Barry McNamara  |  Published December 15, 2023

‘Doing Good in the World’

After award-winning teaching career at Monmouth, Trudi Peterson to begin work as U.S. asylum officer.

LEAVING ON TOP: Mere months before teaching her final class, Trudi Peterson and her colleagues learned that the department ... LEAVING ON TOP: Mere months before teaching her final class, Trudi Peterson and her colleagues learned that the department she chairs was named the top small liberal arts college communications department in the nation. MONMOUTH, Ill. – For 25 years, Trudi Peterson has shaped Monmouth College students’ lives. Now the much-honored communication studies professor will look to do the same in another role for people who have turned to the United States for help.

TRUDI PETERSON: The award-winning communication studies professor was on Monmouth's faculty for 25 years. TRUDI PETERSON: The award-winning communication studies professor was on Monmouth's faculty for 25 years.On Dec. 18, Peterson will begin training in Chicago for the next chapter in her life, working for the federal government as an asylum officer, adjudicating cases for refugees seeking asylum in the United States.

“I will be able to continue a career of service, but on a larger platform, to aid the government’s humanitarian efforts to provide relief to the most vulnerable populations,” she said. “I wouldn’t leave the College to go somewhere where I wasn’t doing meaningful work.”

She also wouldn’t leave teaching itself on a whim. She said she reached her decision “after much emotional contemplation and vacillation.”

“I wouldn’t leave the College to go somewhere where I wasn’t doing meaningful work.” – Trudi Peterson

 

“I never thought I’d leave this place or academia, but I have an exciting opportunity for a career change,” she said.

Like a football player who retires from the sport a day after winning the Super Bowl, Peterson is leaving academia at the top of her game. Earlier this year, the department she chairs received an award as the top small liberal arts college undergraduate program in the United States.

“We applied because of (fellow communication studies professor) Shweta (Srivastava),” said Peterson of the prestigious Rex Mix Award from the National Communication Association. “I’ve never been a self-promoter, and when I look at myself, I tend to see the weaknesses. Thankfully, Shweta sees the positives.”

When the award was announced in August, Peterson had already decided that the fall semester would be her last on campus.

“It was a beautiful surprise,” she said.


Providing a safe space

Peterson is also at the top of her game in what she called her “invisible” role of making a difference in her students’ lives.

“Students share with her and talk with her,” said another of her department colleagues, Chris Goble, whose office is just across the hallway from Peterson’s on the third floor of Wallace Hall. “I had Trudi ask me once, ‘Why do they share all these things with me?’ I said, ‘Trudi, it’s because you ask about them.’”

DISTINGUISHED TEACHING: Discussion-based classes with Peterson were always entertaining, and the professor also enjoyed the... DISTINGUISHED TEACHING: Discussion-based classes with Peterson were always entertaining, and the professor also enjoyed the bonds she formed with students outside the classroom. “I do care about them, and I ask them about their lives,” said Peterson. “I try to see the students holistically, and I try to fight for them and with them. We provide a safe space for our students, where they get seen as whole people, not just as students. A lot of the work I do might be invisible to most people on campus, but it’s important to the students.”

Earlier this year, that behind-the-scenes commitment was acknowledged, as Peterson received the Monmouth Difference Maker Award at the annual Highlander Awards, where outstanding contributors to the campus community are recognized.

“I try to see the students holistically, and I try to fight for them and with them. We provide a safe space for our students, where they get seen as whole people, not just as students.” – Trudi Peterson



She’s served as the adviser to the Sexuality and Gender Alliance student organization and as a chapter adviser for both Phi Delta Theta fraternity and Pi Beta Phi sorority.

“I’ve worked with so many student groups these past 25 years,” she said.

And Peterson can also flat-out teach. Four years ago, she was the recipient of the College’s prestigious Hatch Award for Distinguished Teaching. In addition to her leadership role in the communication studies department, she’s also coordinated the College’s women’s studies program.


‘You would be great at this’

But there are other careers where Peterson’s skill set would shine, and she learned more about a specific one three years ago.

“In the summer of 2020 I was in Chicago, probably for some concert, and one of the things I like to do when I’m in the city is meet up with Monmouth alums who live there,” she said. “So I had lunch with Phil Buckwinkler ’15. He was one of my advisees, and then he went on to law school and became an asylum officer. So we were at lunch, and he was telling me how great his job is, doing important work on a large scale. He told me, ‘You would be great at this.’”

“It will call on my research skills, my interview skills, my critical thinking skills. Being in academia gave me the tools to do this job, although it did take me a week to turn my CV into a proper résumé.” – Trudi Peterson


Peterson said the job requires the hard and soft skills she’s developed in her 25 years on Monmouth’s faculty.

“It will call on my research skills, my interview skills, my critical thinking skills,” she said. “Being in academia gave me the tools to do this job, although it did take me a week to turn my CV (curriculum vitae) into a proper résumé.”

And, as has been the case with helping Monmouth’s students, it will be fulfilling work.

“I’m not motivated by money, but by doing good in the world,” she said. “I’ve always tried to be a voice for underrepresented and marginalized people.”


What won’t change

Although she’s no longer part of the active faculty, the emerita professor figures to be a presence on campus. She’ll maintain her Wallace Hall office through the summer of 2024 and plans to participate in the next Commencement ceremony or two. She’ll continue living in Monmouth, and one thing that won’t change at all is her relationships with Monmouth alumni, who are now spread out across the world.

“I’m Facebook friends with so many former students,” she said. “I still have so many connections to Monmouth College.”

“I’m not motivated by money, but by doing good in the world. I’ve always tried to be a voice for underrepresented and marginalized people.” – Trudi Peterson


As just one example, she showed a small gift that she’ll give 2008 Monmouth graduate Zak Edmonds, which gives a nod to a memorable COMM 101 speech on toast – complete with a song about toast using the kitchen appliance as a drum – that he delivered his freshman year.

“Those kinds of memories of relationships with students like Zak will stay with me,” she said. “That’s forever. That doesn’t change. What I’ll miss is that I won’t be able to develop those new relationships with incoming students.”

She’ll also miss her fellow professors, with whom she’s developed her department’s “COMMutopia” spirit, although having the office space a little while longer will help with that.

“I’ll miss my department colleagues and the students,” she said. “I talk to these people every day. It’s those relationships that I’m going to miss. We’re collegial, we get along and like each other and we’ve shared the same goals for our students’ education.”

Simply put, Peterson will miss teaching at Monmouth, and the College will miss her.

“It’s not real yet. I have so many conflicting emotions,” she said. “Being a college professor has been a huge part of my identity and the rewards I’ve reaped from the relationships I have with students and colleagues are incalculable. I have been truly blessed in doing this work. I will miss COMMutopia, but I’m excited for a new opportunity.”

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