Smile Politely
Three images. On the left, Mary Mary Cosplay, a white woman dressed in steampunk outfit with blue and white and maroon details. She is wearing tall black boots. Her hair is bright red, and she is wearing a pirate-like hat on her head. She is holding two prop weapons. She is leaning against a bannister in front of a large, glass window. In center: a poster for UI Con fundraiser that says " BE AN ICON." There is a QR code, as well as other explanatory text on the poster. There is a drawing of the kingfisher and a female anime character. On the right is Krystal LaPorte, a white woman with long, reddish-brown hair wearing maroon glasses, a black hat, and a maroon top. There is a hairless cat draped over her shoulder.
l-r: Mary Mary Cosplay; UI Con; Krystal LaPorte

Inaugural UI Con is not to be missed

In the last decade and a half, comics and comics-adjacent culture have become mainstream. Even if you don’t know what anime is, or the names of indie comics publishers, you’ve probably seen a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, or caught some Pokémon, or facilitated your children doing those things. 

The growth in popularity of comics and anime has facilitated a growth in size, scope, and ubiquity of the conventions — and people — that celebrate them. You’ve likely heard of the OG convention, San Diego Comic Con International (since 1970), but Chicago has held its C2E2 (Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo) since 2010. There’s a comics and entertainment convention in almost every mid- and large-sized city, and Champaign-Urbana is about to get one, too. 

The inaugural — free! — UI Con is this weekend, Saturday March 2nd and Sunday March 3rd at the Illini Union on the campus of the University of Illinois. Organized by current and recently-graduated students, UI Con has the potential to be another stop on the con-route of fans, and an introduction to anime and comics for newbies. I recently spoke with Juliette Chavarria and Emma Weber, two members of UI Con’s executive board (Chavarria is the president) about building this event from the ground up with support from the Japanese Animation Club and the Cosplay Design League RSOs, the Department of English, as well a whole lot of other RSOs and local businesses like Ye Olde Donut Shoppe, Titan Games, and the Illini Bookstore. What can con attendees expect? A whole heck of a lot. Read on for more details, and follow the con on Facebook and Instagram for more behind-the-scenes content.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Smile Politely: What is UI Con?

Juliette Chavarria: UI Con is a free anime and comic convention happening at the Illini Union March 2nd and 3rd. 

Emma Weber: It’s a promotion of any type of art and any type of fan culture. A lot of us who are running [UI Con] drive all over to go to these conventions. We go to Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis. We all wanted one here, and we sat down and thought about it. We can have one here, we have enough people, we have enough interest and we knew that we could pull it off. It’s our first year and we’re trying to focus on promoting art and writing, and we have a lot of artists coming from all over the country.

SP: How did it all come together? Talk me through that process.

Chavarria: We were in Cosplay Design League, and I had just met Emma. She had another convention she was going to, and we were like, “it would be cool if there was a con here.” There has never been a convention here. 

Weber: There have been a couple small club-run things. There isn’t anybody here trying to establish a multi-year con, when we know that there can be one. As Juliette said, we had talked about it before, and at Anime Central last year we had a U of I meet up. It was a surprising turnout and Joey, who is also on our executive board, and I were talking and he was like, “I know somebody who would really like to run a con here,” and he was talking about Juliette. And I already knew Juliette, and I was like, “Well, I’ve been thinking about trying to run a con here.” After Anime Central, we made a Discord server and we formed the executive board as time went on. We solidified that executive board and have taken on extra help, volunteers. 

The response to this convention has been unreal. Everyday we get more and more people registered. (Note: Pre-registration is closed but you can register on site, day-of.) It’s really just proving our point that having this central location in Illinois with all of these awesome local businesses and people who want to contribute is really the way to go. It’s a huge community effort. 

Chavarria: That conversation lingered. I brought it up with the previous officers of Japanese Animation Club, cause they had just graduated, and they’re like, “I know someone named Joey who has been asking to do this.” [laughter] So I brought it up to [JAC’s] executive board members and they were all for it. I brought it up with Cosplay Design League and I just started looking for different RSOs that could maybe have some tie with art, writing, anime, or comics and just see if anyone would be interested in helping organize. 

Juliette Chavarria and Emma Weber, a Latina woman and a white woman, respectively, at a table for a UI Con fundraiser. They are selling Pocky.
Juliette Chavarria and Emma Weber; Photo by UI Con

SP: What’s been the most exciting part about this whole project up to this point?

Chavarria: I see myself as possibly going into project management, so I’m gaining so many skills that I could see myself doing. Doing outreach and collaborating with [executive board members], organizing what we could possibly do for catering, the set up, just organizing these small details, I’m having fun and enjoying the process of it. 

Weber: Every time we reach out to someone, they always say “Yes, we wanna help out.” So many people instantly want to get involved. It’s exciting when they call back and say, “Yeah, we want to do something.” Even with the RSOs. 

SP: That’s gotta be really gratifying. People within a fandom always seem to find each other, no matter what.

Weber: Yes!

SP: There are so many small details that have to be thought through in order to make something like this successful. I imagine it’s better when you actually like what you’re building. 


Weber: Exactly. It’s our motivation. 

SP: What’s been frustrating about this process?

Chavarria: The different rules that we never expected. For example, for the Maid Cafe, [we thought about trying] to make our own desserts or buy store bought desserts, but since it’s the Union it has to be businesses within the Union or Illini Catering. That was something that took a long time [to figure out]. 

Since this is an event that would involve minors, we had to do something called POM, which is protection of minors, so we needed to find a sponsor. We managed to get the Department of English as a sponsor, but there was some delay in getting that process started.

Weber: We spend a lot of time each day checking the email for the con and responding to all the inquiries. We’re doing a very good job, but it’s been a lot for us to handle. 

SP: What kind of research did you do in preparation for planning this? Did you visit other cons?

Weber: A lot of people on the executive board go to cons already, so we had that base knowledge. We did some outreach in terms of asking other conventions for advice. A lot of our research was not convention-based, it was U of I event-based. We had to look up all these forms. 

SP: Bureaucracy.

Weber: Bureaucracy, if you will. 

Chavarria: C2E2 and UChi-Con [were the only conventions I’d been to], so I was going in blind and trusting Emma with her experience and other people’s experience and doing the best I can in terms of organizing.

Some people told me since it’s just the first year to try for a small con. I [couldn’t] really envision that, I don’t know what a small con looks like. I’d rather go big or go home. If we can’t do everything, we can always minimize, but we should try to do as much as we can. 

SP: What can attendees expect to find?

Chavarria: We have a collaboration with Webtoon; for anyone who picks up their bag the day of the convention they get ten free Webtoon coins in their app. Webtoon is also going to be doing a minimum of three panels. 

We have the Grainger Engineering Library IDEA Lab that’s going to be doing some stuff. They’re going to have a photo booth from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, they’ll have Wacom tablets, and zine workshops. 

Pick up your badge in room 104. If you [are going to] cosplay, there’s a section for people making sure weapons and props are safe. If it’s a prop that’s out of our guidelines, we’ll hold it until you’re done with the convention and you can come at the end of the day and pick it up. We have artists and vendors in Illini rooms A, B, C, plus the South Lounge. We have the Maid Cafe, which will be reservation-only. We’ll have some performances throughout the day in the Courtyard Cafe. The Ballroom will be for the larger panels like the cosplay contest and the rave. The cosplay lounge is room 210, and then on the third floor is a gaming room. 

Weber: You can immediately go to the game room, because it’s going to be open for almost all of the con. You’ll just go in and give some form of ID to check out a game. You can rent a board game, there’s going to be some local gaming stores hosting “how to play” demonstrations. We’ll have some video games, same system to check out. You can go in and play as long as you like. 

SP: And you’re working with local stores to do that?

Weber: Titan Games is going to be there. They’ll have a table in the vendor hall selling games, but they’ll also be teaching how to play some games in the gaming hall. 

Chavarria: We have Bow Tie Games as well. 

SP: So we’ve got panels, performances…

Chavarria: Dance, skits, music, game orchestra.

Weber: There will be some people doing specific choreo. And the Taekwondo RSO is going to be doing a demonstration. 

Poster for cosplay contest during UI Con, March 2nd, 6 to 8 p.m. at the University of Illinois Illini Ballroom. The poster is black with pastel-colored text that reads "cosplay contest." In the center is a photo of cosplayers.
Uiuc_ui_con on Instagram

SP: And there will be cosplay.

Weber, Chavarria: Yes!

Weber: Yes, there will be a cosplay contest, a cosplay masquerade Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m., and the rave is from 9 to 11 p.m. And the cosplay contest is an online submission to enter. Depending on those numbers we may or may not have walk-ons, day of. 

We’re going to have karaoke on Saturday evening in the Courtyard Cafe. 

[For the rave, we have] DJ Hex. He is in the EMC RSO, that’s the Electronic Music Club. He’s creating a pretty good set list for the con, it has anime and video game music, Vocaloid, some beats, and he’s been so great working with us. We’re excited to have him. There will be some late night panels for 18+. If you’re trying to enter an 18+ room, you’ll show your badge and your ID. 

Chavarria: We have cosplay meet ups in the basement, so that brings more business to businesses down there. 

On the fourth floor we have two rooms dedicated for panels; the other rooms on the fourth floor are quiet spaces. 

Chavarria: We even have an Illini Union Hotel block. 

SP: Will the Kingfisher be making an appearance?

Chavarria: Yes! They have a table.

Weber: I believe they will be doing some karaoke stuff.  

A collection of mostly female anime characters of various designs.
A collection of anime characters voices by Krystal LaPorte; Image courtesy of UI Con

SP: Can you tell me more about special guests?

Chavarria: As someone who loves anime, I looked on LinkedIn for anyone who might have ties to the U of I. Krystal LaPorte showed up on Funimation, so I sent her a DM [introducing myself]. Turns out she was the president of the Japanese Animation Club ten years ago, so as an alumna she said, “I am 100% coming.” She’s going to make exclusive prints for the con. She’s a lawyer and a voice actor and I think that’s really cool and amazing, and I’m glad she’s going to be at the convention. 

Another guest we have is Mary Mary Cosplay. She’s a well known cosplayer. She’ll be one of the judges for the contest and she will also have a table in our artists alley. Another cosplay contest judge: OtakuMom, she’s local to Champaign. She had made over 160 cosplays. She has a lot of experience. 

SP: It feels like this is a really special opportunity to capitalize on the interests of the students on campus here but also tap into a larger community, not just Champaign-Urbana, but regionally. How can people attend, what do they need to do in order to attend?

Chavarria: You need to find a bus — we have on our website some ways to get the bus to go to the Illini Union. 

SP: Let me interrupt yor for a second — parking?

Weber: We’re going to put the names of the [available] lots on the website. Entry is free. Everything is on the website, in terms of how to get there, and the address of the Union.

UI Con
Illini Union
1401 W Green St
Sa Mar 2nd 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Su Mar 3rd 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Free, all ages

Find the full schedule here