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Rankins Continue Long History of Generosity to Illinois Computer Science

6/11/2018 1:53:28 PM David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

Sandra and John Rankin have funded the Sandra L. and John P. Rankin Engineering Scholarship since 2012.
Sandra and John Rankin have funded the Sandra L. and John P. Rankin Engineering Scholarship since 2012.

Sandra Rankin grew up in a time and place where she knew a college education was both attainable and expected.

The Illinois Computer Science graduate’s father, Robert Nesheim, was head of the University of Illinois’ Department of Animal Sciences. A first-generation American, he and his siblings all had been able to pay their own way through school, working as they studied.

And that was still possible in the early 1970s, when Rankin’s husband, John, paid his way through the university while working part time.

“I worked for Champaign National Bank -- not making a huge amount of money, but it paid for my entire college education,” said John Rankin (BS Math & CS `72).

“When we started realizing that kids couldn’t do that anymore, well, we want other people to have the same advantage we had, because we got a heck of a good education here,” said Sandra Rankin (BS CS `74).

That desire has motivated the couple’s philanthropy, including a series of gifts to support scholarships, generosity that is ongoing.

Sandra Rankin (center) with scholarship recipients Madeline Psenka (BS CS '17, left) and Shilpa Subrahmanyam (BS CS '16, MS '17, right) at the 2013 WCS Student and Alumni Dinner.
Sandra Rankin (center) with scholarship recipients Madeline Psenka (BS CS '17, left) and Shilpa Subrahmanyam (BS CS '16, MS '17, right) at the 2013 WCS Student and Alumni Dinner.

The Rankins, both of whom had long, successful careers at IBM, have funded the Sandra L. and John P. Rankin Engineering Scholarship since 2012. The scholarship is intended to help attract women from Illinois who are interested in studying CS, and retain them once they enroll at the university.   

On a visit to campus this spring, they met with the scholarship’s latest recipient, Grace Domel, and came away impressed not only by the student their generosity is helping open doors for, but how the doors being opened reflect the forward momentum of Illinois Computer Science.

Domel, who grew up in Batavia in the Chicago suburbs, just completed her freshman year. As the Rankins learned, she hopes to one day work at the intersection of CS and medicine.

“She’s interested a lot in medicine, neurology, mapping the brain, all that kind of stuff,” Sandra Rankin said. “And so she’s thinking about how does she combine those two. She wants to get into a medical field where you can help solve problems by applying computer science principals. ”

That’s the sort of vision behind Illinois Computer Science’s new CS + X degrees, blended-degree programs that meld computer science with a growing list of other disciplines such as linguistics, crop science, and music.

The direction and growth of the CS + X programs impressed the Rankins, whose careers coincided with the rise and growing influence of CS.

“I think it makes all kinds of sense,” Sandra Rankin said. “Certainly, you’ve got a whole set of (potential degrees) that are going to come just from the data science, data analysis, the big-data kind of side.”

Sandra Rankin was part of the University of Illinois’ first-ever class of undergraduate CS students, and went to work at a time when relatively few women were working as engineers. But IBM, driven by its need for programmers, was an exception.

“Programming was exploding, and nobody knew how to do it. So they had been smart enough to figure out an aptitude test, and they didn’t care who you were -- they were going to bring you in,” Rankin said, explaining that the new programmers included mathematicians, musicians, social workers and people from any number of other backgrounds. “And because it was a brand-new field, there was no precedent to overcome. There was no old-boys network kind of thing you had to overcome.”

“Right from the get go, we were almost 30 percent women,” she said.

Rankin went on to become vice president of Mainframe, Software, and Firmware Development.

John Rankin spent much of his career at IBM doing performance analysis work – “trying to figure out where the bottlenecks were, how to make everything run faster.”

Sandra Rankins’ generosity isn’t limited to her alma mater.

For several years she ran a nonprofit near their home in Connecticut to provide business and technical services to other local nonprofit agencies, until all those services became available for little or no money online.

“I couldn’t compete,” she said with amusement.