Adoptee. Musician. Journalist. Organizer. Minister. Teacher. Counselor. Professor.
But of all the identities Scott Wickman has lain claim to – and there are many more – he clings to “advocate” most.
Fellow graduates in the Waukegan High School Class of 1982 voted Wickman as “ ‘most radical’ because I was into protesting and politics. That has kind of come full circle now with Black Lives Matter and the virus.”
The title was well-earned by the son of James and Linda Wickman.
“I was editor of my high school newspaper,” says Wickman, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education who will retire Aug. 30.
“We had a big controversy in that we wrote satire and humor, and we were critical of our administration, and so the journalism teacher who had been doing the newspaper for 25 years was released of that responsibility and went from teaching journalism to teaching freshman remedial English,” he adds. “That got international news coverage.”
He brought that fire to NIU, where he majored in journalism, minored in music, marched against U.S. involvement in Central America and even traveled to Washington, D.C. with the Student Association to amplify his disgust.
Journalism was an obvious program, given Wickman’s receipt of the “Outstanding Illinois High School Journalist” scholarship and his plans to become a foreign correspondent. Music, meanwhile, reflected his love for playing guitar in garage bands.
Yet “at some point” during his sophomore year in DeKalb, Wickman decided he needed a backup plan. He’d taken some Spanish in high school, so he aced the placement exam and enrolled in Spanish 102.
“My professor was Bill Harrison,” Wickman says. “He was phenomenal. His teaching style became a model for what I still use today with humor and engagement. He had these little memory tricks he would teach us, and I did so well that I picked up Spanish as a second major.”
Even more importantly, he earned his licensure in secondary education before his 1987 commencement in the Chick Evans Field House.
“That little juncture in time really changed my life,” he says. “After I graduated, I was applying for journalism jobs, but they were few and far between and not very well-paying. But for high school Spanish teachers, there was a huge shortage – and I was getting phone calls constantly for that. I accepted one of those.”
It took Wickman to tiny Robinson, Ill. “I had a romantic notion to get away and live in southern Illinois,” he says, “and recreate who I was.”
For four years, he taught Spanish, growing the program from four, small classes when he arrived to eight by the time he left.
“Spanish became really popular. I gave up my planning period to teach additional classes,” he says. “We had 400, 450 kids in the high school, and over 200 students in Spanish Club. For the yearbook photograph, we had to go sit on the bleachers to get all of us in the picture.”
Teaching in Robinson also rekindled an old interest in psychology.
“Being a Spanish teacher in a small town, and having a big personality, I got a lot of attention,” Wickman says. “Before school, after school, lunch time – the kids were always hanging out in my room and talking about what was going on in their lives. As involved as I was in teaching Spanish, I knew what I wanted to get involved with was counseling.”
He enrolled at Eastern Illinois University to earn a master’s degree in School Counseling in 1991 and, he would realize, an unexpected passion.
“I loved graduate school,” he says. “I loved it so much that I turned it into a way of life. I went from my master’s program into my doctoral program at SIU-Carbondale. I also had a fellowship for two years of my doctoral program, which was very formative.”
During his Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision program, which occupied the rest of his “favorite decade,” he began working as a counselor for Southern Illinois Regional Social Services.
That included counseling clients with severe and persistent mental illness, including bipolar and schizophrenia, and with SIU classmate and current Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment Associate Professor Cynthia Campbell, co-facilitating a support group of male perpetrators arrested for domestic violence and sexual offenses.
“I really learned a lot about how counseling works,” Wickman says, “and how you can make a real difference for people.”
When he started looking at advertisements for faculty positions, he noticed a high demand for professors with school counseling experience.
“I thought, ‘That’s what my master’s degree is in. I should get some experience in that,’ and so I worked for two years, from 1998 to 2000, as a K-12 school counselor in Ramsey, Ill., near Vandalia, about an hour from Springfield in central Illinois,” Wickman says.
“I spent that time learning about school counseling, and it was really about getting myself ready for being a counselor-educator. I wanted to have as much clinical, practical experience as possible.”
Returning to his alma mater of NIU in 2000 – or, as he calls it, “Welcome Back, Scotter” – he launched an award-winning career as a faculty member.
The Illinois Counseling Association’s C.A. Michelman Award for commitment and service to professional counseling. The Humanistic Educator/Supervisor Award from the Association for Humanistic Counseling. The Illinois Counseling Association Leadership Award.
The Illinois School Counselor Association’s Outstanding Illinois School Counselor Educator, of which he was the first recipient. The Illinois Association of Specialists in Group Work’s Beverly Brown Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Group Counseling, of which he also was the first recipient after Brown herself.
Wickman also created the “Mental Illness in Pop Culture” podcast, which averages 5,000 listens per episode on six continents, and organized four international outreach trips with NIU students to Guatemala.
The podcast is co-hosted by Joseph Flynn, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Leanne Goodwin, who several years ago decided to invite her former Spanish teacher on a mission trip to Guatemala, which evolved into that NIU experience focused on social justice and service learning.
These projects epitomize Wickman’s philosophy, he says, “that life is filled with random, overlapping themes that interconnect. It all fits together, like synchronicity.”
He also helped to resurrect the Northern Illinois University Counseling Association – its first meeting of the current era took place Sept. 11, 2001 – and has seen the chapter earn the statewide trophy for most graduate student members for nine consecutive years.
“I planted the seed,” Wickman says. “Many other gardeners took over the responsibility.”
Mostly, though, he has made a mark in the classroom, not only as teacher but as the creator of new courses on religious and spiritual issues in counseling and on mental illness in pop culture.
Graduate students in his courses are the products of his belief “in empowering and motivating people by helping them to become the best version of themselves as opposed to shaping people into some prearranged, cookie-cutter outcome.”
“I’m always trying to create a collaborative environment in which we learn from each other. In every class I teach, I think I learn more than anyone else from taking a ‘non-expert’ position, not thinking that I have the authority of someone who knows all the answers,” Wickman says, adding that “nobody likes a know-it-all.”
“We are making meaning together. We are making sense of things together,” he adds. “There are videos I have shown for 10 to 15 years, or have shared an article that is a seminal article, and what those videos or articles or examples mean to me has changed over the last 10 to 15 years through dialogue with students.”
So. About those other identities.
During Wickman’s undergraduate years at NIU, he became involved in campus ministry and served as a peer minister around DeKalb.
“We would travel from church to church, and would host, or put on, the church services. I would always be the one to give the lay sermon, kind of a stand-up comedy sermon,” he says. “That also stirred my interest in public speaking, and I guess there’s kind of an advocacy in that.”
In 1985, he co-founded The New Prairie Café Series, presenting blues, folk, jazz and stand-up comedy acts as well as open-mic artists every Wednesday in the Diversions Lounge of the Holmes Student Center.
Later, during his doctoral program, he attended a workshop on the counseling of people who are adopted. The topic, as well as the event’s panel discussion on adoptee-birth mother reunions, resonated loudly.
“I’m adopted,” Wickman says. “They handed out a registration form that you could fill out if you were an adoptee or a birth parent. If both parties had filled it out, they would reconnect you. I filled it out. Ten days later, I got a phone call saying they had made a perfect match.”
Wickman learned that his birth parents married after he was born, and that he has four full siblings, the oldest of whom shares a birthday with Wickman – only two years later than his own in 1964. One of his biological sisters, meanwhile, holds a master’s degree in counseling and has worked as a school counselor.
Thirty years after that first meeting, he remains a part of that family.
“It’s an important part of my identity,” he says, “and as my hobby now, I have helped about 12 people who are adopted to find their birth families.”
One of those is a former student who joined him on a Guatemala trip and now can call actor Shia LaBeouf her biological first cousin. “It could be a movie, the process of finding all this information,” Wickman says.
Movies? Well, Wickman knows about that, too.
He’s a producer of several documentaries, including 2011’s “Color Me Obsessed: A Film about the Replacements,” which instigated this side career a year earlier when his same-birthday biological brother, Justin, a father of 10 children, died unexpectedly at the age of 44.
“That affected me a lot,” Wickman says. “I decided to throw caution to the wind and follow my dreams, even more than I was already doing. I realized I need to experience and live life now, not someday, because that could change for anyone unexpectedly at any time, like it did for Justin.”
Legends of 1980s punk rock, the Replacements are Wickman’s favorite band
“They had integrity. They never gave in. They never sold out. Even if meant bypassing opportunities for further success, they always stayed true to who they were: funny, raw, musically brilliant, pontificating on life with clever wordplay and adolescent humor,” he says. “They captured what it was like to feel different and not fit in, to not go along with the crowd.”
He signed on as a producer of “Color Me Obsessed,” and also is interviewed in the film about witnessing the Minneapolis band’s notorious breakup on stage in Chicago.
Moreover, as part of the DVD’s bonus features, he interviews director Gorman Bechard. That interaction later produced an invitation from Bechard for Wickman to become involved with a documentary on Grant Hart, another punk rock legend from Minneapolis band Hüsker Dü.
“I just kept going from there,” says Wickman, who since has produced documentaries on animal rights, the lives of older dogs, musician Lydia Loveless, and even the history of pizza in New Haven, Conn. “It has been so fun. I go to screenings, and it’s a great way to network and connect. It’s also given me the ability to have a life outside of counselor education.”
Choosing to retire at the relatively young age of 56 will provide Wickman with plenty of time to explore and nurture that “life outside.”
Other than training in hopes of running a couple more marathons – he’s completed nine – he’s blissfully oblivious to whatever will come next.
“Right now, I’m in my 32nd year of being an educator in Illinois. I feel like I have done a lot, and I’m interest in recreating myself again, and I don’t know what shape that will take, but the uncertainty is exciting,” he says.
“I’ve really just been planning up until this point, but I’m a big believer in ‘trust the process.’ I say that all the time: ‘I’m going to trust the process,’ ” he adds. “I have some ideas.”
Perhaps some new podcasts, he says, on mental health and politics. Or on his analysis of popular songs. Or about helping adoptees reconnect with their birth families: “Their stories are so amazing.”
Maybe some new songwriting of his own; he self-released a four-song cassette of his own tunes in 1990, one of which enjoyed some airplay on a radio station in Robinson.
Wickman is sure, however, of two things.
He’ll have more time to spend with his all of his families – including his son, Ethan Connor; his nephew, Kyle, the son of his sister, Julie; and Campbell’s son, Tyler, whom Wickman considers a son – and he’ll live the rest of his life to the fullest.
That philosophy has driven him since one Sunday morning during his childhood, when he and his family were visiting one of a series of different churches. During the service, he learned that a weekly plaque was available to whomever could name the most books of the Bible from memory.
“I memorized all the books on the spot. I memorized them instantly, I won the plaque and I still have it. I’m looking at it right now: ‘Whatever your work is, put your heart into it as if it were for the Lord.’ That was pretty formative for me,” he says. “I do put my heart into all the work I do. I put my whole self into everything, and it’s empowering.”