This past May, 9,200 students graduated from the U of I, joining a network of nearly 500,000 alumni around the world. One of those graduates, Mariah Jean Guyot, FAA ’21, was already part of a more select alumni network: her family.
Over the past six generations, at least 20 members of Mariah’s extended family have attended the U of I, stretching back to the school’s salad days, when it was still known as the Illinois Industrial University.
The family’s ties to Illinois began in 1873, when two brothers, John and Hiram Gilkerson, 1877, enrolled at the IIU, a dozen years before it became the University of Illinois.
Hiram would become Mariah’s great-great-great-grandfather. But long before that, he was a young, idealistic student: a marshall in the college government; a captain in the University’s military battalion; and a prominent orator in the Philomathean Literary Society, known for his “full, strong voice” and “good 19th century manner.”
Following his graduation, Hiram married Portia Moffet, ATTENDEE 1879, and the two moved to DeKalb County, Ill., where they started a dairy farm staffed by German immigrant families. All four of the Gilkersons’ children would grow up learning about German culture, and all four would attend the U of I. One of them, Frances Emeline Gilkerson Allyn, 1903 LAS, AM 1904 LAS, would even turn her adopted German heritage into a career, teaching the language in schools throughout Illinois.
By the next generation, a U of I education was considered a family tradition. Frances’ daughter, Portia Moffet Allyn Smith, ATTENDEE 1938, enrolled as a geology major, fueled by a keen interest in the natural world that she had inherited from her mother and grandparents. As a student, she made several geological tours of the U.S. with her professors and seemed poised for a career studying rocks and minerals—but she married and had her first child before she could graduate.
Nevertheless, Portia was still able to pursue a career that matched her interests, working for the Illinois State Geological Survey in Urbana for more than three decades.
Living in Champaign County, Portia was able to send her daughter, Amelia “Amy” Smith Felty, ’71 LAS, MS ’91 ACES, CAS ’96 ED, to the University Laboratory High School. When it was time to apply for college, the U of I “was my only option,” Amy says. But there was one snag—she wanted to study agronomy, and her father worried that “no one would hire a woman agronomist.” Instead, she studied English education and later became a teacher and school administrator, in locales as varied as Georgia, Taiwan, Chicago and Champaign.
Although Amy wasn’t able to pursue agronomy as a career, she passed on she passed on her love of agriculture to her children. Her daughter, Zivar Baker Guyot, ’96 ACES, would earn a U of I degree in horticulture, spending hours experimenting with plants in campus greenhouses and working in Dr. Robert Skirvin’s tissue culture lab. “I really liked learning how things work,” she says. That interest translated from horticulture to her later career as an electrician.
Zivar’s daughter Mariah, too, is interested in “how things work,” albeit in a different field. She became the sixth generation of their family to attend Illinois when she enrolled as an architecture major in 2017.
Despite some familial expectation, Mariah didn’t choose Illinois simply to carry on the tradition. “I chose U of I because of the Barcelona Program,” she says of the year-long, immersive architecture program that allows students to study masterpieces all over Europe, up close and in person.
Not only that, but back on campus, the U of I gave Mariah the chance to meet and learn from people all over the world, practically in her own backyard.
What’s next for the family’s newest Illinois graduate? For now, she’s taking a post-pandemic gap year, to volunteer and see where her interests lead her—whether that means designing affordable housing with a focus on health and well-being, or working in natural disaster response and prevention.
Whatever Mariah decides to do, she feels confident that the tools she honed at Illinois—and inherited from her family—will help her to make the world a better place, one project at a time.