Homecoming Q&A: Comeback Guest Michael Strautmanis

Homecoming Q&A: Comeback Guest Michael Strautmanis

Each year, University of Illinois students pick the Comeback Guest — a prominent alum who returns to campus to interact with students.

This year, one graduate in particular was in each student ambassador's top five — Michael Strautmanis.

"We get a number of nominations," said UI junior Susie Mathias, a student ambassador. "He's someone who stuck out to each of us."

A Chicago native, 1991 UI media graduate and 1994 UI law school graduate, Strautmanis was tabbed last year to be the vice president for civic engagement at the Barack Obama Foundation, the nonprofit that will lead the president's unfinished project of renewal and oversee construction of his presidential library in Chicago.

After UI law school, Strautmanis joined the Sidley Austin law firm in Chicago, whose staff included Michelle Obama. Later, he served as chief counsel on her husband's Senate staff and was a close aide to the president throughout his first term, serving in a number of positions.

Prior to starting with the Obama Foundation in January, Strautmanis spent nearly two years as vice president for corporate citizenship with The Walt Disney Co.

"He's someone very exceptional," said Mathias, who couldn't wait to hear him speak.

Staff writer Tracy Crane caught up with one of the stars of homecoming weekend, happy to be back where he "met the love of my life, earned two degrees, found my profession and lived out a couple of dreams."

What's your message this weekend to students at your alma mater?

I've seen the power of young leaders in the Obama campaign, and in the White House. The challenges of our time need the passion, ideas and perspective of these young leaders. It's critical for them to take advantage of the opportunity to study and engage at this world-class university.

What are you most looking forward to on this trip back?

A slice of Papa Del's pizza.

How has your undergraduate and law school experience at the UI benefited you in your endeavors since graduating? Any pivotal moments as a UI student that stand out?

I remember our first protests, challenging the diversity and inclusion practices at the school. I was a young law student and it was my first chance to practice leadership skills and civic engagement.

We had a lot of support from some faculty members, and I remember the thrill when we "occupied" a campus administration building.

I also remember needing to study for class the next day.

You'll be at Memorial Stadium for Illini-Gophers?

I'm ready to see the Illini pay back Minnesota for last year's loss on the road, by taking care of business in our house.

What was your reaction when you first heard that Illinois had hired Lovie Smith?

The minute I heard about Lovie coming to Illinois, I got fired up. My friends and I started texting and emailing each other, and it's only gotten better as I see the culture he's building at Illinois.

I've seen a winning culture working for the president, and I see many of the same signs. We're setting up for a great run under Lovie Smith.