Spoon River College Sociology faculty member Michael Maher was recently honored as a Distinguished Alumnus from Highland Community College in Freeport, Il, where he began his higher education following his graduation from Lena-Winslow High School. He was nominated for the honor by Chris Kuberski, president of Highland Community College and Jim Phillips, interim vice president of academic services at Highland.
“Jim Phillips and I nominated Mr. Michael Maher for the Distinguished Alumni award based on his contribution and passion for education,” said Kuberski. “When Jim and I learned of his recognition as the ICCTA Outstanding Full-Time Faculty in 2021, and that he was a Highland Community College graduate, we invited him to serve as our commencement speaker for 2022.”
Kuberski added that Maher’s commencement speech was “one of the best, if not the best, that I have heard over the many years of attending community college graduations. It is evident that Michael has distinguished himself as an educator, so it is quite fitting that he be recognized by his alma mater as a Distinguished Alum.”
After graduating from Highland Community College in 1993, Maher attended Western Illinois University and earned his Bachelor’s in Sociology with a minor in Anthropology in 1995, followed by a Master’s degree in Sociology in 1997. He has taught at Spoon River College for the past 26 years.
Maher is a staunch supporter of community colleges and has been open about his lack of academic motivation during high school—other than staying eligible to play basketball. “I entered Highland an utterly unremarkable, below-average student. I was directionless, depressed, unhappy, and anxious about my future.”
That changed during his second semester at Highland, and when he graduated from there and transferred to Western Illinois University, he was ready to make up for lost time. “The fact that I’m standing here this evening accepting this award is a testament to the power of teachers and the community college system to change people’s lives, provide opportunities, and positively impact our communities.”
You can read both President Kuberski’s and Maher’s full speeches from the event, included below.
Spoon River College is a two-year, public community college in West Central Illinois dedicated to providing students a quality education. Its district encompasses a 1,566 square mile area that includes portions of Fulton, McDonough, Mason, Schuyler and Knox counties.
Michael Maher Introduction by Highland Community College President Chris Kuberski
“Jim Phillips and I nominated Mr. Michael Maher for the Distinguished Alumni award based on his contribution and passion for education. Michael graduated from Lena-Winslow High School in 1991 and Highland Community College in l 993 (A.S.). Michael went on to earn his Bachelor’s in Sociology with a minor in Anthropology from Western Illinois University in 1995 and received his Master’s degree in Sociology from Western Illinois University in 1997. Michael has taught Sociology at Spoon River College for over twenty-five years.
“In 2021, Michael won the “Illinois Community College Trustees Association Outstanding Full Time Faculty Award” for his contributions to teaching and learning at Spoon River. At the end of September 2022, Michael was asked to present at the Illinois Community College Trustee’s Association Annual Professional Administrative Assistants Conference. He spoke on the history of the Spoon River College and presented his most recent college theme presentation “Mapped Out: The Curious Case of Cartography.”
“When Jim and I learned of Michael’s recognition as the ICCTA Outstanding Full Time Faculty and that he was a Highland Community College graduate, we invited him to serve as our Commencement speaker for 2022. When he returned to campus in May 2022 to be our commencement speaker, Jim and I had the opportunity to meet him for the first time. As we toured campus and ate lunch, he shared fondly his memories of campus and the instructors that positively impacted his life. It is clear he is proud to be a Highland alum, and it is clear his passion for teaching began at HCC. Toward the end of his campus tour, he said, “if Highland wants to be a comprehensive community college, it has succeeded. There is something here for everyone.” Having been away from campus for a long time, it was clear he understood “it’s all here.”
“Those that were able to attend the 2022 Commencement Ceremonies, heard Michael’s passion for education, his own journey (including his Highland story), and his lessons learned. He challenged the graduates to, “build on the progress you’ve made while attending Highland and embrace the change that becomes you.” He also shared, “at some point in the near future, you will look back upon your time at Highland and realize that this was a pivotal, transformational time in your life.” Frankly, Michael’s commencement speech was one of the best, if not the best, that I have heard over my many years of attending community college graduations.
“I will wrap this up by sharing Michael’s own words. “Education is a vehicle to a better career and overall quality of life, but education means so much more than a career path or income. Education leads to thinking, informed decision making, questioning, and changing our mind. I want my students to be professionally successful, but more than that I want my students to discover what they are passionate about, what they care about, and what really matters to them.”
“It is evident that Michael has distinguished himself as an educator, so it is quite fitting that he be recognized by his alma mater as a Distinguished Alum. Congratulations Michael!”
Michael Maher’s Acceptance Speech
“My sincere thanks to Highland Community College Foundation, President Kuberski, and Mr. Jim Phillips for graciously nominating me for this award. Being here this evening to receive this honor is part of a personal journey that began 31 years ago.
“Upon graduating from Lena-Winslow high school in 1991, I entered Highland as an underperforming student. Despite the best efforts of many excellent teachers at Lena-Winslow high school, my only academic motivation in high school was to perform well enough to remain academically eligible to play basketball. Fortunately, I was raised by two college-educated parents and I had three, older, college-educated siblings. As a result, the expectation that I attend college was a foregone conclusion. Due to my family’s financial limitations and the fact that I was academically and emotionally ill-equipped to move away from home and begin college at a state university, Highland was my best option.
“I entered Highland an utterly unremarkable, below-average student. I was directionless, depressed, unhappy, and anxious about my future. I half-heartedly went through the motions during my first semester, and then, suddenly, during my second semester at Highland, I mysteriously began experiencing a metamorphosis that I still, to this day, do not entirely understand. I started reading, thinking, and taking my education seriously. During my sophomore year at Highland, several of my professors began to notice academic potential in me, and they encouraged and challenged me. By the time I graduated from Highland, my professors had gently and gradually awakened something inside me that I did not know existed. In two short years, I had quietly gone from a below-average student to an above-average student.
“For the first time since elementary school, I left Highland with confidence in my academic abilities. I transferred to Western Illinois University prepared and motivated to make-up for lost time. While completing my Bachelor’s degree, my academic performance grew stronger and my knowledge expanded in both depth and breadth. By the time I entered graduate school, my days of average and even above-average academic performance were behind me. I was running full-speed, and my academic metamorphosis was nearly complete.
“While finishing my Master’s Degree, I had the great fortune to begin teaching part-time at Spoon River Community College in Macomb, IL. Upon completion of my Master’s Degree, I was hired by Spoon River College as an academic advisor and I continued teaching in a part-time capacity. A mere two years later, the one, full-time Sociology Professor at Spoon River College inexplicably and abruptly resigned, and I was hired as the full-time sociology professor. In a seven-year time frame, I had gone from a directionless, underperforming high school student to a professor of sociology at a Community College, and Highland was the bridge that made this journey possible. I have lived a blessed life, and it has been an honor to teach within the Illinois Community College system for the past 26 years and pay it forward to the very system that made my life and career possible.
“I am humbled and honored to accept this distinguished alumni award. I am mindful this evening of my two older brothers, who experienced similar academic journeys from high school, to Highland, and beyond. Highland played an integral role in each of their careers; my brother Patrick in the field of Engineering Services and my brother Daniel in Higher Education.
“I am also mindful of my mother, a staunch life-long advocate of community colleges. I sometimes joke that in addition to earning her own college degree, my mom earned three honorary Associate Degrees from Highland, carefully steering her three, late-blooming sons through Highland, and often serving as our own personal academic tutor. Her persistence is an important reminder that it is extremely shortsighted and unwise to dismiss, discount, or make presumptions about under-performing students, especially students as young as 18 years of age.
“Community colleges provide a wide array of education opportunities to very diverse communities of learners, including the opportunity to begin again. Those of us who work within the community college system would be wise to remind ourselves regularly that people have the capacity to change and that, in fact, it is our mission to expand access to higher education and change lives. The fact that I’m standing here this evening accepting this award is a testament to the power of teachers and the community college system to change people’s lives, provide opportunities, and positively impact our communities.
“On behalf of my entire family, thank you for this honor.”