Poverty to Empowerment: Dave Thillen, M.S. '68, Fights Generational Poverty

By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Dave Thillen, M.S. '68, Founder of the Thillen
Education Foundation

Retired IBM executive Dave Thillen, M.S. ’68, was born into poverty without a father and with a mother educated only through eighth grade. His mother had the first of seven children at 15 years old, but only five survived. Thillen was the only one to graduate high school. 

“I grew up in the inner city of Chicago, Illinois, with the understanding that you chose between school or being cool. If you chose cool, you floundered academically,” he said. 

But after moving to Rogers Park, and then to Des Plaines, Illinois, his perspective of “cool” changed. He grew interested in academics, and his teachers turned him on to math and chemistry.

“I worked harder than anyone else, made the honor roll, and was president of my eighth-grade graduating class,” Thillen said. 

With the determination and grit he developed in school, Thillen went on to earn a degree in mathematics from Wheaton College while serving as captain of the gymnastics team. He decided to continue his education and pursue a master’s degree in mathematics education at NIU, where he met Dr. Linda Sons. She was his advisor and assisted him in developing the idea for his thesis and throughout the thesis process. 

“Dr. Sons was there for my oral comps and encouraged me,” Thillen warmly recalled. “She had the greatest impact on my NIU experience, and we have remained in contact for over 55 years.”

Going to college opened the door for Thillen to work for IBM and positioned him for his 30-year IBM career. He began in software development and advanced through systems engineering, marketing, and staff and line management opportunities. He concluded his career as a business unit executive. Early in his career, he left for two years to serve in the military as an instructor and gymnastics coach at West Point.

“My advancement in IBM was largely due to outworking everyone around me,” Thillen said. “I took the time to learn from others more experienced than I was, including my mother. She was the biggest influence in my life. She may have been uneducated, but she taught me right from wrong, how to work with others, and how to use common sense.”

Today, Thillen is retired and living in rural Georgia, where the county school system has a chartered school and an economically disadvantaged school system. He used his leadership experience at IBM and his first-hand experience escaping poverty to make an extraordinary impact on his community.

“I founded the Career Coaching Program at Greene College & Career Academy to coach high school students who are mostly minority and living below the poverty line,” Thillen said. “We are in our sixth year and have grown to 180 volunteer career coaches working with over 600 students. I also founded the Thillen Education Foundation which is now in its third year. Our single purpose is to provide financial assistance for Greene County high school graduates. In the first year, the foundation raised $1M. We are closing in on $2M in the third year.”

Financial assistance provided by the Thillen Education Foundation is unique in many ways. All students in the Career Coaching Program participate and can earn "Dave Dollars" during their four years of high school. "Dave Dollars" can be cashed into real dollars for up to two years after graduation or six years if in military service. Students can also apply for "Next Step Funds" during their senior year for scholarships or career start packages. All financial assistance can be used for continued education or professional supplies to begin a career right out of high school. In May 2023, 24 students were awarded $80,000 in "Next Step Funds" on top of the entire class of 86 students earning almost $60,000 in "Dave Dollars."

Thillen says students lack basic resources—like a place to sleep and food to eat. Despite these challenges, he sees economically challenged students begin to succeed by improved soft skills, academic achievement, and their overall outlook on life. He’s most proud of his program’s growth from 25 students living in Habitat for Humanity houses to an entire school of around 500 students.

“Our career coaches went from one to 180,” he said. “We expanded from coaching only a small number of students to an entire school. We now want to surpass this and reach a larger portion of the community to end generational poverty in Greene County, Georgia. It’s a lofty goal, but one we can achieve.”

Thillen has countless success stories already. 

“I worked with a girl living in a broken-down trailer, one of seven children. It took her seven years and several colleges, but she graduated with a four-year degree in computer science and now works for a computer company in Atlanta,” he shared. “I worked with a student living in a Habitat for Humanity house who is now a senior at Loyola University in Chicago. I also worked with the oldest daughter in a family of five living in a Habitat for Humanity House, who recently graduated from Mississippi State University with a major in criminology. She is in the Army Reserves and started her own youth assistance program.”

Motivated to do everything he can to help others, Thillen has placed refurbished computers in Habitat for Humanity homes; worked with the Boys & Girls Club and ATLAS Ministries; and created a career plan development process that has grown to where every student in the Greene College & Career Academy has a formal, documented career plan for their life.

Thillen was a 2023 distinguished alumni honoree at the NIU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Alumni Award night celebrating prominent alumni with outstanding professional achievement or through exemplary civic, cultural, or charitable service.
“I don’t think there is any higher calling than to help someone in need, especially a young person,” he said. “I think I have some insight into how to do it, and I am driven to make it happen. I feel very good about having meaning in my life even after 25 years in retirement.”