On campus in October for the Illinois Computer Science Celebration of Excellence Student Awards Ceremony, Debra and Ira Cohen had a chance to see their own generosity at work.
Ira Cohen (BS CS ’80) is an Illinois CS graduate and he and Debra Cohen have long donated – funding three scholarships and a fellowship -- to help students finance the kind of education that he received, and give them the ability to take full advantage of the department and the university around them. The couple regularly enjoy the chance to meet with the students they help, and see how that help can transform those students and their trajectories.
“These kids become mentors to other students,” Ira Cohen said. “That’s really what our goal is: not just set somebody up for life but to allow them to not work 40 hours while they’re going to school.”
The Cohens said they see themselves as part of a living and, they hope, growing cycle – people who gain from and then give back to the university and the Department of Computer Science.
“Our hope going forward is that those people who have received the awards will hopefully will look back at their time at the university and say, ‘Hey, I was given an opportunity, let me do the same thing.’ Pay it forward,” Debra Cohen said.
The Cohens have been doing just that for years.
In 2005 they established the Ira & Debra Cohen Graduate Fellowship in Computer Science, primarily supporting graduate research in bioinformatics.
Three years later, the Sarah and Louis Cohen Undergraduate Scholarship was first awarded. It was established to honor Ira Cohen’s grandparents.
And the next year, 2009, the Cohens added the William and Ruth Witt Scholarship in honor of Debra Cohen’s parents.
The Cohens also served on the Advisory Board when the Engineering Visionary Scholarship Initiative was launched.
In 2011, Ira Cohen was recognized among the department’s Alumni Award winners, taking home the Distinguished Service Award.
“If we can provide impact, that’s the best thing,” Debra Cohen said.
The Cohens are also regulars on campus, holding season tickets for both football and basketball and supporting the golf program.
Their ties to the university run deep, and started, for Ira, almost the moment he graduated from high school in Wilmette in the Chicago suburbs.
“About 37 of my high school class wound up going to Illinois,” he said, as well as a sister and cousin who were already on campus when he enrolled.
Once at Illinois Computer Science, Cohen found himself immersed in CS in ways he couldn’t have imagined, including exposure to legendary faculty like numerical analysis pioneer Bill Gear.
Before that, “I had a programmable calculator -- that was my computer experience,” Cohen said. “My first class was taught by Bill Gear. I still have the textbook.”
Eventually Cohen went on to cofound Advanced Systems Concepts, in Schaumburg, Illinois, and to meet Debra.
She graduated from Robert Morris University, but says she, too, found a home at Illinois.
“I have a lot of orange and blue in my wardrobe,” she said. “I think a lot of it is that everybody has welcomed me.”
For Ira Cohen, a driving factor remains the challenging, dynamic environment he found around him as an Illinois CS student.
“MOSAIC, I got exposed to email for the first time,” he said, remembering the revolution that was happening around him at the time. “It was kind of nice be networked into that and be exposed to the innovation that was going on.”
“This revolution has happened in the last 30-plus years,” he added, “and a lot of it came out of Illinois.”