CARBONDALE — It all began with a walk in the park — on that led Gabby Will to become more than she thought she could.
When she strolls across the stage during today’s commencement to claim her bachelor's degree in forestry, it will be as much more than a student, thanks to her diverse experiences at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
“I never thought I could take on so many titles before I came here to SIU. But, now I can say I’m an amateur organic gardener, environmental educator, fourth/fifth grade tutor/mentor, leader and overall, just an involved community member,” Will said. “It has been awesome. I love it here.”
Will, the daughter of Amy and Mark Will of Mundelein, first came to SIU to visit a friend who was a student. They enjoyed a hike in one of the area’s many parks and forests and the self-described fan of the great outdoors quickly decided “it was the most beautiful place.”
Soon she was meeting with department chairs from various programs at SIU. She chose forestry as her major because of the class options and she said the decision about the university and the major were absolutely right for her.
A transfer student from College of Lake County, Will quickly found herself involved in various activities, joining “on a whim.”
“I’ve always been curious and I get to learn more about different things by getting involved. I think when you surround yourself with people who want to make something better, you get to learn so much and it’s inspiring,” she said.
She enjoys assisting with organic vegetable gardening on SIU’s Student Sustainable Farm, from handling soil preparation to planting seeds and seedlings to harvesting — “the best part,” she said with a smile. “It’s all really fun and I’ve learned a lot about sustainable farming techniques.”
She’s also a student board member for the Friends of the Shawnee National Forest, a nonprofit organization that supports the Shawnee National Forest by promoting land stewardship, environmental education and responsible outdoor recreation.
Will was chosen as a participant in the spring 2017 Women’s Civic Institute, an SIU program designed to help women prepare for roles in public service. She said it was a great way to connect with others who want to make a difference and it inspired her to be more involved in the community.
She’s also a member of the campus Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps, the state’s oldest national service program. She loves working with fourth and fifth grade students at Lewis School, mentoring and tutoring them.
She said it’s especially gratifying to help students catch up with their peers academically. She’s tutored them in American Revolution studies, and gets excited talking about lending a hand as they prepared for a Science Fair.
“That’s one of my favorite things to do. It’s very cool,” Will said. “What is better than getting to design your own experiments?”
Her passion and enthusiasm bubble over when she talks about her work with children and Mother Nature, and she said one of the highlights of her time at SIU has enabled her to combine her love for both. She’s currently the vice president of the Saluki Environmental Educators, a registered student organization that strives to get people of all ages outdoors and help them learn about nature.
“One of my favorite things we did was work with the Shawnee National Forest for Critter Night. It focused on bats and other nocturnal animals,” Will said. “I love being able to help with programs that are free and open to the public.”
SIU’s beautiful campus is a great natural learning lab as well, Will notes. She fondly recalls walking through Thompson Woods during her first year at SIU, arguing with friends over which types of trees were which.
“We were taking a tree ID class, learning 100-plus trees, and luckily Thompson Woods has plenty on the way from the Agriculture Building to the Student Center,” Will said. “So the five-minute walk it would normally take would instead take us about three times longer.”
As she was preparing for final exams this week, she was once again outdoors, this time listening to music and expanding her mushroom identification skills.
“I love being outside,” she said.
What has really made a difference is the people she’s encountered while completing her bachelor’s degree, she said.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have so many women as mentors and sources of inspiration here,” Will said, particularly thanking Sharon Brooks, Mythili Rundblad, Meredith Stamberger, Jenna Parks, Pat York and Shari Sweeney for the support they provided throughout her studies.
“My relationships with all of these women and others have helped shape my experience at SIU, making me a more thoughtful, hard-working and adaptable leader.”
Will’s mentors are likewise impressed by her.
“Gabby is the model of an engaged student on campus and in the community,” Mythili Rundblad, coordinator of the center for Service-Learning and Volunteerism, said. “Having interacted with her through three programs that I oversee — Saluki Volunteer Corps, Women’s Civic Institute and Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps — it is obvious to me that she is engaged, aware of issues and dedicated to making a positive difference.”
Although Will is graduating, she’s not leaving SIU quite yet. She’ll begin work on her master’s degree in forestry in the spring. Her goal is to complete her education and “work in the realm of natural resource management, either in a social or research context.”