Barry McNamara  |  Published June 01, 2022

‘Random, Blind, Stupid Luck’

One of Monmouth College’s top incoming students referred by 2004 graduate Mathew Underwood, who has a fascinating story.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – “Random, blind, stupid luck” has been at the heart of some of the biggest moments in the life of 2004 Monmouth College graduate Mathew Underwood, and his alma mater will benefit from it again with the matriculation this fall of another of his talented Latin students at Cherokee High School.

MONMOUTH CONNECTION: Under the watchful eye of emeritus professor Tom Sienkewicz (in the poster b... MONMOUTH CONNECTION: Under the watchful eye of emeritus professor Tom Sienkewicz (in the poster behind them), Kailyn Gore and her high school Latin teacher, Monmouth graduate Mathew Underwood '04, share in the good news that Gore will be part of the College's Class of 2026. Earlier this year, Kailyn Gore, a senior at the Evesham Township, New Jersey, school located just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, was named one of the College’s four Trustees’ Scholars. The four-year tuition scholarship, worth more than $160,000, is awarded to students who have demonstrated exceptional academic achievement and leadership in their schools and communities.

“Mr. Underwood has repeatedly said that Monmouth College changed his life for the better, and he’s probably been one of the best teachers I’ve had,” said Gore, who plans to major in international studies and continue her study of classics at Monmouth in preparation for law school.

Underwood said that Gore is “tirelessly motivated.”

“She’s worked on campaigns, and she eagerly sits down with a donor list and relishes talking to people,” he said. “It’s rare to find someone Kailyn’s age who will take such a genuine interest in another person.”

Monmouth makes sense

Underwood also referred Mackenzie Davis. She majored in classics and graduated from Monmouth in 2018. But Underwood said it’s hard for many students on the East Coast to imagine attending college in the Midwest.

“Parents here feel comfortable sending their children to Boston, but that’s an eight-hour drive away – 10 hours if New York traffic gets you,” said Underwood. “They can get to Monmouth sooner (by flying) than they’ll get to Boston driving. But it’s hard for them to conceptualize.”

The University of Pennsylvania – a mere 12 miles away – is a popular destination for Cherokee’s students.

“It’s $82,300 for one year at Penn,” said Underwood. “I tell students about Monmouth, and they talk about the cost of having to fly. But really, they’d be spending around $1,000 on flights per year to save $30,000 or more.”

He saw a sign

How Underwood got to the point of teaching in New Jersey and referring students to Monmouth is an interesting story, full of times when he was “lost” but was guided back in the right direction, including by a pair of Monmouth classics professors – Virginia Hellenga and Tom Sienkewicz.

“I decided I might be able to go to college. We did a driving tour of Illinois. … Monmouth was not on the list, but we just decided to check it out because we saw the road sign.” Mathew Underwood

“I’ve had a lot of moments of random, blind, stupid luck along the way,” he said.

The first of those moments came as he planned the next chapter in his life beyond attending high school in the northwest Chicago suburb of Cary, Illinois.

“I wasn’t a very strong student,” said Underwood. “I kind of meandered my way through high school. But I somehow managed to do somewhat decently on the ACT. So I decided I might be able to go to college. We did a driving tour of Illinois. I wanted to check out Bradley and Knox and Western Illinois and Augustana. Monmouth was not on the list, but we just decided to check it out because we saw the road sign.”

The tour established two points – Underwood realized he preferred a small school, and he liked Monmouth’s campus best. When the financial aid worked out, too, he picked Monmouth over Knox.

Plan ‘B’ stands for better

Underwood’s original plan was to double major in political science and economics, while also studying Spanish.

“Pretty quickly after the first 1-1/2 weeks, I realized I’d made all the wrong choices,” he said.


“Pretty quickly after the first 1-1/2 weeks, I realized I’d made all the wrong choices. I told (Hellenga), ‘I’m lost. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’” Mathew Underwood

Like all incoming freshmen, Underwood was assigned a faculty adviser. His was Hellenga, and she met with her anxious advisee very early during that first semester.

“I told her, ‘I’m lost. I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” he said. “She said, ‘You’re in luck. There’s an introduction to Greek course still open, and you’re going to take it.’”

That same semester, Underwood found he enjoyed his freshman English class with new professor Mark Willhardt (who is now the College’s dean of the faculty). The econ/poli sci major soon became a double major in classics and English. That course suited him well for four years – he graduated cum laude – but there was still the little matter of what he’d do when his time at Monmouth was over.

“Coming into graduation, again, I was kind of lost,” said Underwood. “Dr. Sienkewicz told me, ‘This is what you’re going to do. You’re going to take the GRE and go to Texas Tech to get your master’s in classics. I was thinking of becoming a professor and making my way to a school like Monmouth. But after completing my master’s, I found the humanities in American higher education is a tough row to hoe. So, again, I was lost. I considered living out of the back of a flatbed truck, just dirtbagging it, but my Midwest work ethic kicked in, and I decided, ‘You’ve got to get a job.’”

One of his applications was to a New Jersey school looking to replace a retiring “Mrs. Underwood.”

“They assumed that I was related to her, and when they saw I went to Monmouth, they assumed it was the one in New Jersey,” said Underwood, who got the job.

As the slightly-less-popular saying goes, “It’s not who you know, it’s who they think you know.”

In a way, the school officials were half-right. The Monmouth grad is well-acquainted with a Mrs. Underwood who teaches at Cherokee. It happens to be his wife and 2004 Monmouth classmate Elizabeth Purdy.

How Alumni Help Recruit Scots …

Monmouth alumni can play a key role in helping the alma mater recruit the next generation of Scots. How alumni can refer a student to Monmouth. 

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