Bianca Spratt ’11 is Relationship Manager for the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.
She recently returned to campus to speak to students about making the most of the
multitude of opportunities at Illinois Wesleyan — including being open to drastically
changing their plans when new experiences forge a new path.
As a high school student from the nation’s third largest city, what was the appeal
of a small liberal arts school in central Illinois?
The very things that were the opposite of growing up on Chicago’s South Side. I felt
at peace here [at Illinois Wesleyan], it was quiet and it felt very safe. Another
part of my criteria was finding the Black Student Union [a registered student organization], so I knew there was support for black students
at a majority white institution. I planned to be a doctor, so I was looking for a
great biology program. During a visit [to Illinois Wesleyan] my freshman year of high
school, I sat in on a biology class with six college students and the professor. I
loved that it was small and the professor knew the students well – you could tell
that just by being in the class a few minutes.
How did you go from pre-med student to sociology major?
From the age of five to 17 I wanted to be a pediatrician. I’d participated in University
of Illinois Chicago summer institute programs, shadowed doctors, was involved in public
health after school — I’m engaged in the field of medicine during high school. Until
AP Chemistry my senior year, where I went quickly from an ‘A’ to an ‘F.’ I realized
I really don’t have a knack for biology or chemistry, and studying those fields was
not my passion.
How did Illinois Wesleyan help you discover what that passion could be?
This campus became my playground. I had four years to dib and dab to figure it out.
I was part of the Summer Enrichment Program and through that, I interned as a summer camp counselor with Catholic Charities and
I loved it. With a friend, I also ran the Life is a Blank Canvas program through the Action Research Center to do workshops with youth to encourage them to go to college. We brought them to
Illinois Wesleyan for a tour, so they were encouraged to go to college and see what
it’s all about. And I began to wonder how I could do this kind of work, what I called
being a ‘servant leader’ and get paid for it. The Catholic Charities work really opened
my eyes to the inner workings of social service agencies.
I had thought my passion was to be a doctor, but I realized my passion was for youth.
So I began to think maybe there was another way to fuel that passion.
How did an alumna point you down a new path?
Some of the minority alumni came to Homecoming during my senior year and I started
talking to Samantha Robinson (now Sherrod) ’01, who had done Public Allies [a leadership program for diverse young adults]. This is a 10-month AmeriCorps service
program. She thought I’d enjoy it, too, so I researched it, applied and was accepted.
But at the same time, I had already applied to and been accepted for a master’s in
education program with a focus in youth development at University of Illinois Chicago.
This was a new program at the time, very competitive to get into, and I was just torn
– which one should I do? Should I continue with my education, even though I was pretty
burned out mentally, or do I give back to my community and continue to figure out
how to help young people? I decided to go with Public Allies and defer graduate school
for one year.
What happened next?
After a year with Public Allies, which was incredible, I decided I really did not
want a master’s in education. So I did a second year with Public Allies, which focused
on nonprofit management, and that’s how I landed with the United Way. I wanted to
be part of a bigger organization that would have a greater impact.
I didn’t know anything about fundraising in an organized way, about working with a
team to meet those goals. But in my [United Way] interview, I said I wanted to be
a voice for the voiceless. In my job now, I encourage people to give [money] to the
United Way so that a person like me, who has been impacted by United Way dollars,
can stand in front of them and ask them to give. That’s why I do the work I do now,
so we can make connections between those who may not be aware of what’s going on day
to day – people going hungry, women in domestic violence shelters, people needing
legal assistance, people needing rent money just to get into an apartment. The United
Way partners with the organizations doing that work.
How did your liberal arts education help prepare you for this work?
It allowed me to explore all my interests. I spend a lot of time talking to young
people, and I always tell them I had one major (sociology) and multiple minors because I was so interested in everything, I could never decide
on which track I wanted. You can take courses you’re really interested in [at IWU]
and still graduate on time. I like to create my own path, and Illinois Wesleyan gave
me that opportunity.
Illinois Wesleyan provided me with new perspectives and a safe, close-knit environment
to get to know myself better. Knowing your own identity is very important – where
you came from, how you got to where you are, and recognizing where you want to go.
When opportunities present themselves, if you know yourself, you know whether or not
those opportunities are in line with what you want to do. Because of close relationships
with faculty, deans, even the president, I was able to figure out the best path to
achieve what would be best for me.