CHAMPAIGN — When she started classes at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1996, Carolyn Blackwell wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. So, she went with what she knew.
“My dad was an accountant and my mom was a chemistry professor, and I hated science,” Blackwell said. “I kind of just decided to go with accounting and see what happened, and it turned out I was pretty decent with numbers.”
Blackwell took a liking to accounting, and she also grew fond of the Champaign-Urbana community. So she stayed, working as an accountant at Busey Bank before moving into the campus real-estate sector as an accountant for Campus Acquisitions and Core Spaces. This summer, she began working as the senior accountant at Champaign Asphalt.
All the while, one aspect of the job has kept her attention.
“There’s some kind of satisfaction with coming across a problem that you can’t initially figure out,” she said. “And when you do, there’s a great satisfaction in that.”
Her ability to solve problems and handle large financial numbers will come in handy in her new role. Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed her to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.
She was initially approached by state Sen. Paul Faraci, D-Champaign, a longtime friend, to gauge her interest. Faraci thought it was important to have a member of the local community on the board, according to Blackwell, who will be its lone Champaign-Urbana resident.
“It was a little bit unexpected, and I was like, ‘I’m not sure,’” she said. “But as we talked about it and figured out that there was something that I could bring, it didn’t seem so crazy.
“I think there are a lot of decisions as far as budget. We always want to keep education affordable for everybody who wants a college education, so keeping that in mind when looking at the budget, I think I could add some value there.”
Two months after that conversation, which preceded her application for the position, she was officially appointed.
It isn’t just Blackwell’s financial acumen and local residence that make her a good fit, according to those who know her.
“She was always very reliable,” said Tracy Doubet, who has stayed friends with Blackwell after working with her at Busey. “We did similar jobs, but we had two different approaches. I’m a really fast talker, fast thinker, and when someone asks me a question, I start rattling off answers until I come across the right one. Carolyn’s more thoughtful in her responses. She was always like, ‘Well, let me do some research and get back to you.’
“Just being an accountant in general, there are a lot of decisions to be made just to make sure you’re following all of the rules and making sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, and she was always very good at that.”
Growing up in Champaign, Joe Lamb, president of Champaign Asphalt, said he viewed an appointment to the UI Board of Trustees as one of the highest honors one could be bestowed. After just four months of working with Blackwell, he is sure she’s worthy of that honor.
“We’re a very tight family-owned business, and she’s just been an unbelievable addition,” Lamb said. “When you sit back and think about all of the traits that we’re so fond of about her, it’s kind of what you’d want to see in a trustee. It’s someone who’s thoughtful, who’s considerate, who is going to listen, and that’s a rare commodity these days.”
The importance of education was instilled in Blackwell from an early age. Her parents, Paul and Agnes Yoo, who both immigrated from South Korea to attend college, made sure of that.
Her parents met when they both worked for Abbott Laboratories. When their daughter was a few months old, the family moved to Jamaica for her parents’ job at Abbott. They moved back after a few years and settled in Waukegan before moving to Kenosha, Wis., where Paul Yoo worked as chief financial officer of Jockey International.
“For my parents, education was always number one for them, very important,” Blackwell said. “They came over to this country because they were looking for something better, and they wanted to make sure their kids had as many opportunities as possible, and they believed that all started with education. That’s something that they always instilled in us.”
Now, she’ll be using her skills as an accountant and her knowledge as a local community member to protect the educational interests of tens of thousands of students.
“I think the relationship between the university and the community is very important,” she said. “It’s important for me to protect the interests of the students and the faculty and the staff as best as I can and bring my local perspective to the table.”