Illinois student Monal Patel will live forever in the Main Library.
Her name will, at least.
Illinois’ seemingly endless wall of tablets feature the names of the top 3 percent of each graduating class that earned University Honors. And Patel – as well as others from the Class of 2015 – will join thousands of students who have received Bronze Tablet honors at Illinois since 1925.
A James Honors Program Scholar at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Patel said she wasn’t sure at first if she’d attend Illinois. Her uncle, a general physician whose children graduated from Illinois, swayed her with a piece of advice.
“’If you can be the top there (at Illinois), it means something more,’” the molecular and cellular biology major recalled her uncle telling her, adding that his advice was a deciding factor in enrolling at Illinois.
Patel, who plans to attend medical school in the fall to pursue a career in cardiology, said receiving Bronze Tablet honors is an expression of her gratitude to her parents for supporting her academic career.
“This [Bronze Tablet] is one of those things I’ve worked hard for, and it’s a way to pay back my parents for all they’ve done for me,” she said.
Illinois alumna and Illinois Promise scholarship recipient Fadya Salem (’13) said the Bronze Tablet display was always the coolest part of cutting through the Main Library.
Row after row of large bronze plaques are hard to ignore, she said.
“It’s just really nice to know no matter what I choose to do, I spiritually and physically have a presence at U. of I.,” said Salem, who graduated in December 2013 with a degree in interdisciplinary health sciences. “I knew I was going to carry on the traditions of the U. of I., but now I’m literally there, in some respect.”
When she’d walk by the tablets, Salem said she always wondered about the people behind the names.
One such person is Mary Dugan, a Bronze Tablet scholar from the Class of 1989.
Dugan was rejected from Illinois the first time she applied while her husband pursued his Ph.D.
After getting her associate degree at Parkland College, Dugan applied again to the College of Education, and was accepted. A student who always received good grades, Dugan finished her bachelor’s degree in education in two years and then earned her master’s degree in library science at Illinois.
A mother of four children, the then-35-year-old Dugan often studied on campus with her two youngest daughters. In their early teens at the time, the girls would bring their homework to the Illini Union or Bevier Hall. Dugan brought hers.
“I was really surprised,” Dugan recalled of learning by letter she’d been named a 1989 Bronze Tablet scholar. “It was hard, I mean, when you’ve got small children and everything, it’s hard anyway. When you’re an adult going to school, your goals are different. Your life is different.”
Bronze Tablet scholars must earn a 3.5 cumulative GPA (out of 4.0) through the academic term prior to graduation, and rank in the top 3 percent of the students in their graduating class. In recent years, some colleges at Illinois have required students to achieve an average as high as 3.9 to make the list.
Illinois cast the first Bronze Tablet in 1925 with 14 student names etched into the plaque. Ninety plaques are on display at the main library, but don’t fear -- there’s still room available for the next two decades of Bronze Tablet scholars.
The Class of 2014 was able to view its Bronze Tablet in the Main Library’s first floor corridor in November 2014.
“I’ll have to come back and see it at some point,” said Brad Sturt, an Illinois engineering graduate and a 2014 Bronze Tablet scholar.
Sturt, whose brother Adam (’11) also is a Bronze Tablet scholar, said he’s been busy – he’s attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study technology and policy – so he hasn’t seen his Bronze Tablet yet.
“I’ll have to drag my kids (to the Illinois Main Library) someday, as well,” Sturt said.
Of course, there’s room online for all the Bronze Tablet plaques. Anyone can search the library’s online database for photos of the Bronze Tablets, from the first tablet cast in 1925 to last year’s plaque.
In addition to being immortalized in bronze plaques, Bronze Tablet scholars receive unique honor cords to wear during the Commencement ceremony. A single, thick braided orange-and-blue shoulder cord – which rests on the left shoulder of every Bronze Tablet scholar – is provided by the Office of the Chancellor.
Dugan, now a tenured professor of library science at Purdue University, still has her Bronze Tablet cords. She also has the photo of herself back in 1989, dressed in cap and gown, with her two daughters.
She’s told her grandchildren about her Bronze Tablet, an honor that represents an accomplishment not just for herself, but for her family.
As a former nontraditional student at Illinois, Dugan knows hard work pays off, no matter the age. Her name on the 1989 Bronze Tablet – which Dugan said she’s visited once or twice – is permanent proof.
“Our Bronze Tablet Scholars represent the best and brightest students of Illinois,” said Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida. “Their academic accomplishments are to be commended, and I can think of no more appropriate way to celebrate their achievements than a permanent place of honor in our library.”
Visiting the Bronze Tablet gallery has become something of an Illinois tradition for the Spitz family.
Tyler Spitz (’14), another Bronze Tablet scholar, comes from a long line of Illini alumni.
There’s a legacy of Bronze Tablet scholars in his family tree, as well.
Almost every time his parents – also Illinois graduates – would come to visit, he said, they’d return to the Main Library and the Bronze Tablet scholar plaque gallery to check the names.
Turns out the Spitz family knows a few of them. Five members of Spitz’s family earned an inscription on a Bronze Tablet.
It started with Spitz’s grandfather’s uncle, Seymour Bernstein, in 1930; his grandfather, Howard, in 1950; and then his grandfather’s brother, Paul in 1957. Spitz’s aunt followed more than a decade later, in 1973.
His sister, Samantha, had been the most recent Spitz Bronze Tablet Scholar, receiving the honor in 2011. Tyler Spitz is his family’s sixth Bronze Tablet scholar.
Spitz followed his sister’s footsteps as an accounting major, and he said he made it a goal for himself to match her academically, too.
But the Bronze Tablet means more than just keeping up with his sister or his other Bronze Tablet scholar relatives, he said.
“The thing that will mean the most to me in the future is the ability to show my kids, my family in the future, how important academics are, to the point I can get my name on the wall forever,” Spitz said of his Bronze Tablet honor.
Patel said she planned to visit campus in fall 2015, once the Bronze Tablet plaques are officially on display at the Main Library.
“It’s something that I want to see, and also my mom is way too excited to see it,” Patel said, laughing.
After all, Patel’s a part of Illinois history now, too.
For more information on Bronze Tablet scholars, visit the Main Library’s online database.