CHAMPAIGN – Lisa Baer is proud of her "interesting" ancestry. A Tolono resident and University of Illinois junior, she's half Korean and also has Jewish ancestors who came to this country from Lithuania.
That heritage is helping Baer pay her UI bills. She started attending Parkland College in 2003, graduated last spring and plans to return to teach at the Champaign community college after she earns her master's degree. That return will fulfill a promise she made when she received a Parkland PROF scholarship, designed to diversify the college's future faculty.
"To give students that opportunity is amazing," said Baer, who will receive $1,500 a semester for her work at the UI in exchange for her pledge to teach a semester at Parkland when she's done for each semester she received support, up to five semesters.
"I think the fact that Parkland's always concerned about diversity, about having different cultures represented on campus, is very interesting and a very good idea," said Baer, who's studying psychology. "And the idea of coming back to Parkland appealed to me. I liked my instructors, and I like the environment. You really get to know your students. It's personal."
PROF, which stands for Professors of the Future, started quietly at Parkland in 1996 after lengthy discussions about faculty diversity.
"We tried, we went on recruiting trips, but I thought if we focused on students at home, students who like Parkland, we'd have more success," said Karen Keener, one of the founders.
Keener said the first PROF scholar, a black woman who graduated from Parkland in 1997, began teaching at Parkland in January 2000, relocated to South Carolina after she fulfilled her obligation, taught at a community college there and is now earning a doctorate.
"She continues to work in higher education," Keener said.
She said another former PROF student, Larry Taylor, is now a Parkland administrator. One is now in a doctoral program at the University of Texas and another has returned to the UI.
"It's been delightful to keep in touch with them, with their ups and downs, as they progress," she said. "They're talented. It's hard to keep them here, but they continue to contribute to education."
Rich Blazier, chairman of the current PROF committee, said the program defines diversity broadly. "For example, we might want to diversify the nursing faculty by looking for male members," Blazier said.
"Ethnicity's not the only factor. We consider each case individually."
Blazier said the candidates are assigned mentors who follow them as they complete college, checking in with them periodically, answering questions, giving advice and monitoring progress.
That mentoring continues when they return to campus and have their first teaching experience. "Our returning PROF scholars aren't hired on tenure track, but they can apply for tenure-track positions," Blazier said.
Most scholars live up to their promise to return, but they pay back the money if they don't.
"Parkland gets something and the students get something," Blazier said. "They get the experience they need to be competitive for other jobs. If the program works, they're going to be in demand for jobs everywhere."
Baer said she's always known she wanted to teach, and her Parkland experience helped her pick psychology as her field of interest.
"The UI took a little getting used to because I'm a small-town girl, but psychology's very strong here and the classes are fascinating," she said. "I'm committed to getting my master's degree and starting my career at Parkland."