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NIU aims to bolster college's commitment to Rockford region

Rena Cotsones, Northern Illinois University’s longtime executive director of community relations, has a new and exclusive focus: Rockford.

Thanks to a recent appointment made by President John Peters, who calls the Forest City a place with a “unique set of challenges and opportunities,” Cotsones is now assistant vice president for regional engagement/Rockford.

Cotsones moves from the Office of Community Relations to the Division of Administration and University Outreach, under the direction of Vice President Anne Kaplan.

“Rena will serve as the university’s Rockford-based champion for the engagement of NIU in the region. I am confident Rena’s strong regional network, leadership ability and collaborative manner will make her successful in this new role,” Peters wrote in a memo to top university administrators.

“I know that many colleges are actively engaged in the Rockford area,” the president continued, “and I encourage (them) to work closely with Rena to ensure that we have a full understanding of not only the wide range of existing projects and activities, but opportunities for new ones as well.”

“I’m excited to be a part of  NIU’s continuing commitment to the region,” said Cotsones, who has called the Rock River Valley home since the mid-1980s, when she moved there after college to take a reporting job at WIFR-Channel 23 television.

“The NIU-Rockford outreach center and the Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic are two tangible signs of NIU’s investment and commitment to the Rockford area, and there are countless projects from most of our colleges going on in the community,” she added. “I look forward to ensuring the university has a more comprehensive understanding of our existing projects, then building on those to enhance NIU’s engagement in the Rockford community.”

Peters has charged Cotsones and Kaplan to create a comprehensive engagement strategy for Rockford, a blue-collar city still seeking its place in the modern marketplace.

Times are tough everywhere, but nowhere more in Illinois than in Rockford, which has registered the state’s highest unemployment rate for 18 consecutive months. The July number stands at 15.1 percent, a point higher than Rockford’s June figure.

Only 20 percent of Rockford residents age 25 and older hold bachelor’s degrees or higher. The median household income is less than $39,000.

Fortunately, Cotsones brings a rich understanding of Rockford’s economy to the table.

She worked as executive vice president of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce before coming to NIU, and has remained active with the chamber as well as the Rockford Area Economic Development Council and the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, where she is the immediate past chair.

“NIU’s leadership in the region has been clear for a long time. Several years ago, NIU joined with Rock Valley College, Rockford College and the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford to form HEARRR – the Higher Education Alliance of the Rock River Region, and we continue to work with these institutions and other partners to help the region position itself for success in the new economy,” Cotsones said.

“I personally have been involved for two decades in this region,” she said, “and I feel fortunate that I will have the opportunity to be even more substantively involved in this new role.”

Janyce Fadden, president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council and an NIU alumna, said the city will welcome NIU’s intensified attention and commitment.

“I’m thrilled about the decision. It gives us an opportunity to have a central person to work with – to identify as NIU – and to have NIU penetrate further and bring more of its wonderful assets up here to help our region. We’ll move even faster because of the selection of Rena and through the reputation she’s built in the Rockford marketplace,” Fadden said.

“The timing is perfect. We’re a very distressed region,” Fadden added, mentioning the July unemployment statistics. “Higher education completion is one of our biggest challenges to overcome in the market. For NIU to step up in times like these and say, ‘We’re making an investment in Rockford,’ is very commendable.”

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