Project 90: A second chance for SIU students who left Carbondale too early

By Kim Rendfeld

Cassandra Prince-Coachman (from left), Stoney Clark Harrison, LaTia Collins, Percy James Timberlake Jr. and Veronica Washington celebrate Timberlake’s graduation.

Thirty-four years after leaving the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus two classes short of a bachelor’s, Percy James Timberlake Jr. of Chicago has earned his degree, thanks to SIU’s Project 90 initiative.

“I wanted to show my children it’s never too late to get an education or finish what you started,” he said. “They are really proud of me. A lot of my friends are proud of me. It was worth it. I appreciate the program and hope people take advantage of it.”

Project 90 is for Salukis who have completed at least 90 credit hours — about three years of college — but did not finish their degrees, said Wendell Williams, associate chancellor of enrollment management. The program allows students to obtain their degrees through online coursework.

“We understand life does not go according to plan, and Salukis may stop out for a variety of reasons,” Williams said. “They deserve the chance to earn their degree. Project 90 is a pathway for them to achieve their vision.”

Gary Heflin, ’89, vice president of the SIU Alumni Association Board of Directors, said he and other alumni suggested to university leadership that SIU assist Salukis who were close to graduation before leaving campus.

“This program is one of the greatest things we can do,” he said. “We always take care of each other and give people second chances. As a Saluki family, we stick together. We do what we can for each other.”

Salukis interested in Project 90 can request information online.

Timberlake is the first Saluki to earn his degree through Project 90. His journey to SIU Carbondale started with a conversation he had with his mother right after his 21st birthday, when he was working at a fast-food restaurant in Chicago.

“She said, ‘Ever think of going back to school?’

“I said, ‘No.’

“’You should think about that.’”

He did think about it. And he decided to attend SIU, where he studied administration of justice and met lifelong friends and the woman he would marry.

“I had great professors,” he said. “I learned valuable life lessons. College teaching is more than books. College changed my whole thought process. It taught me to appreciate education.”

His then wife graduated before he did and moved back to Chicago with their infant son.

“I wanted to be there for my son,” he said. “My main concern was being a good father.”

In 1989, he left the SIU campus and went on to a 30-year career in the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. The couple had three more children, and it was important to them that all four get a college education, which they did.

“They all did good. I’m proud of them.”

After a pilot of Project 90 was launched last year, Heflin recruited his friend.

“One day Gary came to me and asked, ‘Ever think of finishing up?’” Timberlake said.

Two years into retirement, Timberlake earned his degree by taking two online courses. He needed to adjust to the online environment, which was different from the in-person interactions he had on the SIU campus. Still, professors were attentive.

“It was a challenge, but it was worthwhile,” he said. “I did finish. It was a good feeling.

“I would like to acknowledge everyone who was instrumental in getting this program off of the ground and putting it into motion. I am grateful for their feet-on-the-ground effort, which helped me complete what I started in fall of 1984. For that, I owe a debt of gratitude to all involved.”