Renewing Illinois: Is it Possible?


Katherine Gemmingen, Head Copyeditor

Pictures from Katherine Gemmingen, Dr. Ann Collins

On March 28, I traveled with three other students, Taylor Ganz, Chandler Henson and Caden Owens, along with political science professor Dr. Collins, to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Our mission: attend a policy summit focused on solving issues plaguing Illinois.

Hosted by SIUC’s Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy, the Renewing Illinois Policy Summit brought together about 35 students from 8 universities throughout the state. The four of us from McKendree all have lived in Illinois for most, if not all, of our lives. Given that we also are in Dr. Collins’s public policy class this semester, the trip was quite fitting.

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Left to Right: Katherine Gemmingen, Chandler Henson, Dr. Collins, Caden Owens, Taylor Ganz

Illinois government and politics have long been criticized for the plagues of inefficiency and corruption. The directors of the summit specifically turned to young voices to attempt finding solutions with the intent of creating a report that would be sent to the Illinois General Assembly and Governor J.B. Pritzker.

To Chandler Henson, “it was very interesting to see the perspective of students from all across the state and what they thought the major issues are. It was a great learning and teaching experience for all there and I hope they continue the summit in future years.”

As students at the summit, we were to focus on three areas of issue in Illinois: the state budget, higher education and governance. We prepped for the summit by reading a packet written by Jim Nowlan, who is a policy expert and analyst as well as a former Illinois state representative. We arrived in Carbondale late afternoon on the 28thand had a short session of introduction. While we had dinner, the director of the institute gave a speech about why we had gathered, and we heard more from Jim Nowlan. Following dinner, all of the summit participants were invited to bowl in the student center for free as a way to get to know each other.

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Our group with the institute director and student leader

The second day of the summit really was where we got busy. Starting at 8am, we listened to a keynote speech by the institute director John Shaw as we ate breakfast. An hour after that we broke into six small groups and had discussion sessions. We cycled through three different sessions so that all groups could go to the talks on budget, governance, and higher education. Policy experts in each area directed our discussion and gave us background information, but they largely focused on what we as students had to say. Following the sessions, we had lunch and listened to a speech by Erika Harold, an attorney who ran for Illinois Attorney General this past fall.

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Erika Harold

As groups, we realized that in addition to budget issues and threats to higher education, we need to change the perception of Illinois. Far too often we are a joke to the rest of the country and those of us who grew up here don’t usually have state pride. We usually have southern Illinois or Chicago pride, but that’s about it.

For the last few hours of the summit, we were assigned different cabinet groups and roles. We listened to findings by the policy experts on the morning discussions and then drafted a list of our top policy issues with our prospective solutions. We then presented our short reports to the rest of the summit attendees. Following closing remarks and a group picture, we finished off the summit and headed back to Lebanon.

The summit was refreshingly productive. I feel that I genuinely learned a lot the whole time I was there, and the amount of time we spent working together was helpful. Obviously, 35 students aren’t going to change the face of Illinois politics in a day and a half, but maybe there is hope for our state after all. We didn’t get held up in partisan conflict; we all just wanted to think about how we can make Illinois better, and hopefully our ideas will have an impact on our elected officials. “Seeing the great young minds of Illinois come together and put political differences aside to work on problems that are ailing our state was a wonderful experience,” said Caden Owens.

We addressed some of the big topics in Illinois right now, including gas tax, legalizing marijuana, and adding a graduated income tax system. As college students, we truly recognized the important role the state government plays in funding higher education. McKendree may be a private university, but we have students who rely on state-funded scholarships and financial aid, myself included.

Taylor Ganz commented that the summit was “a great experience that I hope continues to grow in the future. As it was the first year, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was as pleasurable and well-run as a conference that has been going on for years.”

All in all, this summit was full of intelligent, productive, and thoughtful conversation from students coming from all over the state, and it was incredible to be part of. As this was the first time the summit was hosted, I hope it becomes an annual event so that more students can experience exploring the influences students have on our governments.