Women of Distinction 2015: Tutoring business blossomed from medical ambitions

Women of Distinction 2015: Tutoring business blossomed from medical ambitions

CHAMPAIGN — As a 26-year-old mother of two, a University of Illinois graduate with a degree in molecular and cellular biology and a local business owner, Elizabeth Sotiropoulos describes her life goals as a puzzle that is still coming together.

And as a fluent Russian speaker, she'd even use her favorite word — "tsvesti," Russian for the verb "to blossom" — to depict her dreams for the future.

Sotiropoulos is a lifelong resident of Champaign and originally went to the UI in hopes of eventually attending medical school. But during the gap year she took between graduating from the UI and applying for the Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx, she picked up an odds-and-ends job tutoring UI students.

And that job changed the trajectory of her life.

Sotiropoulos now owns and operates Illini Tutoring, a private teaching company that now serves over 70 families in and around Champaign County.

"It's hard to even say what my big dreams are because this business has turned into something I never imagined it could be," she said. "It was originally meant to be something that I could do to make a living before med school. Then it became something my family could do to make a living. And now it's become something other people are able to do to make a living from, which is fantastic.

"So, even in the past couple years, my goals and long-term vision have changed very quickly."

Sotiropoulos started her college career at the UI majoring in community health, but after taking a molecular and cellular biology course her freshman year, she decided to make a change because biology was "more challenging and better suited my interests," she said. Intent on applying for medical school after taking a year off to save money, Sotiropoulos started offering to tutor UI students in science — and eventually math, after she taught herself calculus — charging $15 an hour. After that, she got hooked.

"Through that year, I learned how much I really liked working with people one on one," she said. "I really liked teaching math and I really like the discovery for myself. It was a very huge 'I can do this' moment for me. It really did a lot with my self-esteem."

With a primary focus of working with middle and high school-aged students in math and science, Illini Tutoring currently employs two different levels of tutors and works with over 90 different students at any one time. The company even recently expanded to offer an ACT preparation course, which served about 150 students just this year.

Despite her success as an educator, Sotiropoulos described herself as someone who was not "remarkably good" at math or science in high school, but said that once she took the time to teach herself concepts she wasn't normally comfortable with, she began to appreciate the process of learning and her passion for teaching blossomed.

It's that passion and appreciation she tries to invest in each of her students, with hopes of showing young people that science and math "are interesting."

"It doesn't have to look a certain way; anybody can enjoy it," she said.

In her free time, Sotiropoulos enjoys volunteering at her church, Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church, and traveling with her family. A self-taught English-Russian bilingual, she even spent a summer in Ukraine and Russia teaching English at a summer camp during college.

Despite her wanderlust, she calls Champaign the "perfect" place for her and her family.

"We really love Champaign because it is the perfect combination of being somewhat small so you can kind of know everybody or be quickly connected to anybody, but it's big enough that it draws a lot of people in from the international community," she said. "There are a lot of experiences to be had here. ... There's a really good mix of people in Champaign."

Although she has put her plans for becoming a doctor on hold for nearly five years, Sotiropoulos isn't ruling that out as an option in the future. But for now, helping her calculus students better understand cylindrical shells and making sure her ACT-prep students get the scores they're hoping for is just as fulfilling.

"Any of us could have taken many different paths in life, and it's not that we're necessarily on any 'right' or 'best' path, it's just the path we choose as best," she said. "I really like the life owning Illini Tutoring has afforded me. It gives me the ability to be home with my kids a lot. ... It allows me to be as creative as I want to be. It allows me to choose who I want to work with and what direction we want to go together."