50 Influencers: Terry Wilkerson, from pupil to president

INA, Ill. (July 15, 2017) - Homegrown is a term that has popped up in this story series more than a few times. Rend Lake College has been the beneficiary of many qualified individuals who have returned to the benefit of the institution and its students.

Each and every one of the homegrown products have helped shape and mold RLC in their own unique way, but only one person has transitioned from sitting behind the desk as a student to sitting behind the desk in the head office, current RLC president Terry Wilkerson.

Launching his relationship with RLC in 1990, Wilkerson was famously reluctant to attend college after graduating from Hamilton County Senior High School as valedictorian. At the time, the young farmer saw more value in getting started shouldering his share of the work on the family farm.

“At that point in my life, I didn’t see the value of an education. I just needed to get to farming and making a living,” said Wilkerson. “I got curious to see what it would do for me. The college was close to home and the class times were flexible. I could still farm.”

He wasn’t prepared for what he found in RLC’s Ag Department, an atmosphere of teachers and students who were all interested and eager to learn and talk about the same things he was. It was an experience that altered the entire course of his life.

Wilkerson went on to earn his an Associate Degree in Applied Science at RLC in 1992, followed by a Bachelor’s Degree in Plant and Soil Science in ‘94 and a Master’s Degree in Agronomy in ‘95, both from nearby Southern Illinois University.

For someone who wasn’t even going to go to school, Wilkerson found plenty of success in the classroom.

At RLC, he earned the “Agri-Achievers” designation from the Ag Department Staff in 1991 for recognition of his academic performance and leadership skills. He also earned the distinction as co-winner of the prestigious “Outstanding Ag Student of the Year” Award for 1991-92. He also won a one-year scholarship to SIUC due to his spotless GPA, a trend he continued throughout his academic career, finishing all three of his degrees with a flawless 4.0.

“Wilk” returned to the college in 1997 to teach in the very department he studied in following the death of one of his mentors, Agriculture, Automotive and Architecture (AAA) Department Chair Doug Leeck. Always the farmer, it didn’t take long for Wilkerson to identify similarities between the field and the classroom.

P5260017WTerry Wilkerson, center, works with a group of students when he joined RLC's Agriculture Department in the late 90s. Click on the image for a larger view.

“Teaching is a lot like farming. Every year there’s a new crop, and you help it grow,” said Wilkerson. “I enjoyed bringing practical lessons I learned on the farm to the classroom.

“If it’s time to plant corn, it’s time to plant corn. You can’t be stagnant and do nothing,” he added. “Education is like that. If you stand still, you fall behind.”

 Something must have resonated; he spent 11 years in the classroom before moving into RLC’s Chair of the Applied Science and Technology Division, a position he called home for four years.

During those early professional years with the college, he served as Academic Council Chair seven of 10 years, beginning with 1998-99. He was also hand-picked by administration for the first RLC Emerging Leaders Institute, designed to identify and develop potential future campus leaders in 2006.

Wilkerson contributed heavily to the successful Higher Learning Commission Self-Study and the subsequent reaccreditation visit in 2008, and also was a contributing author to the Career Technical Education Assessment follow-up report in 2011.

Then, in April of 2012, Wilkerson was selected out of a wide pool of applicants to take the helm as the college’s seventh president.


“The RLC Board of Trustees spent two months assessing applicants and interviewing a group of highly qualified individuals for the position of Rend Lake College President,” said then-RLC Board Chair Bryan Drew.

“In the community college setting, it is common for the Board of Trustees to receive input from faculty, staff and current administration in the search for a new President. In this case, it was a clear choice by everyone involved as to the best person to lead Rend Lake College into the future.

“Terry Wilkerson is a proven leader who has the rare ability to be as comfortable in a meeting with local politicians and business leaders as he is with students and faculty,”

“I would like to thank the Board of Trustees and the campus for the confidence they have placed in me to continue our work of providing quality education and building relationships throughout our district,” the newly-named president said.

Like many before and after him on this list, the student-turned-teacher-turned-administrator is also dedicated to giving back to the community and its students. He was honored with a Rend Lake College Foundation Bronze Seal award for his numerous contributions which, all total, exceed $10,000.

“I give to the Foundation because it’s important to me that I give back to this institution that has given so much to me,” Wilkerson said. “I am definitely an advocate for supporting RLC through the Foundation and I won’t ask anyone to do anything I’m not willing to do myself.”

The college isn’t the only place the home-grown product has found success. Wilkerson has successfully maintained and operated the farm he shares with his family in Hamilton County.  

In 2009, he was recognized as one of 10 national finalists for the Outstanding Farmers of America Fraternity’s four “Outstanding Young Farmer” Award-winners.

On the farm, he was cited as being quick to adopt new technologies as they come online, such as GMO technology; he was one of the first in the region to incorporate it into his cropping practices. He offers his land to University and extension representatives for research in analyzing zinc in high-yield corn, manganese in soybeans, magnesium in wheat, and nitrogen and sulfur in double-crop soybeans.

That innovation is an approach that he has also brought back to the president’s office.

Amid the state budget crisis, Wilkerson has ensured that the college has remained on firm ground though innovation and adaptability. The college’s dedication to students and the community at large has never wavered despite the adversity, and the quality and depth of what RLC has to offer continues to grow and evolve.

“We want you here. We want to help you get to where you’re going. Never doubt it,” Wilkerson expressed. “We are the most affordable path to a higher education when compared to the larger institutions around us, and that is by design. We believe we are the best choice for higher education and career training for our community, in terms of both quality and price.”

“You’re more than welcome to come for a visit, whether you want to learn more about a certain program or just to have a look at the campus. This is your community college, so come out and take a look.”

For more of our 50 Influencers stories, visit www.rlc.edu/50.

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