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Janice Watkins Award 2004 Article

Watkins Award Winners Work for the Students by Sabryna Cornish

This year's winners of the Janice Watkins Award for Distinguished Civil Service are as diverse as the campus they serve.

What they have in common, though, is a commitment to -and a fondness for -the students who walk through their doors.

The Watkins Award, presented each year by the Staff Advisory Council to outstanding support staff employees, is a memorial to a longtime employee active on many campus committees as well as in her community.

This year's winners --Mary Austin, David Baran and Jacob Mueller -will be honored Thursday at a luncheon beginning at 11 a.m. in the Illinois Room of Chicago Circle Center.


Mary Austin

Support staff

Criminal Justice

Mary Austin has seen many changes in her 31 years at the university.

During her first years on campus, she worked in radiology at the Medical Center. When her job was phased out in 1986, she moved to criminal justice.

Austin is the first person visitors to the department are likely to meet. Her responsibilities include everything from grant writing to student referrals to answering phones.

"It's really interesting, some of the things I am handed." she said. "I enjoy the challenge to train myself to do something different."

Austin said she enjoys her contact with the students.

“Students seem to have gotten younger,” she laughed. “They have their own personalities.”

Austin carries her fondness of the younger generation into her neighborhood, which, like her last name, is Austin.

For the past 27 years, Austin and other women in the neighborhood have organized a block picnic. It started when their children were young; even though that generation is grown, the tradition continues.

“The children in the neighborhood have really started looking forward to it,” she said.

Austin grew up on a rural Tennessee farm, one of 11 children.

“We were a normal big family,” she said. “If you disagreed with one person, you could turn around and there would be someone who did agree with you.”

After she finished high school, she moved to Chicago with her first husband.

When she came to the city in in 1960, she was surprised that people in her neighborhood did not vote. Her employer was running for an alderman and she decided to get involved by becoming an election judge, which she continues today.

“I came from the South where we didn’t vote”, she said. “I would have thought we’d have been proud to go out and vote, but some didn't.”

Austin has three children, two daughters and a son. Her younger daughter attended UIC. Both daughters have MBAs and her son has a degree in engineering.


David Baran

Audiovisual Aide Technician

Facilities Management

For 28 years David Baran has helped faculty and staff make classes more interesting with audio and visual assistance.

As technology has changed, so Baran’s job.

His student staff numbered inthe dozens back in the days of 16mm film.

“I used to watch a lot of movies because you had to deliver the projector, set up the film and stay in case anything went wrong,” he said.

Baran goes out of his way to help faculty get what they need to teach students who, like himself, are more visual learners than book people.

“I’ve found that not everyone learns the same way,” he said. “If just a few of those students are helped, it’s worth it.”

Baran, who grew up in Hinsdale, planned to become a teacher. He had almost completed his degree at Northern Illinois University when he did his student teaching. He hated it.

He transferred to UIC, where he received a degree in radio and television production.

He did, however, marry a teacher. His wife, Jeanine, teaches art at Hubbard High School.

They live on the Northwest Side. Their son, Andrew, graduated from Urbana-Champaign in nuclear engineering and works in New York; their daughter is studying meteorology at Northern Illinois.

Baran, a fan of B.B King and Bob Dylan, owns several rare B.B King 45s. “I am an audiovisual guy”, he laughs, “but more audio I think.”


Jacob Mueller

Administrative Assistant

Office of Gay, Lesbian,Bisexual and Transgender Concerns

In June 1995, the Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns opened with one employee –Jay Mueller.

He was hired to establish an office that would become a resource center and safe haven.

Mueller jokes he is a secret social worker, but the secret is most probably out; many faculty, students and staff call or visit to talk about their problems.

Mueller said the office welcomes anyone with questions about queer issues and faculty members often stop by to find research materials.

“We change minds one at a time,” he said. “Sort of a Steve Jobs (head of Apple Computer) philosophy.

”The office runsseveral programs designed to promote understanding, including Safe Zone, which identifies people on campus who are welcoming and “safe” to discuss queer issues with.

“We are education, we are advocacy,” Mueller said. “The students are the most important thing in the world.'

Mueller is in a much different place than where he started.

He was born Jennifer, but says he always felt he was a man trapped in woman’s body.

He followed a dangerous path of drug abuse, prison and despair until he sobered upand realized it was time to take control of his life.

Several years ago he underwent medical procedures to change his gender to what he knew it should be.

“People can deal with gay,” he said, “but people cannot deal with gender identity issues.”It took Mueller two decades to finish his bachelor’s degree; in May, he graduated from UIC with a B.A. in English.

He and his fiancée, Sue, a marketing faculty member at the Illinois Institute of Technology, live in Evanston with their daughter, Kira, a high school freshman.

Mueller said in a perfect world, every employee would deserve a Watkins Award.

"The reason anyone would come to work at a state institution is for service,” he said.

“My job is to be a source for good –to help people become their better selves.”