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Alumna shares $1 million gift and priceless advice

June  01, 2012

The Center for Student Life's hearth area will be named for Brenda Barnes.

Augustana College alumna Brenda Barnes continues to invest heavily in her alma mater. Most recently Barnes donated $1 million for the new Center for Student Life and participated in a networking lunch with three female students, as she continues her rehabilitation from a 2010 stroke.

“Augie is near and dear to my heart,” said Barnes, a member of the Class of 1975. “I credit Augustana for so much of what I have. I want to give back to a place that gave me so much.”

Raised in a working-class home in the Chicagoland area, Barnes and three of her six sisters graduated from Augustana College. On campus, she was known as a focused student and earned her degree in economics.

After graduation and a few odd jobs, she began her career with PepsiCo, as business manager for Wilson Sporting Goods. She then worked for Frito-Lay, and in 1981, she was named vice president of national sales and marketing at Pepsi. She became president and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America in 1996. One year later, she shocked the business world by leaving her high-power position to spend more time with her three children.

With a chuckle, Barnes said, “I am the only person who got famous for quitting my job.” Her decision made her popular on the talk-show circuit “at a time when people were starting to ask if women could really have it all.”

On May 4, 2012, Barnes met with a group of female Augustana undergraduates, and the question came up again. She shared lunch and candid conversation with the young women, confiding she would make the decision to step down “one thousand times over again.”

One of the students on hand for the networking lunch, Courtney Grob, from Elmhurst, Ill., said, “Brenda stressed the importance of there being no shortcuts in life. In order to get what you want, you need to put in the time and effort.”

Grob said Barnes also told the young women, “If you truly put your mind to it, you can achieve anything – you just have to want it enough.”

For Barnes, the break from PepsiCo gave her more time with family and afforded the opportunity to serve on seven corporate boards, preparing her to take the helm at Sara Lee in 2005—a role she held until her stroke in May 2010.

Two years into recovering from her stroke, Barnes is still physically challenged, but cognitively she’s sharp, saying, “I feel so lucky. I’m fortunate in so many ways.” She explained the recovery process is like working a strategic plan and setting goals. “This time I have work to do on myself.”

Once a regular on the lists of Most Powerful Women, Barnes always remained and continues to be most humble, saying, “I didn’t give this gift to Augustana with the intentions the hearth area would be named for me…I did this because Augie changed my life, and it’s my way of thanking the school.”

The fireplace and hearth area have been designed to be the centerpiece of the $20.4-million Center for Student Life – a 35,000-square-foot addition to the existing Thomas Tredway Library.

Situated under a 40-foot-wide skylight, the fireplace’s structure will rise up from the fourth floor through the opening in the fifth floor, connecting the two spaces. On the fourth floor, the fireplace sits in the center of the pre-function space for the multipurpose room events.

Anita Lanning of BLDD Architects said, “In the hearth area students will relax and study in lounge furniture in front of a 14-foot-long gas fireplace.”

Lanning described, “The fireplace will be made of natural stone with a wood mantle. Above the first mantle, a wood paneled wall will climb up another 14 feet and be capped with a second mantle. On the face of the wood paneled wall will hang an art piece designed especially for the Center for Student Life.”

A leader of change and innovative thinking during her days with PepsiCo and Sara Lee, Barnes’ support of this distinctive, modern building that combines library, dining services and student activities in one place seems fitting. And, as former chair of the Augustana Board of Trustees, she supports the current Board’s effort to fuse a student center with the library to address changing academic and social needs of today’s students.

“Brenda takes her role as a leader seriously,” says Augustana Vice President of Advancement Lynn Jackson. “Whether leading Fortune 500 companies, chairing the college Board of Trustees or sitting talking with a handful of students, she brings her best to every table. Brenda recognizes her life was transformed during her years at Augustana College, and she has chosen to pay that gift forward by providing inspiration for today’s students. She has left her legacy at her alma mater, and we are proud to name the Center for Student Life hearth area for her.”

Jackson added, “Brenda is well known for being fully present in each conversation she has. Augustana is pleased to name the hearth area—a place for conversations, idea sharing and relationship building—in honor of Brenda.”

Sam Schlouch
Senior Communication Director
(309) 794-7833