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Sunshine State of mind for NIU students

Northern Illinois University seniors (from left), Nicole Rutan and Steavy Mikrut get help loading their luggage Sunday from Bus Operator Rhonda Dukes.
Northern Illinois University seniors (from left), Nicole Rutan and Steavy Mikrut get help loading their luggage Sunday from Bus Operator Rhonda Dukes.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University students brimmed with excitement as they waited to board buses bound for Miami.

In the words of many of the 1,300 students that filed through the Convocation Center on Sunday, seeing the Huskies play at the Orange Bowl for an affordable rate is too tough to pass up.

"I am graduating in May," said Julie Rodriguez, a family and child studies major. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for NIU. I want to come and cheer and support the Huskies."

Rodriguez described the trip as being "one last hurrah" before she starts her full-time job in May as an assistant manager at a Kohl's store.

University officials organized a fan bus package for students days after it was announced NIU will face off against the Florida State Seminoles at the Orange Bowl on Tuesday. The fan bus package includes travel to and from Miami, two nights in a hotel, travel between the hotel and game and some meals.

On the first day NIU made the $150 travel package available, the first 500 seats sold out in nine minutes.

For students such as Tom Helms, a senior computer science major, the circumstances added up. As he waited in line to check in with his friends, Helms said he was pumped for the trip.

"One-hundred fifty dollars to go to Miami for New Year's Eve and watch the Huskies win a BCS bowl?" Helms said. "You can't beat it."

With Jordan Lynch – whom he described as the "best quarterback in the nation" – and a great offensive line, Helms confidently predicted a Huskie victory.

For Morgan Ellena, a freshman prelaw major, going to Miami is a little more personal. She said she's friends with a number of the players on the football team, and she wanted to show her support.

"You got to go support," Ellena said. "And it's Miami for New Year's."

Ellena said she knows the team's practices have gone well, and the players are excited for the game.

The students are not traveling alone; 50 NIU staff members, plus more in the Miami area, are accompanying them. As the assistant director of NIU's Student Involvement and Leadership Development office, Dain Gotto said he is one of the lead trip advisers.

Gotto said 26 buses in four different waves will travel to seven hotels in Miami. He and other staffers did their best to pair students with the people they wanted as roommates.

"It's a lot to manage," Gotto said. "We only had four weeks to plan this entire trip so we had to scramble to find the hotel rooms, scramble to find buses. But the university came together and said we wanted to offer this opportunity to as many students as possible."

Once they are in Miami, students are left to their own devices. Gotto said the staffers will help students in any way they can.

But the trip advisers also can't escape the excitement.

"This is one of the most exciting trips I've ever been apart of," Gotto said.

In anticipation of warm weather, a number of students brought shorts and swimsuits. Rodriguez said she is not bringing a winter jacket, adding that she hopes to get a tan.

"I looked it up. Eighty, 75, 70 – you can't be too depressed about that," Helms said.

Gotto said NIU reached out to other universities to see how they planned for similar trips. To his surprise, other universities do not organize trips as large as what NIU has planned, he said.

"No other institution does something like this for their students," said Gotto, adding that other schools allow students to travel with their alumni association. "That's not what NIU is about, and I think that's what makes this university special."

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