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Eureka College welcomes 2nd largest class ever, focuses on growth

Dr. Jamel Wright is the president of Eureka College, overseeing the second largest class in the private college's history.
Collin Schopp

With an almost 20% increase in its student population, Eureka College is turning the focus toward growth and improving the services that help support those students.

College president Dr. Jamel Wright said the class is the second largest in the college’s history, attributing some of the growth resulting from the pandemic, and absorbing some students from the closed Lincoln College. But she said most of it is due to increased outreach efforts.

“I think we've just really done a great job, the team has overall,” Wright said. “Reaching out to students and really sharing the message of why Eureka College is such a wonderful place to earn a college degree.”

More than 50% of the student body are first-generation students. Wright said coming out of the COVID pandemic with a large population of freshman and first-year students can present some unique challenges.

“They are coming to us without that, necessarily, the same routine that maybe students pre- COVID would have,” she said. “They're coming to us also with just the challenges of college to begin with.”

This extends to some of the basics of adjusting to college life and early adulthood, she said, like living alone and not receiving a call when you miss a class. Wraparound services at the college have been strengthened in response. The campus has a new success coach and hired more retention and support service specialists.

“Those positions become even more important to really complement some of the other resources on campus,” said Wright. “Particularly when you have so many first-year students on the campus.”

Wraparound services in general aim to provide everything in academics that students might need to succeed. Wright offers examples like tutors for particular classes, counseling and mentoring for first-generation students.

Another area where offerings are being expanded is continuing learning classes and certificates. Wright said the college offers certificates in cyber security, leadership and Spanish, among others. These programs attract all kinds of students — from those looking to get a certificate to enter a specific industry to people who are already employed wanting to sharpen their skills.

Normally, these would be referred to as “nontraditional” students, returning to school after starting a family, career, or serving in the military. But Wright said as needs change and the number of these students rises, higher education may need to rethink what makes a student nontraditional.

“Today, we see a huge significant growth of people who are adults. And even if you think about 18-year-olds are still adults coming up,” she said. “So I think we need to really change and re-operationalize how we see nontraditional.”

She said there also has been an increase in commuter students, around 40% of those enrolled at the college. These students forego the traditional residential experience to pursue an education that fits their current employment and residential situations.

“I think we're going to continue to see it because you have a lot of people who are reinventing themselves,” said Wright.

Another number growing on Eureka College’s campus is the diversity among students. Wright said the college now sits at around 30% students of color, adding there’s been a similar increase in out-of-state students, achieved through intentional effort put into recruiting.

“As we know the number of students in the state of Illinois, we continue to be the second largest net exporter of students, high school to college. So, it really compels us to take care of our state of Illinois and the students in our state,” said Wright. “And at the same time, though, to reach out to some of our surrounding and other states as well.”

One other offering Wright credits with aiding an increase in diversity is the Eureka Promise program. Eureka Promise is a tuition-free program offered through the state for low-income students. Eureka College is the only private college in Illinois to have such a program. It operates primarily on MAP grants and other sources of state funding. Wright said the program is also partially funded by company partnerships and private donors.

Last year, there were 37 students in the Eureka Promise program. This year, there are 81.

The expansion even extends to Eureka College athletics programs. For the first time, the college has men’s and women’s wrestling, a program absorbed from Lincoln College. They gained a radio and television broadcast program in the process as well.

“Initially, what started off as a calculated risk definitely became something that was a no brainer for us,” said Wright. “Men's and women's wrestling has 30 students who are wrestling and the radio/TV program is not only phenomenal to see in terms of the space that they've created, but also there were students who came to Eureka College for that program as well from Lincoln.”

All of this growth comes at a time of reflection and history for the college that is celebrating its 100th homecoming this year.

“The 100th Homecoming was amazing,” said Wright. “Nothing short of amazing.”

Celebrations included a casino night, pep rallies and tug of war. Having celebrated its history, Wright said Eureka is looking now toward the future and even more growth.

“The board just approved over the summer, the direction of our strategic plan that we're operating under now,” said Wright. “And I will tell you, we talk a lot about a culture of rise.”

Wright describes the culture of rise as resilience, innovation, sustainability and entrepreneurial engagement. She said this includes making sure students don’t just graduate, but get careers paying above living wage. It also could mean specialized graduate programs down the road. Finally, it means more strategic partnerships with local partners.

“This is an all boats rise type of mentality,” said Wright. “Those partners will include other institutions who look like us institutions who don't.”

Whatever form those new partnerships and programs may take, Wright said Eureka College is on a growth trajectory.

“We have remained financially stable even throughout COVID,” she said. “We are coming out of COVID even stronger, and being able to have a vision forward.”

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.
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