Volunteer Spotlight
Illinois Human Rights Commissioner Steven Andersson, ’86, J.D. ’92, Reflects on NIU’s Many Gifts

By Eva Richards

andersson_steve--1- "I have always said that NIU gave me the greatest gifts. The ability to learn 'how to learn' and how to realize what you don’t know," Andersson said.

After a successful career as an attorney, a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, and now the Human Rights Commissioner for the State of Illinois, Steven Andersson, ’86, J.D. ’92, has found a lot of success. He credits his time at NIU with helping him to learn from his mistakes and navigate his future, among many other things. Now, as a volunteer, Andersson has fun working with NIU students.

NIUAA: Please tell us about your experience leading up to and choosing NIU.
Andersson: My family didn't have a lot of experience with choosing a university to attend. My parents were from Sweden, and not college-educated, so the whole concept of how to go about making such a choice (or even to go to college) was largely left to me and me alone. At that time there was no internet, so I largely went with my own gut reactions. To be candid, NIU was an easy choice because it was fairly close to home for me. Also, price was a factor. As higher education was a whole new world for me, NIU seemed like a reasonable choice for a first-generation student like me. Turns out, it was an excellent choice. NIU was easy to navigate, friendly and welcoming. 

NIUAA: In a few sentences, please share the impact NIU has had on your life.    Andersson: I have always said that NIU gave me the greatest gifts. The ability to learn “how to learn” and how to realize what you don’t know. Critical thinkers must start from a place of open mindedness. NIU’s professors taught me that so well. College, if done correctly, isn’t a trade school to learn a particular skill. It’s about learning how to think about issues and problem solving. NIU instilled that in me. 

NIUAA: How did NIU prepare you for your current profession?     
Andersson: I earned two degrees from NIU, both my undergraduate in political science and law school. Both prepared me well for my future, but law school enhanced what my undergraduate education began. It gave me the basics in understanding the law and how to navigate the legal system. It did this in the most arduous way possible—The Socratic Method—which, in my opinion, is the best way to learn. It teaches you how to argue and to lose an argument, while at the same time, showing you paths to victory. You learn more from your losses than your victories, and that was reinforced over and over again. 

NIUAA: What are you most proud of in your professional career? 
Andersson: After my 30-year career as a lawyer, I was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. I quickly ascended in the House to the position of floor leader for the Republican Caucus. In that position, I was able to lead a movement that put an end to the longest budget impasse in U.S. history. As a result of that impasse, the most vulnerable people of our state suffered. They were going without medicine, support, food, etc. Violence was on the rise, poverty was on the rise, our universities were at risk of failing, and our state debts had risen to about $16 billion. I made the career-ending decision to take on my own governor and my own party to end this impasse. I succeeded. I am most proud of that because of the lives that were saved in doing so. 

NIUAA: Did anyone from NIU have a significant impact on you?     
Andersson: I met my wife Nanette at NIU! She was and is the person with the most impact in my life! 

NIUAA: What would you want to tell current and prospective students about NIU?     
Andersson: I’d like to tell them two things: First, you get what you put into your college career. No one is going to hand you your education. Your professors, instructors and fellow students are there to help you, but, in the end, it’s up to you to make your education the best it can be. 
Second, take risks. Learn to put yourself out there. Do things you're not comfortable with. You will learn more from those uncomfortable experiences than the things you feel “good” at or more prepared for. Broaden who you are. College is a time where you can do that with little actual risk. Take advantage of it!

NIUAA: What do you enjoy most about volunteering? 
Andersson: I have volunteered with the political science department, helped with the First Impressions Counts workshops, and hosted an NIU student for an externship experience while I was a member of the legislature. I enjoy getting to meet new people and share what I have learned in my life experiences! The reason I've been so involved in the Alumni Association is very simple; someone asked me to. Once I said yes, I found out how much fun it can be to help our NIU family. I hope others will also say yes to volunteering!

If you are looking for other ways to be an NIU volunteer, please check out NIU Nexus, or contact Liz McKee at lmckee1@niu.edu or 815-753-7400.