Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, 43-year-old Mahomet resident TONI BURKHALTER chats with staff writer Paul Wood. She is a senior instructor teaching human nutrition classes at the University of Illinois who also partners with Illini Fuel nutrition to offer an internship program fueling UI athletes.
Where did you grow up, and how did you get here?
I grew up with my parents as the second of five children in the suburbs of Chicago. I was a cheerleader in high school, earning the “Tiger Spirit Award,” and I wanted nothing more than to attend the alma mater (the UI) of my parents, aunt, uncle and brother. Although I worked very hard in high school, academics didn’t come naturally to me. I barely got into the UI and was one of the last students who received their acceptance letter for fall 1993. I arrived to Champaign ready to persevere and prove my worth. A few years later, I was offered a completive Jonathan Baldwin Turner Fellowship to remain here for my graduate program. I finished my first graduate degree with a focus on nutrition, defending my thesis only two weeks prior to delivering my first child, Savannah.
Can you tell me about what Illini Fuel does?
The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition has partnered with Illini Fuel Sports Dietitians to offer students a sports nutrition internship for class credit. Sports nutrition interns help Illini Fuel ensure that the NCAA athletes on campus have proper nutrition and hydration. The department also offers teaching internships for undergraduates who successfully completed the Contemporary Nutrition 120 course at the top of their class. Additionally, we have developed study-abroad opportunities to the Mediterranean focusing on why Spain and Greece are known for their health and longevity.
What is most important to you right now? Is there something new in your life?
God, my kids and my career are most important to me. Right now, I am in the middle of several major life transitions. Two years ago, I was offered an amazing job as a large lecture hall instructor, and I am still excitedly exploring the many opportunities associated with my new position (examples: study abroad, creating new internships for students, developing a teaching team). In late May, I moved/downsized, as Savannah recently flew the nest and moved into her own apartment. Although she moved out of the house, she has not gone far, as she will be attending the UI and majoring in human nutrition as her pre-med option beginning this fall (and I will be her academic adviser). It is quite expensive for her and me to afford the cost of college on our own without financial support from others however, we keep reassuring ourselves that education is an investment. My fabulous son, Clayton, is a rising senior in high school and is hoping to be accepted to engineering here beginning the fall of 2020. I am coming to the realization that I will be an “empty nester” by the time I am 45.
How do you find your dream family, dream job and dream friends?
I truly believe I am living my dream life right now. Each morning feels like a re-enactment of the scene from Cinderella where the adorable birds wake her up from her restful slumber and then she lovingly teases them prior to getting ready for the day. Instead of the birds, it is my crazy Lab puppy, Oskee, nudging me awake, so we can go hike. I then rouse my son prior to venturing to Lake of the Woods, starting the day with Oskee and my bestie (or another friend). I value my friends and many of them I call “family.” We all devotedly support each other, even through the tough conversations. We have worked hard over the years to find a safe and nurturing space where we all can thrive. I am blessed enough to have a job I have sought after for over a decade. My current life situation was not an accident. Years ago, my life situation was very scary, and I was not happy at all. It has taken years of careful preparation, hard work and determination to safely and actively walk toward my dreams.
You have a lot to juggle. How do you manage to raise children as a single parent while working full time and traveling — and enjoy it?
I agree that I do have a lot to juggle, and it can be overwhelming at times. However, I remind myself that I am never juggling anything alone. I have an amazing network of friends and family. I am here for them, and they are here for me. They have stepped up in very real and meaningful ways. If I need to teach my 600+ person class, but my kids are sick, my friends volunteer to attend doctor’s appointments in my absence. If I am required to take students on a study abroad at the same time as my house is on the market for sale, my friends will clean the house and get it ready for a showing. If I am feeling stressed and lacking self-care, my friends will ring the doorbell and drop off a healthy meal, so I can work with sustenance. I would not be able to do any of this without my friends and family.
Do you have a guilty pleasure, and what is it?
I would have to say that I like watching “The Notebook” and crying like a baby. There was one time that I was on an airplane in full-ugly-cry-mode, and I must have seemed so distraught that the flight attendant asked if I needed assistance. With my quivering chin and unsteady voice I reassured her that I was fine as I wiped my tears away to continue to cry and watch the movie for the next hour.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
Although I have traveled to China, Greece, Spain, London, France, Mexico, etc., I have never gone to New York. I would love to fly out to New York and see a Broadway musical.
What’s the happiest memory of your life?
This may sound simple, but it was just last night when I was in my new house unpacking with my daughter, son, his girlfriend, a friend and my pup. Everyone was laughing, teasing each other and having a good time. Those are the times that I cherish the most.
What’s your best piece of advice?
I have learned most of what I know from others. The best advice I was given (and that I share) is, “the day you stop learning should be the day you die.” My grandma Hemrick shared that advice. My grandma was a spicy, 100 percent Italian woman, and I am not sure if she was being brazen by implying that you should die if you are done learning/growing or if she was being a loving role model telling us to use each day to learn something new. Either way, I hear her voice when a new challenge presents itself to me.
What was your first job, and how much did you make an hour?
My first job was as a landscaper at Cantigny Greens Golf Course in Wheaton. We needed to be on site when the sun rose, and we worked until about 3 p.m. almost every day of the week. I earned $5.50 an hour (which was a lot in 1991). It was hard work, but I loved it, and when I work in my garden now, I reflect on those days with a smile.
What was a pivotal decision in your career, and how did you arrive at that decision?
I decided to leave my tenured position at Parkland College and take a 20 percent pay cut to come to the UI for a one-year visiting instructor position. I loved my job at Parkland and felt it met my needs for the 16 years prior. However, I needed a new adventure, and it had been my long-term goal to teach full-time at my alma mater. I felt like one year at my dream job was worth the risk, and I assured her I could use it as a springboard to something else. They were happy enough with my work that they shifted the one-year visiting to a budgeted position, and I aspire to work here until I retire. In reflecting, I am very happy I did not let money or perceived security lead my decision-making process.