"Here I am talking to a 13-year-old girl with a child, and she's pregnant. Here is this young woman, full of promise ... and I'm thinking about, what is the probability of success for her? It's challenging."
Talking to Dawn Aubrey makes you hungry.
Her menu includes panini, fresh pastries, Korean rice and Vietnamese spring rolls — and this is residence hall fare.
Food is her mission — specifically, feeding students at the University of Illinois, but generally promoting community.
"You have to love it, or it'll eat you alive," said Aubrey, who puts in 12- to 16-hour days as associate director of UI Housing and Dining Services. "I just happen to love it."
She traces her love of cooking to her beloved grandparents, who raised her and taught her to grow, can and cook food at a young age.
"Food is one of those things we all have in common. We all have to eat," she said.
Aubrey, credited with "reinventing" and internationalizing UI dining services over the past 7 years, oversees a $50 million budget and more than 1,500 employees.
She is also one of this year's five "Women of Distinction" recognized by the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois for their contributions to the community.
A volunteer for numerous organizations, Aubrey is known for her work with GOALS, or Going On Against Life's Struggles, which mentors teen moms and helps them get through high school and on to college or vocational training.
As president of Altrusa International of Champaign-Urbana, Aubrey persuaded the organization to adopt the GOALS project. Altrusa sponsors a holiday event for the moms, provides bus passes so they can get to school or take their children to the doctor, donates books through a literacy drive and supplies food for group sessions.
The mission is personal, and has moved Aubrey to tears.
"I've never been blessed with children, and I love little ones," Aubrey said. "I'm a businesswoman, and here I am talking to a 13-year-old girl with a child, and she's pregnant. Here is this young woman, full of promise ... and I'm thinking about, what is the probability of success for her? It's challenging.
"What's beautiful is watching young women graduating from school, going on to vocational school, starting professions.
"There are these moments in your life where you know you are where you're supposed to be."
GOALS founder Tasha Thompson, a public health case manager, said Aubrey has helped the four-year-old project stay afloat.
"Dawn has been a godsend," she said. "He heart is just so warm. She's an amazing woman."
Aubrey's own mother was a teen mom who couldn't face the responsibility of raising a child, but "that did not act in any way as a shadow over my experience. My grandparents made sure it didn't," Aubrey said. "My grandmother said the moment she saw me, I was hers. And she really reinforced with me how important I was to her and my grandfather."
Her grandmother was a nurse and her grandfather was a physician and pharmacist. Aubrey used to accompany him on house calls, complete with her own satchel and doctor's coat, and "he would say I was as much medicine to them as he was."
She learned to cook at age 4, starting with scrambled eggs. Most of which wound up on her shoe. She loved it because it meant time spent with her grandmother. As her grandparents aged, Aubrey took over the cooking at age 12, including holidays. "I loved it."
She double-majored in math and economics in college, and her grandfather wanted her to be a doctor. But her grandmother told her to "be whatever kind of doctor you want to be." Aubrey holds degrees or certifications from three universities, including an MBA and a doctorate. She dedicated her dissertation to her grandparents.
"They were a fabulous influence on my life," she said.
Aubrey talks about some of the food innovations (and flops) at UI Dining Services - and the freshman 15 - here .