- Synopsis: Before NIUKeywords: Naperville; Associate's Degree; College of DupageTranscript: ANSAH: Today is Tuesday, the 15th of October. My name is Matilda Ansa, and I'm here with Mr. Dennis Barsema to conduct an oral history interview for NIU's 125th anniversary. We are here at the DeKalb Public Library located in downtown DeKalb, Illinois. Thank you, Mr. Barsema for your participation in this project. Do I have your verbal consent to begin the interview?
BARSEMA: Yes, you do.
ANSAH: Thank you. First of all, let me start by asking you to tell me a bit about your background, such as where you grew up and your life before you came to NIU.
BARSEMA: I grew up in Naperville. I went to Naperville Central High School. My mom worked at the College of DuPage which is a community college not too far from Naperville. She was the assistant to the Dean of Students there, and so as an employee of the College of DuPage any of her children got free tuition. When it came time for me to go to college, I had three choices of schools. I could go to the College of DuPage, the College of DuPage, or a college that I paid for myself. So, I went to the College of DuPage. I graduated from the community college in 1974 with my associate degree and that's when I came to NIU.
ANSAH: Could you tell me why you decided to pick NIU, especially when you had other options, and what you studied at NIU?
BARSEMA: Yeah. Well, back then and today as well, the College of DuPage had a very strong relationship with Northern Illinois University. It was a university that had a great reputation. It was local and I wanted to stay in the State of Illinois. I wanted to stay local, close to my family and friends. And when I came to NIU, I studied business. I was in the college of business. Specifically, I was a management major.
- Synopsis: Reasons for Pursuing Business DegreeKeywords: College of BusinessTranscript: ANSAH: Could you tell me why you decided to get your degree in business?
BARSEMA: That's a great question. Going up through high school I took several business classes when I was in high school and enjoyed them. It was either one of two things. It was either I felt I was really good at business or I was really terrible at science. I concluded that business was a good route for me to go because science was not going to happen and the arts weren't going to happen for me. I don't have a whole lot of talent from an arts standpoint. Business was something that got started in high school from an interest level standpoint, continued business classes when I got to the College of DuPage. When I came to Northern, it was just a natural for me to enroll in the school of business.
- Synopsis: Academic Life at NIUKeywords: Management major; College of Business; ProfessorsTranscript: ANSAH: What was it like being a business major at NIU at the time?
BARSEMA: I think the great mistake that I made was that I didn't get involved enough in the College of Business. I went to class and then went to all my other activities that I was engaged in on campus. I didn't get involved as much in the College of Business as I tell students to do today. Now, I think today there's a lot more opportunity to get involved. There's a lot of experiential learning opportunities in the College of Business and all of our colleges on our campus. There's a number of clubs that every college has. So I wish I would have been more involved in the College of Business when I was at school, so if I had a do over, that's one of the things I would do over. I would have gotten a lot more involved. But, having said that, I felt the education that I received, the classes that I had, the professors that I had, made a profound impact in my life. It was an excellent College of Business back in the 1970s and it's an excellent College of Business today as well.
ANSAH: That's really great. Is there a particular reason why you were not as involved as you would have liked to be?
BARSEMA: Oh, yeah, that's a great question. I think part of it, if I was to be very truthful with you--which I am--I stutter. I have stuttered my whole life. When I was young, and that carried through my college years, I couldn't put three words back to back without stuttering. Through just age and also a lot of help, I've gotten better. I have my good days and my bad days. Let's hope today's a good day. [laughter] So far so good. The fact that I had a speech impediment, I think, caused me to not participate as much as I would have liked to. But that's also one of the things that made a profound impact in my life because one of my professors, Dr. Brown--he was my labor law professor--one day he asked me to stay after class and he asked me, he said, "Dennis, I know by your tests and your papers and such that you know the material very well, but you never participate in class. Why?" And I told him: it's because of my speech impediment and I had been made fun of most of my life and I just didn't want to be made fun of anymore. I didn't want to risk myself. And he told me something very important. To this day I still remember it. He said, "Dennis, in life and in business, people will pay you for what you know, not how you say it." He encouraged me to let that knowledge that was in my brain be said, regardless of how well or how bad I might say it. You know, he said, "Let that knowledge come out because, if you don't, then you're cheating the world of what's in your head." And he was right. That little piece of encouragement that one of my professors gave me, led me to not only be brave enough to get involved and to risk myself, but also to seek help. Also, to seek the outside help that I needed in order to learn to be a better communicator. So, yeah, the College and its professors had a profound impact in my life. In fact, I would go as far to say that, if I hadn't gone to Northern Illinois University, if I hadn't been in the College of Business, I truly don't think I would be where I am in my life.
- Synopsis: Speech ImpedimentKeywords: fear; failure; adversity; disability; speech impedimentTranscript: ANSAH: That's really amazing. You mentioned that you grew up with a speech impediment. Did it somehow affect your expectations of college before coming to NIU?
BARSEMA: Well, it's another great question. I think it limited me. I don't know that it changed my expectations, but I think I allowed it to limit me and that's something that I've taken through my whole life is: never allow something to limit you. Right? And I talk to students about that every chance I get, that don't let fear stop you from doing something in your life. I, for the first 18 years of my life or 19, 20 years of my life, let fear, in this case, fear of being made fun of, I let fear stop me from participating. I let fear stop me from getting the full experience of the classroom or of college and so forth. And hile I was here at NIU, I learned to not let fear stop me from doing something. I've carried that through my entire life in everything I do, to not let fear of failure stop me from trying. I still might fail, but if you don't try, you're never going to know. You're never going to know if you might be successful and you're never going to know what might be on the other side of that effort that you're giving. So not only did my experience here give me the incentive and the encouragement to seek the help on my speech impediment, it created me--it created me from the standpoint of my character in that I never let fear stop me from trying something. I might fail, and that's okay. Failure is just data. Failure is just data. Failure just says, "You didn't get it right that time. Let's understand why. Let's learn from it. It's data, let's learn from it and let's do it different next time."
- Synopsis: Life at Sigma Alpha Epsilon FraternityKeywords: housing; fraternities; Sigma Alpha EpsilonTranscript: ANSAH: Thank you, what was it like in your first few months at NIU as a freshman?
BARSEMA: Well, I came here as a junior because I was a transfer student from a community college. That was very interesting because I came here with my cousin, Mike Barsema, who I'm very, very close to. Mike and I are a similar age. We both came here as juniors. Mike and I were living in an apartment on Annie Glidden Road, up by Hillcrest. Then the first semester that we were here, the fall semester, Mike's father passed away very unexpectedly. He died of a heart attack. Mike wound up leaving college for a year to go be with his mom and help the family overcome the tragedy of his father's death. I was left here by myself in an apartment that I couldn't afford by myself. I was going to need to seek some new housing. The landlord that we had was very understanding. She was going to let us out of the lease knowing that my roommate's father had passed away. I was playing basketball because I was a basketball player in high school, and I played basketball at the College of DuPage as well. I was down at the field house, the Chick Evans Field House playing basketball one night in some pickup games. Three guys stopped me after a game one day and they said, "Hey, have you ever thought about joining a fraternity?" My first question was, "What's a fraternity?" Their names were Jim Schmid, Tom Pomatto and Jack Tierney. Jim and Tom and Jack to this day are very dear friends of mine but they wanted me to consider joining their fraternity which was Sigma Alpha Epsilon, SAE. I'm like, "Well, this timing is fairly fortuitous because I need a place to live next semester and do you have a room available in the fraternity house for me to live in a while I pledge?" We all worked that out. I wound up pledging the SAE house in the spring of my first year here living in the SAE house and becoming a member of that fraternity, which that in itself too was one of the turning points in my life. It was becoming a fraternity member and being a part of SAE. I owe a lot to Jim and Tom and Jack. They, too, made a profound impact in my life.
ANSAH: Could you say some more about your life living in the frat house after you pledged?
BARSEMA: Yeah, yeah, no. It was a pretty traditional fraternity house. Probably not the cleanest place in the world, but back then when you're twenty years old--or however old I might've been at that time--I was approximately twenty, our standards are a little bit different. I still go over to the SAE house today to talk to the fraternity members there. In fact, I was just there last week to talk to the chapter. As we've gotten older, our standards change as to what we're willing to live in. I'm not sure a fraternity house would be something I would live in today, but it was wonderful. It was wonderful from a brotherhood standpoint. We probably had--I mean, I forget the exact number of members in the house at that time, but it was probably in the fifty to sixty number in terms of members. The fraternity is a brotherhood. You share a bond, not only with those fifty or sixty members of the house at that time, but you share a bond with all of those who came before them who might've graduated earlier in the seventies and sixties and fifties and so forth and you share a bond with those who come after you. As I told the chapter house last week, we all share a common bond. We are all of the same fraternity, and so we help each other. I never had growing up, I never had a strong group of friends. Because of my speech impediment I shied away from joining groups. We lived in the country. We lived out amongst the corn fields and farmland. So after high school, after school was done in the day I went home, and I had chores to do. You know, we had horses and cows and I had chores to do. And so, I never lived in the town of Naperville. You know, we lived out in the countryside, so I never had a group of friends in high school. And when I went to the community college, I played basketball, but I didn't have a group of friends. This was, to be honest with you, the fraternity was truly my first group of friends. And it was wonderful. And it was a brotherhood that not only taught me a lot but gave me, again, just as the professors in the College of Business did, it gave me the encouragement to risk myself.
- Synopsis: Leadership roles at NIUKeywords: fraternities; leadership; Sigma Alpha EpsilonTranscript: ANSAH: Do you have a favorite moment from your time at the fraternity?
BARSEMA: Yes. I was on our campus for three years. After my first year in the fraternity, Jim Schmid, who was my roommate, encouraged me to run for office in the fraternity in particular the social chairman. I had never run for anything. I'm like, "Would somebody actually vote for me and would they want me to be an officer of the fraternity?" I got elected to be the social chairman. That was a real turning point in my life to, again, say, "It's okay to risk yourself. It's okay to take a chance." To see the confidence that the brothers put in me to be the social chairman, gave me the confidence to continue to go forward from a leadership standpoint. Then the following semester, Jim and Tom and Jack encouraged me to run for president. Now, I'm like, "Come on, I can't be the president of the fraternity." They're like, "Yes, sure you can. You'd be a great president." And I did. I ran for president and I got elected. That was another moment in my life that gave me the confidence in myself and gave me the encouragement to say, "You can do this. You got this. You can be a leader." That was really the first time in my life where I took a leadership role and found out I was pretty good at it and found out that I enjoyed it. For me that was one of the great things that being a part of the fraternity gave me. It was a chance to be a leader and it was awesome.
ANSAH: Is there anything in particular you are proud of achieving when you were president of the fraternity at the time?
BARSEMA: Yes, I moved them to a new house. We had a very unfortunate fire in the house that we were in right before Thanksgiving of that particular year, and so we needed to find a new house pretty quick. I was able to find a new house that we moved the brothers into over the holiday season. It turned out to be a great fraternity house and the chapter stayed in it for many, many years. The other thing that I did is that the national office for Sigma Alpha Epsilon is on the Evanston Campus of Northwestern. We have there a church called the Levere Memorial Temple. The pledge classes that we had at SAE, we started to take them to the national temple on the Northwestern campus and when they became members to take them through the ritual of becoming a member. That was the first time they had ever done that. To this day, they're still doing it. They still take the pledge class to the national temple when they're ready to become members. That was that. I became so well-known at the national office one of the job offers I had when I graduated from college was from the national office of SAE. They gave me a job offer. I didn't take it. I took a different job offer, but it was nice to see the confidence that they had in me.
- Synopsis: Social life at NIUKeywords: fraternities; sports; tugs; softball; Sigma Alpha Epsilon; Delta UpsilonTranscript: ANSAH: What are some of the activities people in a frat house at the time were engaged in?
BARSEMA: Tugs! [laughter] We were a big sports fraternity, so two years in a row, we were the All Sports champion on campus. We had a great basketball team, softball team. We were really good at tugs. We had football teams. We were a very athletic fraternity, but through that athletics, again, some of my best friends in life I got to know from other fraternities. Two of my very dear friends in life today were from the Delta Upsilon fraternity--what they call the DUs. They were our big rivals in softball, but I got to know several of the brothers in their house and we became great friends and we still are to this day. So sports was a big one. Of course, we would have our mixer parties on Thursday. Those were always fun, but I would say sports was really the big bonding that we had in our fraternity. It brought all the brothers together.
- Synopsis: Career path after NIUKeywords: first job; career; Unisys CorporationTranscript: ANSAH: Is there a particular reason why you didn't take the job that was offered like you mentioned earlier?
BARSEMA: I had another company that came a long and offered me $500 more in salary. [laughter] I had two job offers out of college. I had one from SAE. They offered me $11,000 a year in salary. Then I had a job offer from a technology company called Burroughs Corporation, which is today called Unisys Corporation, one of the major computer companies in the world. They offered me $11,500 a year and I had loans to pay back just like most students today do as well. I took the Burroughs offer because of the extra $500. That's how I got into the technology space, which I spent my entire business career in the technology space. That's how I got into the tech space. Folks like to think that I have this vision of tech was the future. I'd love to be able to say that I did, but I honestly got into the tech space--I call it the $500 decision. If it would've been reversed, if SAE would have offered me $500 more than Boroughs, I would've gone to work for SAE. It came down to money.
- Synopsis: Social life at NIUKeywords: Spring Fest; Lagoon; fraternitiesTranscript: ANSAH: Outside of the frat house, what was your social life like during your school days?
BARSEMA: My social life was my fraternity. From a male friend’s standpoint, all my male friends were in a fraternity. Either mine or some other fraternity on campus. I was very involved in athletics, very involved in the leadership on Greek row. The girls that I knew all were through the fraternity as well, through different functions and dances and various things we would do with the sororities. I was very much into Greek life and loved it. It was a great experience for me.
ANSAH: Did you have any favorite NIU traditions as a student?
BARSEMA: Yes, one of the things that we participated in, it was not just the Greeks, but NIU would do Spring Fest, they called it back then. I don't know if we even do it today or what it's called today, but it was called Spring Fest. It was typically done in the April time frame and we would do it around the lagoon. It was just athletic contests. It was tugs. It was races around the lagoon. It was a whole bunch of other athletic events. Spring Fest was always something that we had a lot of fun competing for and such. From a tradition standpoint Spring Fest was one of my best memories.
ANSAH: Is there any reason in particular why it's one of your best memories?
BARSEMA: Because we won. It’s not just winning, but it's getting ready for it. It's what you have to go through to prepare for it. One thing we all talk about in life, this isn't just Dennis Barsema's statement, it's everybody's statement, it's not the destination, it's about the journey. It's not about winning. It's about what you have to go through to get to the point where you can win. It's the journey. If the destination is winning, it's really about the journey that gets you to that point and what you have to do to prepare yourself. Again, it's working together as a team. I think that that's where I really learned the value of a team. As an individual we can only do so much, but if you surround yourself with the right people and you work together as a team, there's so much more that can be accomplished. As they say, the sum of the whole is always greater than that of the parts. Teamwork was something that being a part of the fraternity really taught me.
- Synopsis: Career path after NIUKeywords: careerTranscript: ANSAH: Do you have a favorite part of the journey like you were talking about?
BARSEMA: I've a lot of journeys in my life. My entire business career was a journey. I've had a number of journeys in my life. God willing, I still have a number more in my life. It takes us all a while to understand that--I always talk to folks about this who were in athletic contests or they're in something in their career where something big has happened. I always tell them, I say, "Look, what is happening to you right now? What is happening to you right now, Matilda? You're a part of this great project. You might have an opportunity to participate in a project like this again in your life, but you might not, right? Who knows where God's going to take you, who knows where life is going to take you, right? While you're in this great effort helping to memorialize the 125th anniversary of a major university, that's pretty heavy stuff. While you're in it, slow it down so you can appreciate and absorb what you're doing, what you are contributing to the 125th anniversary of NIU. Make sure you appreciate and slow this down and remember all of what you're doing. That's a part of just embracing the journey. The destination is the final product that you and others are going to produce, but the journey of getting to that point, the journey of interviewing all the people that you're interviewing, that's what you need to remember. That's what you need to embrace. We all have journeys in our life, and we need to not only embrace them but find ways to memorialize them in our head and sometimes in writing or in voice.
- Synopsis: Academic Life at NIUKeywords: academics; extracurricular activities; Greek life; leadership; career; salesTranscript: ANSAH: Thank you very much. That's some really great advice. Let me ask how you combined your social life with your academic life?
BARSEMA: With my what life?
ANSAH: With your academics.
BARSEMA: Probably not as well as I should have. I think my final grade point average was 2.95. Yes, there I said it, but I've said it before in public, so that's nothing new. I was a B student and, again, I could have and should have done better. I'll be the first to admit it. I think that I would have done better if I would've allowed myself to participate more in class and participate more in the college and participate more in in campus life outside of the Greek fraternity system. When I get the opportunity, which I do often, to talk to students, in particular freshmen, I always tell them, "Look, we as a university have a responsibility to make you a better person four years or five years from now when you graduate. But you have a responsibility to make us a better university four years from now than how you found us today." Then the question was always, "Well, how do I make the university a better place?" My answer is always very simple. Get involved. Get involved. Do exactly what you're doing. Get involved in student affairs and student politics, run for office in a club, in your fraternity, your sorority, the student association. Just get involved. You will make the university a better place just by being involved. We have amazing students on our campus and when I see what a lot of them are doing to make NIU a better university it almost brings tears to your eyes. Then if you're fortunate enough to stay in touch with them after they graduate, which I do with many of my students and mentees who I've mentored, and then you what they're doing five, ten years later, you're just so proud of them. It's no surprise that they're doing what they're doing because you saw it in them when they were on campus by being involved. I didn't do as good of a job as I wish I would have been able to do in incorporating my social life and my academic life. I wish I would've been more involved in the academic piece of it. I think I did a pretty good job. I'm the social piece being a part of the Greek system and such, but I wish I would've been more involved on the academic and on the campus side.
ANSAH: What other extracurricular activities did you do to get involved apart from your activities in the fraternity?
BARSEMA: Most of my involvement here on campus was really through the Greek system. It was through the fraternity. I didn't run for student office. But at that time, I felt what I was doing, being an officer in my fraternity, being the social chairman, being the president, that was about all I could put on my plate at that time. I was satisfied with my level of engagement from a social and from a professional standpoint. Again, I wish in the classroom, I wish I would've been more engaged and participating in some of the experiential learning opportunities that I'm sure were there that I didn't take advantage of and I wish I would have.
ANSAH: Do you have any particular class you liked?
BARSEMA: I loved the management classes. That's, again, where I thought that my leadership skills, I saw them beginning to bloom. was just learning about leadership, learning about management and for whatever reasons I had an affinity to Labor Law. I know a lot of students talk about that class today and they're like, "Oh gosh, the Labor Law class was so hard." I'm like, "I found it to be pretty easy." I just had an affinity for Labor Law. I was lucky, too, that when I came to NIU, I went right into the college of business as a junior. I wasn't taking all of the big lecture hall, English 101 or those classes that you have to take as a freshman or sophomore. I went right into my major classes because I came here as a transfer student from a community college. But, as I said at the beginning, it was a great college of business back then and it's an even greater college of business today.
ANSAH: Is there a particular reason why you like the management class?
BARSEMA: Again, my skillset and my leaning was always towards leadership. I think being a management major allowed me to learn and exercise my leadership abilities. I don't think I would've been very happy. Not that I wouldn't have been good at it, but I don't think I would've been happy if I was in a marketing job or an accounting job where I went to an office, I sat behind a desk all day and I made up marketing collateral, or I made up marketing slogans, or I did balance sheets, I did financial statements, I did income tax return. I don't think that would have been my calling. I got into sales. That was my first job out of college. It was sales. I loved it and I loved it. Everybody thought I was crazy to go into sales, my family included because. They were like, "You do realize you stutter. You do realize you have a speech impediment and you do realize in order to be a good salesperson you need to communicate." I said yes, but I've always been the type of person that if I was going to learn to swim, I was going to throw myself into the deep end of the pool because I was either going to learn to swim real quick or I was going to drown. I don't like drowning. I was going to learn to swim. So, if you're going to improve your speech and if you're going to improve your ability to communicate, become a salesperson because you're either going to get good at communicating or you're going to fail. I didn't want to fail being a salesperson. I really worked hard on my speaking and my ability to communicate and being in sales forced me to get good at it. I had to get good at it or I wouldn't have been a good salesperson.
- Synopsis: Speech ImpedimentKeywords: adversity; disability; National Stuttering Association; self-help classes; Speech and Hearing Department; word substitutionTranscript: ANSAH: How did you work around the speech impediment like you were talking about?
BARSEMA: Well, some of it I think was just age, just getting older. There's a lot of people who I know. I'm a member of the National Stuttering Association. I actually have been a keynote speaker at their national conference probably I think it was back in 2003 or 2004. I was the keynote at their national conference in Los Angeles. A lot of them outgrow it. A lot of us outgrow the stuttering. Again, it never leaves us, but it just gets a lot better. But I also took a lot of self-help classes. The National Stuttering Association, if there is anybody who's listening to this who does stutter, there's a lot of self-help materials through the national stuttering association. I encourage you to check them out. I also went to a therapist, and so I got some face to face help. And I got really good at word substitution. Stutterers are always looking ahead in what we're going to say to see what word we might not be able to say right now today, and we find a substitute for it. So I'm always word substituting. Just in the time that we've been speaking I probably have word substituted a hundred times, but that is just normal for me. Again, it goes back to what I said before, you can't have fear of failure because of a handicap or something that you don't do as well as somebody else does. Don't let that fear of failure stop you from trying. Now you may have to work hard to get better at it which I did, but it should never stop you from trying. Because again, you might have a natural skill and a natural affinity for something, but you'll never know it because you didn't try.
ANSAH: Did you take all these steps when you were a student or later when you came out of NIU?
BARSEMA: Most of them occurred after I left NIU. I started to take some of the self-help classes that I got through the National Stuttering Association. There were cassette tapes that would help you on your breathing and such when I was a senior. I would say most of my progress came in the year or two or three after I graduated.
ANSAH: Did NIU at the time not have a support system to help you with this particular stigma?
BARSEMA: That's a great question and I'm sure they did, but I just didn't know about it. I'm sure they did. Today, we have a great speech and hearing department within the College of Health and Human Sciences. I'm sure that we did back then as well, and I wish I would have taken advantage of it.
- Synopsis: Academic Life at NIUKeywords: Professor David Graff; Dean of the College of Business; Dr. Brown; counsellingTranscript: ANSAH: Was there a particular professor who inspired you as a student in NIU?
BARSEMA: My labor law professor for one, he was the one who told me, “You know in life you'll be paid for what you know, not how you say it.” He was always somebody. Then one of the Associate Deans who later went on to become the Dean of the College of Business, his name is David Graff. To this day, David is still a very dear friend of mine, but David when I was a student here was one of the Associate Deans who I met with from time to time for counseling. My labor law professor, Dr. Brown and then David Graff were very important to my success here.
- Synopsis: Social Issues at a Student at NIUKeywords: Civil Rights; Vietnam War; diversity; equality; people of colorTranscript: ANSAH: In your NIU days what were some social issues at the time on campus?
BARSEMA: We were going through the Vietnam War. Lots of political unrest relative to the Vietnam War and we were still going through Civil Rights issues back in the sixties and seventies, we still have them to today. But I would say the political unrest due to the Vietnam War and the political unrest due to Civil Rights issues were the two big political issues on the campus.
ANSAH: Did you take any particular interest in these issues?
BARSEMA: The Vietnam War, clearly I was in the lottery for the Vietnam War. I was in the last one that they call. So they did a lottery and depending on your birthday, you got a number. One to three hundred and sixty. And the last year of the lottery, my birthday was number two hundred and sixty. It was a big number and I never got called, so I wasn't drafted into the military. Clearly the Vietnam War was something that took a strong interest in. From a Civil Rights standpoint, I've always been an advocate of equality. I've always been an advocate of we're all equal. We should all have equal chance to do whatever it is we want to do in life, regardless of the color of your skin or where you come from or whether you were born in America or born outside of America--everybody should have an equal chance to do and be what they are going to be in life. I think that probably blossomed from the time when I was a student here on campus to see some of the inequities that went on for people of color and that they didn't have the same opportunities that I had. I always thought that that was wrong, and I still do today. I've carried that with me my entire life that regardless of the color of your skin or regardless of your place of birth you should have the same opportunities that everybody else has.
ANSAH: Was there any step you took as a student to resolve this particular challenge?
BARSEMA: I don't think from a Civil Rights standpoint, I think as an individual back then, it was just whenever the opportunity presented it for myself to work with or give an opportunity to a person of color or a person who made out or been born here in the United States, I tried to provide that opportunity. I tried to provide it in our fraternity to where we were recruiting people of color to be members of our fraternity and that we weren't an all-white fraternity. Being a part of that movement and being a part of giving opportunities to everybody was something that I've just always held with me, including when I was here on campus.
ANSAH: That's very interesting. Could you say more on how your fraternity included diversity in their activities from your position as a president at the time?
BARSEMA: I don't think you can set out to say, “We're going to go recruit a black person to be a part of our fraternity.” Because then you're not doing them a justice. You're not doing them service, because it’s like, “Wow, this was just a token.” I don't believe that that's right for the individual. I think that you say, “Look, here are the qualities that we're looking for in a person to join our fraternity and we're going to seek those qualities regardless of color of skin.” When we do get a person who is of color, we're going to make them feel comfortable in our house. We're going to embrace them. We're not going to make them feel like they're an outsider. I feel very strongly that you need to provide the right environment from a cultural standpoint. You need to provide the right environment for success for everybody, including people of color. You need to involve them because of their skill set and because of what they bring to you. It was always amazing when you had somebody who, again, had a different color of skin than yours when you brought them into your environment and what they contributed to you understanding more about the world and more about society, and more about just what the issues are that they're facing that you're not facing, because of the color of your skin and give you an appreciation for what you can do to help them. In turn, they wind up helping you become a better person.
- Synopsis: Career path after NIUKeywords: Silicon Valley; sales; values; business opportunitiesTranscript: ANSAH: What path did your life take after you graduated from NIU?
BARSEMA: I got into sales and when I was about twenty-five years old, I wrote a job description for myself at age forty-five. I said that by the time I was forty-five, I wanted to be a chief executive officer of a high technology company in Silicon Valley, California, which is San Jose, California and I wanted to do that by the time I was forty-five. At the time I was still an individual contributor. I wasn't even a manager yet. I was still a salesperson. I went and I talked to every chief executive or vice president or whatever, marketing, sales, engineering who would let me in their office and I had say, “I want to do what you're doing one day. What advice do you have for me?” Then I just listened to them. Through those interviews, I developed a career roadmap. What that roadmap said is that these are the experiences that I need to have on my resume, so that when I'm a forty-five year old somebody who's in a position to hire a chief executive officer for a technology company in Silicon Valley would look at my resume and say, "Yes, you're qualified." Now you may not get the job, but at least you're qualified. For example, one person said, "Dennis, if you want to be a chief executive, you need to at some point in time, run an international organization." If everything you do is domestic here in the United States, you're not going to have the breadth and the depth. At some point in time, you need to run a multinational organization, so I've put that on my career roadmap. Another person said, "If all you do is manage salespeople your entire career you're going to be pigeonholed as a great sales leader, but you don't have the breadth and the depth to be a chief executive. At some point in time, Dennis, you're going to have to manage more than just salespeople. You're going to have to manage an engineering organization, a marketing organization, and operations organization.” I've put all that on my career roadmap and I became a chief executive officer of a high technology company in Silicon Valley when I was forty-two. I beat my plan by three years. I don't think I ever would have gotten there if I didn't build that career roadmap. If I didn't build that roadmap to say, “Here's where I am today. Here's where I want to be. How am I going to get there?” Again, everybody, I talked to today, I always encourage them, “When you figure out what it is you want to do put your roadmap together on how are you going to get there? What does your resume need to look like in order for you to get that dream job that you want to have? And how are you going to build that resume? And have a plan. Now, are you going to do everything in a sequence that you put?” No, of course, not, right? Some things will be presented to you sooner than maybe you thought it was going to be presented to you. An opportunity will be presented to you sooner than you thought and maybe some things that you thought you might do in the next five years. You wind up not doing for another ten years. At the end of the day, you got to have all those things on your resume in order to do what it is you want to do so put that career roadmap together.
ANSAH: You hit your targets earlier than you expected. Did everything go according to plan?
BARSEMA: Never goes according to plan both from a business standpoint and from a personal standpoint. Life is never a straight line. Life has a lot of twists and turns, and ups and downs, and curves and such. Again, I always encourage folks to, “While you're putting your career roadmap together put your values roadmap together. What are your values in life?” I'm a very strong supporter of what is called value centered leadership. We lead by our values and so if you haven't written down your values, who are you? What are your priorities? What's important to you? I really encourage you to create your values. Because when life throws you a curveball it could come from death. It could come from sickness or illness. It could come from divorce. It could come from anything. When life has you flat on the ground with your face pushed into the mud how are you going to rise back up? How are you going to lift yourself back up? That's what your values will tell you, “This is who I am.” It's easy for us to do the right thing when things are going well in our life. We all tend to do the right thing when things are going well in our life. It's when things aren't going well in our life that we can tend to do things that maybe are a bit out of character for us. If you get to the point where things aren't going well in your life due to some unforeseen tragedy that might've happened, how are you going to react to it? How are you going to respond to it? That's what your values are going to tell you. If you don't know what your values are, if you haven't written your values down then how do you know if you've gotten way off track? How you're going to get back to the center? Life is never a straight line but if you have your values, if you have your career roadmap, at least you have a map to follow. If you have a map to follow, you eventually will get back on the right road.
ANSAH: Can you say a bit of some of the challenges you encountered?
BARSEMA: Sure. From a business standpoint, not every business opportunity that I went to was what I thought it was going to be. I had some great leaders in my career. I've some bad leaders in my career so an opportunity that I would go to that I thought was going to be a great opportunity for me and was going to give me great experiences and so forth some of them turned out not to. Even when you encounter something where it wasn't quite what you thought it was going to be you still have to find a way to make it successful for you. As always, try to teach people is that if you're fortunate enough to have a good leader then follow them and learn all you can from them, and they will make you a better leader. If you have a poor leader and if you have a bad leader, find a way to be successful in spite of them and that experience too will make you a better person. It will make you a better leader. Sometimes we learn as much from our negative role models as we do from the positive role models, so the good role models. Everybody that you encounter in life from a role model standpoint is going to play a role in making you who you are, the good role models and the bad role models. Sometimes we learn as much or more from the bad role models as we do from the good role models.
ANSAH: How did your education at NIU help you in the corporate world?
BARSEMA: So much of, I think what NIU has done for me has been in the classroom learning, the textbook learning that was all good and helped me. I think it was more the experiential learning that I had and the encouragement that I had from some of my professors to be me, to be willing to take a risk. Just from a character standpoint, Northern molded my character that's the best way I can describe it. Northern molded my character and that character, not that it hasn't been refined over the years it has, but it gave me the base from which I started that I've never lost. Northern made me into who I am today. It really did.
- Synopsis: Alumni relationship with NIUKeywords: Teaching; Adjunct instructor; social entrepreneurship; College of BusinessTranscript: ANSAH: How did you stay in touch with NIU after you graduated?
BARSEMA: To be honest with you, the first twenty years or so I really didn't. I think it was pretty normal. We were looked at back then as a regional school. You went there to get a great education and then you left, and you didn't really think about it, it's like, “Who thinks about their high school when they leave? Are we going back to our high school and getting involved in our high schools?” It was the same thing. Now that's different today. Now, you've got more of a collegial society today. Folks stay involved in the school. It keeps you involved with the alumni associations and such. My wife Stacy and I got back involved with NIU in 1999. I had taken the company public, so it became a publicly traded stock. I was the Chief Executive Officer and one day I got a letter from a shareholder of my company who made some money off of the stock of my company and she was writing to thank me for the money that she had made on the stock of my company and she said, "I see by the website that you're a graduate of NIU." She said, "I'm a professor at NIU." She said, "I don't know what your philanthropic intentions are and such." She said, “But if you ever have the inclination to be great to give back to NIU.” I went home that night and I took the letter and I showed it to my wife, and we said, “Yes, we probably should reach out to NIU.” That particular letter caused us to reach out to NIU. We got engaged with the NIU Foundation. They took it from there. We've had a wonderful 20-year relationship with NIU and resulting. Actually, the last company that I was involved in 2007, my wife and I, relocated from Northern California--from Silicon Valley--back to Chicago and I started teaching here at NIU. For ten years, I taught in the College of Business here at NIU and I developed a curriculum called social entrepreneurship. It’s entrepreneurship but focused on addressing social issues like hunger, poverty, access to clean water, access to education, and so forth. Today, we call it social responsibility. But today, a student can attain a certificate, they can minor in social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, where they can take it as an emphasis within the entrepreneurship major. That's pretty cool. I developed the first class in that curriculum in the fall of 2007. I taught in that curriculum. I developed three different classes and taught in that curriculum as a full-time adjunct instructor until the spring of '17 when I became a trustee of the University. When I became a trustee, unfortunately, as a trustee, I was not allowed to hold any appointed position in the University. I had to give up my teaching responsibilities, but I still guest lecturer a lot in the College of Business in the social entrepreneurship programs, which I actually am doing this afternoon. But when people asked me in my career, because I've had a long career and when they asked me, “What was the best thing you did in your career?” I always tell them, “Teaching.” Of all the things I've been blessed to be a part of in the business world, teaching is the best thing I've ever done. The 10 plus years I spent in the classroom here at NIU teaching social entrepreneurship were the best ten years of my career.
- Synopsis: Board of TrusteesKeywords: Dr. Lisa Freeman; Barsema Hall; College of Business; donor; Board of TrusteesTranscript: ANSAH: What did it feel like for NIU to honor your generosity by naming a major campus building after you?
BARSEMA: That was the result of a donation that my wife and I gave to the university. It was a wonderful opportunity because we were convinced that Northern--and this was in the College of Business, in particular--they had great programs in the business. The facility in order to attract the best students and attract the best faculty and so forth, the facility needed to be different. That was kind of the genesis of building Barsema Hall as the New College of Business. It was an honor and a joy to be a part of that project and one that we will always look at very fondly.
ANSAH: You're currently a member of NIU’s Board of Trustees. What motivated you to take up this position?
BARSEMA: I look at the trustee position and as the capstone of my career here at NIU, I've been a student. I've been an alumni. I've been a donor. I've been a faculty member, as an adjunct instructor, now, as a trustee that's the capstone of my career here. It's wonderful to be able to play at a level that affects the entire campus, the entire NIU community, not just a single college. We've got a tremendous administration, Dr. Lisa Freeman, our president today, tremendous president, and it's an honor and a joy to work with her. She has assembled a world-class leadership team here at NIU. We've got great students, great faculty, great staff. We're in a great community. Look at the library that you and I are in today. We have here today and in 2019, all of our pointers are pointing in the right direction, and NIU is on a really nice role right now. It's a lot of fun being a trustee. It's also a great responsibility. When you work with great people and you work for great people, like our students and faculty and staff, it's a really gratifying job.
ANSAH: How was the NIU you see today different from the NIU you attended as a student?
BARSEMA: Well, forty-something years later, just technology-wise it's much different today. Today, we live in a world of social media. We didn't have social media, social media was face-to-face communication back when I was in school. Today, I think just learning to use our phones and using social media in a productive way is very important. That's clearly a big change on campus. Our curriculum, clearly, we've added some world-class programs to our colleges. From a curriculum standpoint, clearly the face of the campus in terms of the buildings and such, we've added a lot of new faces to the campus. It's a much more diverse campus today. When you look at diversity back in the seventies versus diversity that we have today it's much different. We have a much more diverse campus. To me, one of the greatest strengths of NIU is our diversity, the diversity of our students, the diversity of our faculty, the diversity of our administration. Diversity is our strength. There's been tremendous changes, but they've all been very positive.
ANSAH: In your current position as a board member, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
BARSEMA: I would have to say the hiring of Dr. Lisa Freeman, our president. We have a great president. I'm very proud of the fact that she was chosen by the Board of Trustees, while I was on the board that was something I was very proud to be a part of. Not only is she a great leader and a great president, she is our first female president and the thirteenth president of our university. To be a part of the hiring of Dr. Freeman to me was a great honor.
ANSAH: What advice would you give to income in NIU students?
BARSEMA: Get involved. We have a wonderful campus. There are so many opportunities to get involved and to improve yourself not only in the classroom but outside the classroom. Take advantage of every experiential learning opportunity that's out there. Be a part of every project or team project that you can be a part of. Get really good at saying, no, because you're going to be asked to do so many things on campus. Understand what your priorities are. Save your yeses for your priorities, which begin with academics but just be involved on this campus and make a difference not only in the campus but in yourself.
ANSAH: Past and future NIU students would appreciate your willingness to participate in this project. Is that anything you to want this project, particularly acknowledge?
BARSEMA: I think, just acknowledge again, the great history that this university has, the great people that have come before us, and the great people that are going to come after us. To know that we played a role and we will continue to play a role for a period of time, but this is an institution and an institution carries on in perpetuity. Understand what role you're going to play in NIU not just while you're a student here on campus, but even once you leave campus and you're now an alumnus stay involved. Stay involved in what we're doing here at NIU and find ways to continue to make NIU a better university.
ANSAH: Thank you very much. Do you have any concluding remarks? Anything you would like to add?
BARSEMA: Thank you for the opportunity and go Huskies.
ANSAH: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you.
BARSEMA: Thank you very much.