Three months after his 1984 graduation from Hononegah High School, Steve Builta arrived at NIU with plans to become a school psychologist.
Even though he had enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where he eventually would earn a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a certificate in Secondary Education, his introduction to the College of Education came on Day One.
Builta’s Douglas Hall R.A. led a guided tour that included priceless advice: the best cold-weather shortcuts through buildings. Leading that roster was Gabel Hall.
“One of my first memories of campus is looking down that long hallway that ends at Margee Myles’ office,” he says. “It’s kind of an ironic thing that I ended up here.”
Thirty-five years later, the College of Education’s director of Technology Innovation and Learning Services is leaving NIU.
He begins a new career April 16 as a staff development specialist with the Dixon office of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, putting to work his many years as chief of the volunteer fire department in Hillcrest and on the staff of the Illinois Fire Service Institute.
“It’s largely a training job,” Builta says. “There is curriculum that the Federal Emergency Management Agency puts out that fire departments, police departments and local governments need to take as a part of their disaster response plans. I’ll be delivering that.”
Responsibilities also include the development, operation and evaluation of full-scale training exercises.
“A local community might say, ‘We’re very concerned about the hazards of trains running through our town,’ so they might do an exercise with the schools and the hospitals. You actually bring all those players in,” he says. “That’s a key piece of what I’ll be doing.”
Builta also will participate in actual disaster responses.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up on the Mississippi River sometime this spring,” he says. “I won’t be throwing sandbags but helping to coordinate the efforts of the people doing that work.”
When the IEMA job offer came through a connection made during his own participation in Ogle County EMA activities, it was too good to pass up “for two reasons.”
“First, it goes into my fire emergency response. I’ve been fascinated for years by how we deal with a lot of risk management – how serious is this problem, how we mitigate the risk and how we make sure it doesn’t happen to us,” he says.
“Second, I get back to teaching,” he adds. “The reason I got into computer technology was that my first gig was in teaching computer technology. This is a different kind of training, but I’m looking forward to getting back to teaching.”
Builta started his career as a software trainer when he found himself “unemployable” after completing his bachelor’s degree in 1988.
“I really wanted to teach high school, but there were no jobs,” he says. “I wasn’t certified to teach history. I couldn’t coach. I started looking for training jobs – I figured, ‘That’s close to teaching’ – and that’s how I got into the computer world.”
He’d taken some computer classes at Hononegah simply because they were available in place of math. “They were interesting, but I never thought it’s what I would do for this number of years,” he says.
While working as a software trainer in Rockford, and taking courses toward his master’s degree in Instructional Technology, Builta got a call from one of his professors. “He said, ‘Hey, we have an instructor who can’t teach LEIT 429’ – which was the basic computer skills course – ‘Would you teach this class?’ I thought about it for 15 seconds and said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to get back a little of the money I’ve been giving you as a student.’ ”
Teaching as an adjunct instructor led to his hiring for a technology job in the Learning Center that grew into his current role overseeing all computers in the college.
“I walked into my office on the first day, and there was what was going to be the college’s web server sitting on the floor,” he says. “They said, ‘Build it and make it work.’ ”
Much has changed in the quarter-century since then.
“At the time, we were still talking about getting people their very first computers. Now people can’t live without them,” he says. “And the kinds of questions have evolved over the years. People are asking more sophisticated questions because they’ve been using the software for so many years.”
Some of those questions are asked at the Tech Oasis, which Builta created after conversations with former Associate Dean Jeff Hecht.
“Jeff and I were talking in his office, and we continued on to Pita Pete’s for lunch, and I drew this up on a napkin,” he says. “Jeff was really interested in the whole mobile computing thing, and he saw there was a need to give people a different place to get some help.”
Visitors are welcome to walk up with questions about their mobile devices rather than needs for repairs. “People thought they were bothering us, but we were always happy to help,” he says. “Down in the Oasis, people can ask questions, get some help and use our computers when they think they can do it on their own but don’t want us too far away.”
Educator-licensure students, meanwhile, seek technical assistance from the Oasis with the video portions of their edTPA submissions.
Builta’s legacy also includes the college-wide rollout of LiveText, which provides students a mechanism for submitting assignments and gives faculty a tool to not only evaluate and score the work but also to collect data and evaluate their programs.
“My primary focus for three years was dealing with LiveText and how to make it work. It was a tough sell initially, but we were just at the time of really starting to get into standards-aligned curriculum as higher education itself was going through the same thing,” he says. “That was really the point where I started moving out of being a day-to-day technician and being involved in special projects.”
One of those additional projects put Builta in charge of the Blackwell Museum “just as a function of being responsible for part of the Learning Center. I don’t know a heck of a lot about museums, but I learned a lot in the last couple years.”
His time at NIU also is marked by service to the Supportive Professional Staff Council, which he led as president to complete the term of Deb Haliczer after her retirement from the university. Builta also received the SPS Service Award in 2017.
As he now prepares to leave NIU himself – and to turn his car right toward Dixon rather than left toward DeKalb – he is consciously noticing the “last times” that he will visit various offices, chat with people or even shop or eat near Graham and Gabel halls.
“I will miss the variety. I used to kid people that I didn’t know what I was going to do from day to day, and that’s still the truth. I don’t know what’s going to break, or what’s going to be the emergent issue of the day,” he says.
“But, largely, it’s the people I will miss. I’ve built some great friendships,” he adds. “I’ve been here since ’84, and it’s going to be weird not being here.”