EUREKA -- Joshua Matzke and Cody Leach didn’t know much about Ronald Reagan before becoming part of a leadership program that bears Reagan’s name at Eureka College.
Reagan finished his two terms as president before they were born.
But that’s changed in a big way.
Leach discovered so many similarities between himself and Reagan — from their small-town roots to their interests in swimming — that he picked up the nickname “Little Ronnie” during his freshman year.
Now a senior with a double major in mathematics and communications, the Pontiac Township High School graduate is looking forward to putting into practice what he has learned through two mentorships.
And Matzke, a freshman who was co-valedictorian at El Paso-Gridley High School, said he has learned “how incredibly involved he (Reagan) was here, and that put him on a path to become president of the United States.”
“Outside of Eureka College, people know him as president,” Leach said, but on campus people relate to him more as a regular person.
The Ronald W. Reagan Leadership Program began in 1982 — less than two years after Reagan was elected to his first term and 50 years after he received his bachelor’s degree from Eureka College.
More than just a scholarship program, it emphasizes student service and leadership and provides support for mentorships.
The latter was particularly important to Reagan, who provided input into the program, which has been led by Michael Thurwanger for the last five years.
While an internship is aimed at providing job experience, a mentorship is designed to build longer-term relationships, explained Thurwanger.
“One of the things that Reagan talked about in his biography and some of the speeches he gave was the importance of certain people in his life and of this place in his life,” Thurwanger said.
Sitting in the Reagan Peace Garden, which contains a piece of the Berlin Wall, Leach and Matzke talked about what brought them to Eureka.
“I tore my ACL my senior year (of high school) and stopped looking at the athletic side and started looking at the academic side and where it would lead me,” Leach said. “The Reagan program to me is an eye-opener” that showed him the potential for helping others develop, not just himself.
Likewise, Matzke said he hadn’t given much thought to Eureka until he became a finalist for the program.
“When I came and visited campus, it completely turned my view around,” he said.
Always someone who tried to lead by example but generally stayed in the background, Matzke decided to take more of an out-front leadership role during his senior year of high school and is carrying that attitude into his freshman year at Eureka.
Matzke plans to become a physician and is looking forward to volunteering at Eureka Hospital.
Thurwanger said the program is all about developing leadership potential, regardless of the field a student chooses, and emphasizing an obligation to help others.
Each year six students are selected as Reagan Fellows in a process that includes an on-campus visit for finalists who are screened based on academics and school involvement.
All Reagan Fellows are required to document 40 hours of service a year. They also attend regular meetings and a daylong retreat that include discussion of leadership-related topics. They receive four-year scholarships and support for mentorships, including international mentorships.
Thurwanger said the college is trying to take some of the leadership aspects of the Reagan program and apply it to the college as a whole.