When an email popped into Cordelia Geiken’s inbox previewing the words “2023 Chancellor’s Staff Excellence Awards” and “Notification,” Cordelia allegedly froze in surprise.
The Chancellor’s Staff Excellence Award (CSEA) is a yearly recognition for 16 university staff demonstrating excellence in work performance, initiative, creativity, self-improvement and the recognition and support of others. Faculty, staff, or students may nominate an employee that they see deserving of this award, and a committee will select the 16 finalists to recommend to the Chancellor.
One of the recently announced sixteen award recipients from departments across the university this year is Technology Services’s Cordelia Geiken.
Cordelia Geiken is the Manager of two different teams at Tech Services: Quality Assurance/Accessibility & Assessment and Web Hosting. Some of her teams’ responsibilities include running cPanel, the retiring Illinois Wiki Service, and managing the http://publish.illinois.edu (PIE), a service used university-wide to create Illinois-branded websites. Outside of these teams, Cordelia is heavily involved in many other groups on campus, one of which is the Web Implementation Guidelines Group (WIGG), serving as the co-chair of the Steering Committee. WIGG is a cross-disciplinary team made up of faculty and staff from marketing, communications, and technology staff. Cordelia has co-led the group to create a new set of resources to help university groups and departments maintain websites that stay on-brand and simplifies the website building experience.
Besides co-founding and co-chairing WIGG, Cordelia is also well-known as a campus advocate for accessibility and inclusion, leaving a visible impact on the communities around her. She is an active member as one of two Illinois representatives in the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) Women in IT Community, advocating for the advancement of women in IT across the Big Ten.
She is also on the leadership team for Illinois’s Women in Technology (WIT), a group open to all of campus (not just women or women in IT) that runs a yearly mentorship program, in which participants can volunteer to be mentors, mentees, or peer coaches. WIT also holds presentations, forum discussions, and workshops including topics like resume-writing, negotiating your salary, and elevating somebody else’s voice when they are not being heard. WIT also holds a monthly social hour.
Cordelia explains the importance of WIT as a community, but also as professional development. “We purposefully schedule these events outside of the lunch hour. We believe that these topics are important professional development for all, something to take seriously. It isn’t just something to fit into our lunch break.”
But Cordelia’s advocacy impact has reached beyond WIT. A few years ago, Cordelia addressed the IT Council, a collective of IT Professionals across the university that advise on IT direction, about creating an opportunity to increase diversity. She noticed that not many people were familiar with IT Council or the impact it has on the university. Cordelia invited the IT Council to present at a WIT event to increase awareness, promote participation, and increase representation.
“It was amazing,” Cordelia says about the meeting, “many women in WIT were asking questions about what IT Council does, genuinely interested yet not aware of what IT Council was before the talk. At the same time, IT Council recognized a need to institute a change in how to solicit participation in the group. They suggested a new process: to send out a call for nominations, after which people can now nominate themselves. This has resulted in major changes in representation in leadership roles on campus. That’s something I’m really proud of and was extremely excited to see happen.”
A Chat with Cordelia
How have you seen growth in the role of women in tech from when you started on campus to now?
“I started on this campus over thirty years ago and became the first person to have the title Webmaster at Illinois. Since then, the number of women in tech has grown a lot, and the experiences of these women have improved a lot. It went from me being the only woman on my team to having a team made up of mostly women. I’m no longer the only woman at the table, nor the only non-white person at the table. That’s amazing to see.
I also help teach the IT Leadership workshop, and one of the exercises we do asks some of the deeper questions. We ask questions like ‘Have you ever felt discriminated against because of your gender?’ And if somebody has, they have to step across a line on the floor of the room. It’s been incredible to see fewer and fewer women cross the room as a ‘yes’ for that exercise. Most women my age have felt the discrimination at some point, but for people entering the field now—maybe not so much.
One of the coolest parts of my nomination for the CSEA award is that my nomination and all three letters of recommendation came from women in technology. When I started my career almost thirty years ago, it would have been impossible to find that many women on this campus who could have done that.”
Amidst all of your involvement in campus groups and the impact you’re making, what is your favorite thing about your work?
“My favorite thing about my work is definitely the people. I have the best people on my teams, and I work for some of the best people. There are so many incredibly talented, caring, kind, genuine people involved in all of these efforts. It’s the best to get to go to work with people I genuinely like and also care about, people who support me as well.”
Anything else you’d like to say?
“A lot of work went into writing the recommendation letters that got me nominated for this award. And I would like to say that all that hard work was totally worth it—it feels incredible. We need to do more of this. We need to be nominating people and putting them forward for these kinds of awards. Not just for these campus-level ones, but also for any award. It’s also important to give credit to people for the little things: writing a note and sending it to somebody’s supervisor when you have a great interaction with them. Sending support to somebody when things go well for them. We’re great at complaining, but not about offering support and lifting others up. It’s so important to credit them when people are doing well.
Take the time to nominate people for stuff, give them credit, show them appreciation, because it’s really impactful, and very powerful. It’s made me feel extremely appreciated, but mostly humble. To see these incredible people write these things about you is most of all incredibly humbling.”