Ross brings University history to life at Illinois

Ryan Ross

As coordinator of history and traditions programs for the University of Illinois Alumni Alliance (UIAA), Ryan Ross (MS '10) is a curator, educator, and storyteller. His position was created in 2015 to curate exhibits for a campus welcome center that was under development at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, develop public programming related to the history of the University, and serve as an advocate for University history. After nearly three years of work, the completed welcome center—known as the Richmond Family Welcome Gallery—opened at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center in October 2018 during Homecoming Week. Since October, more than 13,000 people have visited the Center's exhibits.

His job involves reading widely about University history and current news related to the University, with the goal of identifying topics that will appeal to a general audience. Thereafter, he develops a plan for the best way to communicate those stories.

"I am naturally interested in just about everything, so having a job that is focused on telling stories about such a vast and impactful institution is perfect for me," Ross said. "I get to do so many interesting things from day to day, like pretending I’m Indiana Jones and exploring attics and basements and dirty storage rooms all over campus in search of artifacts. I get to interview alumni and students of all ages and backgrounds who have such infectious passion for this place and a legion of experiences that I am always excited to share with visitors."

In addition to his work at the Richmond Family Welcome Gallery, Ross develops public programming related to University history. His activities include planning the annual Mt. Hope and Roselawn Cemetery Walk, a living history theater event in which costumed actors portray people from University and local history who are buried in the large cemetery on the south side of campus. 

"Throughout the 90-minute walking tour, the audience meets six to eight characters along the route and learns about their lives from dramatic monologues. I select the characters, conduct the research, write the scripts, cast and direct the actors, choose the costumes, and manage the logistics of the event. Growing up, I wanted to be a film director, and though it's not exactly the same, being the creative director of a live theater event that I make up from scratch is kind of a dream come true," he said.

Ross has an ongoing lecture series about University history that he delivers to local groups and alumni clubs around the country, and he has also taught a course on University history through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Illinois.

It was his love of reading and learning—along with his girlfriend's (now wife's) encouragement—that prompted Ross to enroll in the MS/LIS program after completing his bachelor's degree in English at Illinois. In his first semester of the master's program, he found a graduate assistantship in the University Library's Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, which set him on his future career path.

"My first day there I processed a collection of Civil War letters, and that was it for me," he said. "I knew I was going to be an archivist, which I did not realize was an option until it sort of fell into my lap. I had always loved history, and with my meticulous nature and knack for describing things, I felt ideally suited for it. Taking a practicum with University Archivist Bill Maher and being a part of his shop for a semester further cemented my feeling that I was making the right choice."

Ross is happy to be working for his alma mater in a job that is rewarding and "never boring." His advice to iSchool students is to build and maintain relationships with classmates, faculty, and staff and to take as many different kinds of iSchool courses as possible.

"I have the opportunity to shine a light on people, events, and stories from University history that deserve to be better known," he said. "I feel very lucky to do what I do, at a place that means so much to me."

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