December 8, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — No one, Bob Burk says, plans for a career in college admissions.
That would include Burk, who expected to teach high school social studies after he graduated from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a bachelor’s degree in government. But when he instead took a job as an admissions counselor at McKendree University, in his hometown of Lebanon, Ill., he stumbled upon his life’s calling.
Now 35 years later, Burk is retiring from Northern Illinois University after a life spent bringing young people to higher education. He arrived at NIU in 1986 after a six-year stint at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo.
A farewell reception is scheduled for 2 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16, in the Regency Room of the Holmes Student Center.
“My wife, Roberta, and I like to travel, and now we can see the things we’ve always wanted to see,” Burk says. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
At the same time, the fire clearly is still burning in Burk’s belly.
“This place is captivating,” he says of NIU, “and I still get a kick out of talking to students and families about this, especially if it’s their first time around. I feel it’s important that the director of Admissions show himself or herself at open houses, and I take regular rotations on Saturdays.”
A love of the unexpected has provided the spice of Burk’s professional life, in which no two days have proven the same.
When he first began at McKendree, in the days when high school students completed college interest cards by hand, the admissions process was a basic one. “They’d fill out the cards. We’d review the cards and follow up,” he says. “My boss told me, ‘Grab a stack, get in your car and go visit them.’ I was the Fuller Brush man.”
Now, of course, the procedure is mostly electronic – on both sides.
All 11 of NIU’s admissions counselors are equipped with laptops and are in constant e-mail contact with their prospective Huskies. Some text to stay in touch.
Computers also allow counselors to trace and analyze every “touch point” with prospective students, from the first contact through successful matriculation or through the selection of another school. That data are evaluated so counselors can invest more time in “things that work.”
“It’s just changed like day and night. The challenge is to keep up with it and try to stay ahead of the game,” Burk says. “We play a big part of the NIU image, and our challenge is to get the message out to our population: traditional-age students. We have to focus on the messages we give and the way we give those messages. They’re interested in Lady Gaga. They’re not interested in the Beatles.”
But the key ingredient – friendly and personal contact between admissions counselors and high school students and their families – remains unchanged.
Everyone, including Burk, still hops in their cars to drive across NIU’s service region to put face to names. For Burk, that means connecting with high school counselors; he’s proud of the continuity established between himself and his predecessor, who held the director’s job for almost 15 years.
Burk long has conducted four “Northern Exposure” presentations annually and has given nearly two dozen addresses each year to parent groups. His office in Williston Hall always is open to greet visitors, especially when all the counselors are on the road.
“Really, the final thing turns out to be you and me talking,” Burk says. “Once students get a chance to come and visit and talk to faculty, more than 75 percent of them will put applications in. To be successful, we have to have the faculty work with us, and our faculty have always been supportive of us. Getting to know the faculty has been a real pleasure for me.”
He also has strong praise for his successor, Brandon Lagana.
“Brandon is a seasoned pro with 15 years in the business. He knows what he’s doing, and he’ll take the technology and move it even further,” Burk says. “His challenges are that the number of high school seniors is dropping, the demographic we cherish is not just one group of students but evolving and diverse and the president wants to maintain enrollment. And, where state funding is concerned, he’ll have to do more with less and be creative.”
And should Lagana and Co. ever need someone to pull a Saturday shift, Burk isn’t going far.
He and Roberta, who was director of inner-library loans before her own recent retirement from NIU, will stay in DeKalb. They love the college town life, especially the arts and athletics, and also want to remain near their 12-year-old granddaughter who lives in Geneva.
“This is a pretty good place to be,” Burk says. “The people here are my colleagues and my friends, and that’s what I’ll miss the most.”
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Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs