Campus Features

To remember college days, hit play

Meaghan Downs
8/15/2014  8:00 am

Forget yearbooks or Facebook albums.

For this year’s New Student Convocation speaker, Professor Lisa Dixon, her memories of being a college student at Illinois come with a personal playlist.

image of professor lisa dixon

Now an associate professor of theatre, Dixon travels back to her sophomore year by listening to the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.”

The Champaign, Ill., native remembers being at a party on High Street, “dancing wildly” and forcing friends to play the song over and over again.

“You might think back to, I had this class or that class, but when you hear a particular song, for me it literally makes me feel different,” Dixon said. “It takes me back physically and emotionally to a different time and place.”

When Dixon speaks to the thousands of new Illinois students gathered together for Convocation for the first time on Aug. 22, she said she wants to challenge them with two questions:

Who do you want to be?

How do you want to be?

Music shapes how Illinois students – whether they’re from a small-town, a big-city or transplanted from around the world – will try to answer those questions, Dixon said.

Her speech includes a few musical surprises Dixon hopes will get students to take notice and take advantage of the moment.

“I want them to be like, ‘Oh my god, this is my jam!’ Dixon said. “I want them to be in it.” 

Students coming to Illinois, she said, should be encouraged to expand what they experience in and out of the classroom.

That includes music, too, Dixon said.

Fans of Miley Cyrus may end up liking the taste of blues and jazz, or those who grew up with R&B can appreciate both Chopin and maybe Brad Paisley, she said.

Expanding horizons is essential to the college experience, Dixon said.

“You’re supposed to challenge and be challenged,” she said. “Sometimes you’re supposed to be afraid and sometimes you’re supposed to be brave through that fear.”

After graduating from Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Dixon herself wasn’t sure what she wanted to be.

She definitely never thought she’d end up living in London and performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company or directing her own production, “Polaroid Stories,” at Illinois this fall.

Dixon started her acting career off-stage by putting up drywall and handing out tickets at a community theater in Ann Arbor, Mich. Her acting first role was as Ruby, the ex-convict in Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out.”   

Playing Ruby got Dixon nominated for a regional acting award.

That got her thinking.

“One day I decided, ‘Well I’m poor’ – and I was doing various and sundry low-paying jobs – ‘I’m always poor and unhappy and I thought I might as well go to grad school and get a degree in what I love to do and if I’m going to be poor, at least I can be happy,’” Dixon said.

After graduate school at Illinois State University, Dixon found her way to Chicago with the Steppenwolf Theatre and then across the pond to London.

While performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the New Globe Theatre, Dixon said she also paid the bills doing voiceover work in the late ‘90s.

“Somewhere in London there is an old videogame with me voicing a dinosaur in prehistoric times,” she said, laughing. “I have no idea what it even sounds like.”

Dixon spent about a decade away from Urbana-Champaign until her hometown finally called her back to the university where she has been teaching, directing and acting for more than 16 years.

“Champaign calls a lot of people back,” she said. “It’s very interesting, this town in the middle of the prairie. There’s sort of a gravitational pull that Urbana-Champaign has on people.”

Once they arrive on the Illinois campus, Dixon said, students need to wring out their time on campus for everything they can, “to be bold and grab life by the lapels.”

At Convocation, Dixon will only be able to say so much.

But music speaks volumes. 

“Music still has an effect. It can’t not have an effect,” she said. “Even if you don’t like it, it’s having an effect. It’s helping to define who you are in your time.”

Click Mixtape 2018 to listen (Spotify) to a sneak peek of Dixon’s playlist for New Student Convocation, and make sure to check back later this week for the complete playlist.

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