As a new master's student in library and information science, funds were tight, and Curt McKay (MS '88) hoped for an assistantship to ease his financial burden. Leigh Estabrook, dean of the School, noticed that McKay had been a teacher and offered him an assistantship in the learning resources lab. "At Illinois, not only did I start learning a new career, but I got carried away by this wonderful atmosphere," McKay recalled. Instead of completing his degree in one year as he had planned, he decided to extend it to two years, then in April of his first year, a job opened up in the School, and McKay was encouraged to apply.
As the assistant to the dean for recruiting and admissions, he worked to increase the enrollment of students from diverse backgrounds into LIS, helped students find jobs, and oversaw the computer lab. "I was often willing to take a risk on a student who might not have met the admissions committee standards. The vast majority have gone on to be successful, mostly as librarians but not exclusively," he said. His position evolved over the years into the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs.
McKay was involved in the Queer community on campus, and when the Office of LGBT Resources needed a part-time director, he was interested in the opportunity. The iSchool was supportive, and for a number of years, he held a joint appointment with the iSchool and the Dean of Students Office. In 2005 he became the first full-time director of what is now the LGBT Resource Center.
McKay is grateful for the support he received from the iSchool, both as a student and staff member. "It was a wonderful kind of environment. You won't find a better place to learn and to develop a sense of community," he said. "It was especially supportive of me as I came out as a gay person in middle age."
It was the support he received from the faculty, staff, and students that made him want to return the favor and give back. He established the Curt McKay Student Need Endowment, which provides emergency financial assistance for students enrolled in the iSchool. McKay knew that most graduate students survived on stipends from graduate assistantships and personal savings; if a tragedy were to strike, many students wouldn’t have the financial resources to manage the crisis and continue their education.
"I saw the fund as providing a gift and not a loan, but I also hoped that if recipients ever were financially able, they'd contribute to it. I've been gratified at the number of alumni who have added to the fund over the years, even though they weren't recipients. It shows how our sense of community continues long after completing degrees and pursuing careers," McKay said.
McKay retired from the University after serving eight years as co-director or director of the LGBT Resource Center. Since then, he has kept exceptionally busy, working at the local food pantry and preparing taxes for senior citizens; reading newspapers for the blind; working at the Friends of Rockford Public Library's bookstore; serving on the Education and Training committee of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance; and offering his assistance to Rockford's Unity in Diversity group.
In his weekly shift at the Rockford Public Library, McKay interacts with a variety of library users. "The iSchool broadened my outlook so that I can truly value what the public library brings to all of us; now I get to see that every week and be a small part of it," he said.
To make a gift to the Curt McKay Student Need Endowment Fund, visit the iSchool giving page.