Michelle Benda
Illinois Theatre
MFA 2015

"The faculty members at the U of I allow you to be an active participant in your education."

Illinois Theatre graduate Michelle Benda brought the entire faculty, graduating class, and audience to their feet when she walked across the stage in May 2015 to accept her diploma. For most students, that walk across the stage is a defining moment. For Michelle, it was even more profound.

"For graduation I set a goal to use my walker to walk across the stage, and I did it," she says. "Getting to share that experience with the faculty and with my fellow students was a really important moment for me."

Michelle navigated her Illinois Theatre education using a wheelchair. According to Associate Professor Robert Perry, who chairs the Lighting Design Program, "Michelle worked diligently and successfully to reach for perfection. She never complained about the work or let the fact that she used a powered wheelchair to get around stop her from achieving her goals. She is a testament to what every student should strive to achieve in their studies and beyond."

In choosing a graduate program in lighting design, Michelle considered Illinois Theatre's opportunities to design for theatre, dance, and lyric theatre performances. Her diligence and her work on various productions at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts served her well: Michelle was Perry's assistant lighting designer for the Goodman Theatre's production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Michelle explains that the education and mentorship she received from her professors gave her a much stronger voice as a lighting designer. It also refined her technical abilities. "My professors taught me to pay a lot of attention to detail—to things like paperwork and drafting," she notes. "Those skills set Illinois Theatre graduates apart. Employers notice the high quality of work that we do."

And she found the Urbana-Champaign campus highly accessible, from both an educational and a personal perspective. "When I ran into challenges, my faculty and colleagues were all open and willing to help," Michelle says. "They made sure I was able to be a part of everything and get the fullest experience at the university."