sidibe’s generous heart and kind words.
“His essay blew me away,” she says.
The Sidibe family hails from Mali, West Africa. They first came to DeKalb in 1997, when Adama’s father chose to pursue his Ph.D. here. His mother soon began work on her master’s and, after a trip home, returned to start doctoral studies.
“Adama’s mother, Maimouna Konate, is a doctoral student in our program. She has three children, and she’s been here six or seven years. I’ve invited them to my house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that’s how I’ve gotten to know the children. We would have discussions at the table afterward about various things – we would argue about women’s rights – and that is how Adama got to know me,” Cunningham says.
“His mother is also quite active with me and with some of the things I have done regarding social responsibilities, and he also knew about those,” she adds. “When it came to the requirements of the essay, he had to find somebody who did things like Abraham Lincoln – the whole thing is predicated on the kind of democratic values that Lincoln had established – and he wrote about what I had done over the years.”
Cunningham, named a Presidential Teaching Professor in 1994, spent most of her academic career “breaking the color barrier.”
With a background in nursing, she experienced a “transformation” during her graduate school days at the University of Chicago. It was the late 1960s – “the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and all those kinds of challenges going on,” she says – and her scholarship to study residential nursing education no longer seemed so important.
“They told me that what I was doing was adult education. I had not really thought about that,” she says. “And as I got into adult education, I saw that as a much broader way of doing things instead of in such a much more constricted way as nursing. I got a lot of education on the streets. Nursing just faded into the background.”
After serving as director of Study Unlimited and dean of the Center for Open Learning, part of the City Colleges of Chicago, Cunningham arrived at NIU at a crucial time.
“Our adult education program was new. A number of the doc students came with us, and we all felt the same way: We were not here to do business as usual,” she says. “We developed an open and radical curriculum and became well known, actually internationally, as a place where you could come and study in a very radical curriculum.”
First to change was traditional College of Education curriculum “informed by psychology. What we did was to place a more political and sociological component into the education.”
Second, the new professors pushed their graduate students out of the classroom for field experiences amidst the laboratories of the streets. Students ventured into neighborhoods “to serve in organizations that were actually doing resistance in the community; in other words, putting things into action, whether it was here in Chicago or in other countries.”
Third, the professors brought visitors to add unique layers to the graduate-level education.
Visiting professors took up temporary residence in DeKalb, some staying as long as a year and others only a few months. Graduate students from overseas also were recruited.
“Giving our students an opportunity to gain that kind of interaction with those professors really impacted the curriculum as well,” Cunningham says. “We also were attracting students who had a different view of the world.”
That became her legacy.
“I worked particularly hard at getting African-American doctoral students in our program. We also brought in a number of students from Asia, Africa and South America here,” she says. “We were up to 40 percent of our people being people of color, and I considered that to be one of the most exciting aspects of my professorship.”
It excites Adama Sidibe as well.
His essay also praises Cunningham’s battles against racism, sexism and violence and her work with grassroots community groups seeking political and social change for low-income populations.
“Whenever I hear about her doing things,” he says, “it has something to do with helping minorities, whether they’re Hispanic or African-American.”
Sidibe plans to attend Kishwaukee College in the fall. He loves aviation and hopes to become an international pilot, but hasn’t settled on a career yet.
“I’m really open,” he says. “I might go with medicine.”
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