Are You Ready to Become a Student Union in the World?

Crediting others for pushing her to volunteer, noting the importance of curiosity in her life experiences, and recognizing her family, peers, and the other women she has worked with in the field of student affairs, University of Illinois–Springfield Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs  Ann Comerford began her new role as the 2024–25 president of ACUI with an address at the Closing Banquet during the ACUI 2024 Annual Conference in Denver.

“Over the past 12 months, I’ve given this speech a lot of thought,” she said after receiving the president’s gavel from outgoing president Neela Patel. “I don’t want to overstate its importance, as it’s just one aspect of this role, however, how often do we get the chance to address a room full of peers?”

Comerford quickly reflected on how volunteering has served as a much-needed outlet when work on a college campus became overwhelming. “But truth be told, I initially got involved because someone asked me to. They saw something in me and nudged me in the right direction,” she said. “But I like to think it was the potential they saw. The potential I see for everyone in this room—the potential to lead, serve, learn, and grow. I wasn’t always ready or fully prepared for these volunteer experiences, but I dove in anyway.”

A longtime ACUI volunteer, having served as former Region 11 director, member of the 2018 Annual Conference Planning Team, and as a member of the Education Council and Board of Trustees, Comerford admitted that curiosity had always been a guiding force in her career and throughout her life. It led her to volunteer in El Salvador, to spend time as a Buddhist monk in-training in South Korea, to compete in mini-triathlons, and to join a gourmet cooking club.

“Most of the time my curiosity leads me to answer more ‘whys’ and leads me to the next idea or helpful bit of information in my life and work,” she said. “It is what I have tried to instill in the students and staff I work with and for. Curiosity fuels my passion for learning and exploration, even if it occasionally leads to roller coaster moments of uncertainty.”

“In today’s world, where questioning and critical thinking are often stifled, nurturing curiosity is more important than ever,” Comerford said. “Our campuses should be havens for debate, diversity, and celebration. If we can’t be our authentic selves in the college environment, then what are we doing? How do I—we—support our colleagues and students who are not able to work and live our purpose fully, authentically? I don’t know. I really don’t. But I am looking inward on what is in my ability to impact, support, and influence.”

Comerford also shared a mentor’s suggestion to consider oneself a “student union in the world.” 

“That simple statement really blew my mind. Be a student union in the world. What does that mean? How did he do that?” Comerford said, quoting William Brattain, director of the student union at Western Illinois University for over 25 years. “I think he did this by encouraging students and staff to seek out a variety of people to connect with (not wait for those people to come to us—but seek them out), take time to look at art, listen to music, pause, recreate, debate, and laugh. With all the other challenges in our work, in the world, and in our own lives, becoming living breathing student unions might help us create a better world.”

Comerford continued: “It is exciting to think of a union being more than bricks and mortar. We already know the role of the college union is more than a building. But to consider it being a way to live; it’s exciting.”

Comerford earned an undergraduate degree from Quincy College, then a master’s degree in higher education administration from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. She was director of the university union at Western Illinois before becoming executive director of the student union at Southern Illinois–Carbondale.

In closing, while Comerford admitted not being one for “lofty vision statements,” she expressed excitement toward ACUI’s new vision statement: To advance campus community to positively change the world.

“This one excites me. It speaks to the transformative power of community and our role in shaping a better world,” she said. “We are community builders, and our work is to build community, remind people the importance of community—how it can lift people up in struggles, protects and cares for their most vulnerable. Community can change the world. Please share with our students and campuses the power of community and why it can transform people, spaces, lives, and futures. In short: be a student union in the world.”

Watch the full video here:



  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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