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EIU 360

Sprinting Toward Success

With grad school at Oxford on the horizon, Christian Ilunga-Matthiesen reflects on his academic and athletic careers at EIU.


Eastern Illinois University has no shortage of students whose achievements are points of pride for the EIU community. Even then, however, some students manage to stand out.

Christian Ilunga-Matthiesen was one of those students.

Hailing from Hamburg, Germany, Ilunga-Matthiesen ended up at Eastern in large part because of his track and field prowess; he was recruited to the Panthers after qualifying for the IHSA state meet (held right here in Charleston!) as a foreign exchange student in St. Charles.

While he certainly excelled as a sprinter for the Panthers – among many other accomplishments, Ilunga-Matthiesen was a member of the fastest 4x100 relay in school history – athletic success only scratches the surface of the impressive resume he built at EIU. There’s the double major in Economics and Political Science. There’s two years as the student dean of the College of Sciences Student Advisory Board.

Oh yeah … he also got accepted to grad school at the University of Oxford. Yes, THAT Oxford.

“My ultimate dream is becoming an ambassador,” said Ilunga-Matthiesen, whose father is a human rights advocate in Lubumbashi, the second-largest city in the Congo. “I’ll need to get a master’s degree and potentially a Ph.D., which I’m looking at right now.”

Prior to getting into Oxford, Ilunga-Matthiesen was set for grad school at the Paris School for International Affairs.

I reached for the stars and I got lucky, I guess,” said Ilunga-Matthiesen, perhaps a bit too humbly, about his original grad school plans. If his diplomatic aspirations play out, he says his time at Eastern will certainly have played a key role.

“What (being student dean) has taught me is to be patient when it comes to dealing with other people within administration,” said Ilunga-Matthiesen. “Things don’t always work out the way you want them to work out and they don’t happen as quickly as you would like. You just have to be patient, and in the end usually things happen to work out just fine. That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned.

“It’s also helped me to just be open-minded and just approach people. If you have a problem, don’t be shy to ask anybody about it. People are generally helpful.”

Time management is a useful skill for pretty much everybody, and honing those skills was one of the fringe benefits of running track.

“Being a student-athlete, you don’t have a lot of time,” said Ilunga-Matthiesen. “With two majors and athletics on top of that, I had to learn quickly or else I wouldn’t have accomplished the things I did on and off the track.

“Athletics definitely helped me with that. The good thing about track is being a student-athlete -- especially in a sport like track which is very competitive in a one-on-one basis -- helps you to take that a little bit into the classroom and want to excel.”

Opportunities to undertake significant research projects as an undergrad have certainly worked in Ilunga-Matthiesen’s favor.

“I was studying socioeconomic variables that enhance the duration of civil conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, which is very much a field I want to learn more about and research that I’ll take up more in-depth in grad school,” he explained. “I’m very interested in conflict resolution on a global scale, perhaps with a focus on the African continent, and that’s something I’d like to carry hopefully into my diplomatic career. I’m very proud of having done that with the help of the econ faculty, without which I couldn’t have done it.”

Speaking of that faculty, Ilunga-Matthiesen gave high praise for the educators with whom he’s worked over the years.

“I think I have a very good relationship with a number of EIU faculty, and that’s one of the things I appreciate about Eastern the most,” he said. “You have the ability to just drop into your professor’s office at any given time; you’re not just taught by graduate assistants.

“My classes have been small, which allows you to have good class discussions. That’s an environment where I personally have learned the most. I’ve learned through discussions with my professors and interacting with them; being able to drop into their offices and just talk to them about what’s happening in the news that day has been something I’ve really appreciated.”

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