Many great colleges are set in tiny towns, amid apple orchards and cornfields. Elmhurst emphatically breaks the mold. We’re located near the geographic center of one of the world’s most dynamic urban regions. Just 16 miles west of the Loop and eight miles from the city line, the College draws many students and abundant energy from Chicago and its 200 suburbs. The metropolitan area provides our students with limitless opportunities for internships, exploration and entertainment. In turn, the College serves the region as a vital intellectual and cultural resource, and as a source of capable graduates with a well-developed sense of social responsibility.
The College’s contributions to the life of its surroundings are manifold, diverse and profound. They also increasingly are gaining notice. Jim Edgar, the 38th Governor of Illinois, has spoken to campus audiences twice in the last three years. He says, “Elmhurst College has emerged as a leader among Illinois colleges for its determined focus on civic engagement and service to the community.”
We decided to try enumerating the countless ways the College has earned the Chicago area’s affection. The problem, it turned out, was limiting our list to a number that would fit in our pages. We settled on 25.
1. Our Jazz Festival is among the best in the land.
Year after year, it’s stocked with the kind of national talent that can make an audience forget that it’s sitting in church pews. Louie Bellson has performed at the festival. So have Lee Konitz, Clark Terry, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderly and Dizzy Gillespie, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Diana Krall. Each February, the pros assemble in Hammerschmidt Chapel to hear and evaluate some of America’s top college jazz bands, and offer advice. The pros cap each of the festival’s three nights with feature performances, as if to show the kids how it’s done. For audience members, it’s a welcome blast of jazz heat in the midst of a Midwestern winter, and “the best buy for your jazz dollar” (as Chicago Magazine tells its readers).
2. In scores of Chicago suburbs and neighborhoods, our students are making a difference.
On any given day of the academic year, you’ll find hundreds of Elmhurst students working on service-learning projects. The campus’s social action activities have been varied and impressive enough to catch the attention of The New York Times. “Nursing students work with the poor during clinical rotations,” the paper reported. “Education majors teach in schools with a high number of poor students.” Students across the majors tutor schoolchildren, assist senior citizens, work with DuPage County PADS to provide shelter for the homeless and with Habitat for Humanity on home-construction projects. They travel to churches to provide free produce to some of the neediest citizens of the West Side. Even in an economically powerful region like Chicago, the human needs are everywhere, and our students are working to meet them.
“It’s sad to say, but you don’t have to go far to find hunger and need,” says Jazmine Martinez, a senior from West Chicago. “People here lack access to health care and fresh food. Those are things that no one should be denied.”
3. We’ve been green for 141 years.
On our original campus, a working farm provided students with vegetables, fruit and opportunities for some healthy after-class activity. Today, the west side of campus features a prairie and woodlands restoration as well as an environmentally friendly parking lot. Our newest building, West Hall, is our greenest building ever, one that puts the principles of sustainable design to work in the daily lives of students. It’s loaded with environmentally friendly features, including energy-saving, motion-sensitive lighting; 42 rooftop solar panels that reduce water-heating costs; even dual-flush, water-saving toilets. Professor of Chemistry Gene Losey calls West Hall “a natural laboratory. Even when it was being built, we knew it would give us a chance to educate people about sustainability,” he says. “We talked about what a great science project this would be.”
4. We’re always looking for new ways—and people—to serve.
This fall, we started a completely new academic division, the School for Professional Studies. It’s designed to reach the big, growing population of busy people who otherwise would be shut out of bachelor’s and master’s programs. This includes working moms, career changers, people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who need a second or third professional act, and many others for whom the traditional, full-time model of higher education has become an impossible dream. What’s more, our new school builds on a long tradition at Elmhurst. We’ve had adult programs since 1949 and graduate programs since 1998. We’ve always been determined to find new ways to enable bright, capable people to fully prepare for service in today’s workforce and society.
5. Even our trees are kind of special.
The collection on our arboretum grounds isn’t confined to the usual campus suspects, the elms and oaks and lindens. Instead, we offer students and visitors alike a varied and exotic display of plant life: shadblow, sweetgum, bald cypress, gingko, the dawn redwood, the weeping European beech, and on and on. The arboretum got its start when many of our original grand old elms succumbed to disease in the 1960s. In response, a local plantsman named Herbert Licht worked with our longtime groundskeeper, Ragnar Moen, to create a living and fabulously varied museum of trees. All year round, these species and cultivars put on a show that delights our visitors and makes our campus a wonderful place to go and grow.
6. We’re a center of a great athletic ideal.
On some campuses, the ideal of the student-athlete is a myth, a joke or both. At Elmhurst, it’s alive, well and winning. To see the ideal in action, Chicago-area sports fans need only to check out one of our 19 (soon to be 20) varsity teams. Our student-athletes play with the same finesse, smarts and discipline that they bring to their academic work. Since 2000, they’ve won 25 Academic All-American awards. Most teams have a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher. That’s our notion of a winning record.
7. We make the stars seem close to home.
For those who live among the bright lights of a big city, learning to read the night sky often means long journeys to remote observatories. At Elmhurst, it requires only a quick walk up a flight of stairs. When the motorized door of the Bates Observatory opens to reveal the night sky, a powerful, 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope brings into focus some amazing sights: Mars, Jupiter, the Ring Nebula, the rings around Saturn—even the splits between the rings. Perched atop the Schaible Science Center, the observatory is a favorite stop for campus visitors, especially on Homecoming weekends.
8. We’re changing the lives of young adults with developmental disabilities.
The American system of higher education has long neglected the needs and aspirations of young adults with developmental disabilities. The Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy—ELSA—is working to change that. Now in its seventh year, the four-year academy serves young adults with developmental, cognitive and learning disabilities. ELSA students sharpen their skills in math and reading, participate fully in campus activities, gain hands-on paid work experience, learn how to apply for long-term jobs and, in general, enhance their capacity for independent living and lifelong learning. ELSA is a great example of Elmhurst College getting ahead of the pack in identifying a real need of a segment of our society and addressing it creatively and effectively.
9. Our chapel is a cultural hub for the western suburbs.
When President Robert Stanger dedicated the chapel 53 years ago, he called it “a graceful and distinctive edifice.” Perhaps what has been most distinctive about Hammerschmidt over the years has been how gracefully it has served myriad purposes and multiple audiences. As you might expect, it’s the scene of baptisms, weddings and funerals. It’s also a classroom building and a lecture hall that has hosted speakers as renowned as Martin Luther King Jr. and Elie Wiesel. (A plaque marks the occasion of Dr. King’s address on July 8, 1966.) In addition to the two Nobel laureates, Hammerschmidt’s list of luminaries includes writers (Edward Albee, Joyce Carol Oates), journalists (Bob Woodward, Anna Quindlen, David Gergen, Jeffrey Toobin, Lou Cannon, Frank Deford), historians (Taylor Branch, Robert Dallek, John Meacham, Michael Beschloss), social activists (Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman), religious leaders (Cardinal Francis George, Sister Helen Prejean), the explorer who found the Titanic (Robert Ballard), and at least one certified heavyweight (Muhammad Ali).
10. Our art collection is a real eye-opener.
Buehler Library is home to an outstanding collection of Chicago Imagist and Abstractionist work dating from about 1950 to the present. Not all the art is familiar, but even casual enthusiasts will recognize the psychedelic colors of an Ed Paschke or the crisp cityscapes of Roger Brown. Altogether the College’s paintings, drawings and sculpture—more than 100 pieces—comprise one of the most extraordinary art collections in the Midwest. “There’s rarely a retrospective of the so-called Imagist artists that doesn’t include Elmhurst,” says the art critic Jim Yood. “It’s the best single overview of art from 1966 to 1985 in any public institution.”
11. We’re reinventing the church-related college.
Our historic and living affiliation with the United Church of Christ plays a part in all of our efforts to serve our students and community and live out our institutional values. “The UCC has a long and proud history of shattering our society’s color and gender barriers,” President Ray notes. “It frequently has been at the forefront of ecclesiastical efforts to embrace the whole of humanity.” In the 18th century, the UCC was the first church in the United States to ordain an African American to the Christian ministry. In the 19th century, it was the first to ordain a woman. In the 20th century, it was the first to ordain an openly gay person—William R. Johnson, Elmhurst Class of 1968, who became a UCC minister in 1972. The tradition of the UCC resonates with our own tradition in ways that make for a highly distinctive institution of higher learning. The church describes itself as “extravagantly welcoming.” We are, too.
12. We know how to put on a show.
Staging a musical in a converted sawmill may not be easy; but when the curtain goes up on opening night, everything about it is appealing. Our Mill Theatre offers a full season of productions each year, including musicals, plays and an assortment of projects directed and designed by students. The fare is eclectic: everything from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Sweet Charity to Zombie Prom. The musical is especially well suited to the College, with its strong programs in vocal music and theatre.
13. Each spring, we seek to teach the unteachable.
Since 1991, the Holocaust Education Project has been part of the intellectual and ritual life of the College, speaking to its soul, posing questions that defy answering. Each April, the College brings prominent scholars to campus to talk about survivors, perpetrators, rescuers, hidden children, Holocaust denial, Christian complicity in the genocide, and other troubling and essential issues. The mantra of many scholars, survivors and experts is: “The Holocaust cannot be understood or imagined or taught. But it must be.” Elmhurst is doing its part.
14. In America’s foremost city for architecture, we build with discernment and care.
Eighty-six years ago, President H. Richard Niebuhr launched a comprehensive effort to expand and transform the Elmhurst campus. First, he engaged a young Chicago architect, Benjamin Franklin Olson, to create a meticulously considered long-range campus plan. It included a proper college quadrangle—the now-familiar sunken mall surrounded by red-brick, English colonial buildings. The plan was “designed to make theirs one of the most attractive little colleges in the Midwest,” the Chicago Sunday Tribune reported in its editions of May 9, 1926. The plan worked. The living campus of today stands as a monument to Niebuhr’s foresight, and to an enduring institutional commitment to build space that enriches human experience
15. We strengthen the local economy.
Elmhurst employs 520 full-time and 250 part-time professionals. It meets an annual payroll in excess of $41 million, and an annual budget in excess of $65 million. It injects an estimated $81 million into the Chicago area’s economy.
16. We enhance the local workforce.
About 70 percent of Elmhurst graduates choose to live and work in Illinois. Our 16,000 local alumni have achieved uncommon success in a vast variety of careers—as doctors and teachers, artists and nurses, lawyers and leaders in corporations and organizations. They contribute in special ways to their workplace and society because their Elmhurst Experience has prepared them well to engage new ideas, respect different viewpoints, collaborate with others, and create original solutions to problems old and new. They serve their colleagues and their communities each day with creativity, compassion and competence.
17. We work to ensure that academic talent and commitment, not money, opens our doors.
That premise governs our robust student financial aid program. The College works hard to offer financial aid packages that bring down the cost of an Elmhurst education to levels that are affordable to the greatest number of students and their families. Among our current students, 95 percent receive some kind of financial aid. We’re trying to offer an excellent education to people who come from a wide range of backgrounds that aren’t necessarily underprivileged—though they sometimes are—but certainly are not elite. That’s a key part of our mission—and it’s why we’re consistently ranked as a “best value college” by U.S. News & World Report.
18. Our unique Niebuhr Center puts faith into action.
Religious faith is a motivating force for many Elmhurst students, just as it was for the College’s founders more than 140 years ago. The Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action helps students put their beliefs to work. Its mission is inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s pragmatic, socially involved theology and by Richard Niebuhr’s injunction that to be faithful means “engagement in civil work for the sake of the common good.” The center offers courses, provides internships and connects students with opportunities to serve others, in the Chicago area and around the world. The Center for Professional Excellence also provides numerous opportunities for students to participate in internships and learn about careers. Through career guidance, service-learning, intercultural education and study-away opportunities, the CPE helps students make their dreams a reality.
19. We help deserving high school students master the hard stuff.
Our Summer Math and Science Academy is a kind of boot camp for high school kids devoted to those academic subjects that one academy student describes as “the hard stuff.” The academy aims to give young women and minorities—the groups that tend to be underrepresented in college math and science courses—a running start on undergraduate work in those disciplines. Professor Evans Afenya has directed the academy for each of its 18 years. “Some of these students come from desolate situations,” he says. “They deserve better than to sit aroundand think they have no future. But first they must realize that they can do the work.”
20. We work hard to get our students to the finish line.
Some colleges and universities are starting to give higher education a bad name. The rap is that they’re allowing students to roll up big college debts without enabling them to earn the degree that they need to get ahead in life. That does happen, and it often is a scandal. It is not what Elmhurst is about. We’ve moved our graduation rate up 20 points over the past 20 years. That puts it 20 points above the national average. And we’re still not content with the progress we’ve made. We never will be. We enroll every student with the goal of doing what it takes to enable each of them to get to the finish line. We know before we admit them that they can do it; we are determined to work with them to make it happen.
21. We like to find ways to make ourselves useful.
Just ask the youth soccer clubs and high school varsities that practice at Langhorst Field … the small companies that tap into the resources of the Hardin Institute for Market Research … the families that use the affordable services of the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic … and on and on. We take pride in our role as good neighbors.
22. We create new knowledge and find new solutions to human problems.
Our faculty engage avidly in scholarly research. They’re at work every day: on an analysis of split-brain syndrome, on an investigation of the environmental viability of salmonella cells, on an examination of the impact of gender roles on self-concept—on scores of scholarly inquiries that will inform humanity’s collective understanding of its frailties and possibilities. Our students often form a significant part of the research team. Side by side, in the lab and in the field, Elmhurst faculty and students study pollen germination, cancer cell metastasis, the epidemiology of the West Nile virus, the impact of war on the environment, and myriad other topics.
23. Summer is swing time around here.
Every June since 1996, the Elmhurst College Jazz Band has entertained huge and appreciative audiences at Summer Extravaganza, an evening of free music for the community on the College Mall. Over the years, Extravaganzas have paired the band with such big names as Maynard Ferguson, Diane Schuur, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Patti Austin, whose performance so charmed the crowd that more than a few picnickers felt compelled to get up and dance.
24. Our society is facing an acute shortage of health-care professionals. We’re on the case.
Over the next decade—as the population ages and continues to grow—the United States is anticipating a shortfall of 210,000 doctors and more than 1 million nurses. Elmhurst College is ideally positioned to meet this challenge. Our academic programs in the sciences and health care are renowned, innovative and growing. More than one-third of our graduates pursue careers in the sciences or a related health-care field. Over the last five years alone, the number of science and health majors at Elmhurst has increased by more than 20 percent. What’s more, we take a distinctive approach to preparing our community’s future health professionals. Our Patterson Center for the Health Professions, with its “Team Health” approach, brings together students with complementary career interests for internships, research opportunities and much more. Our graduates begin their careers at hospitals, clinics and medical centers around the Chicago area knowing from learned experience how to serve as effective members of today’s health-care teams.
25. We know what we stand for, and we act on our values.
Elmhurst has always been a place of values and conviction. We were founded by 19th-century reformers who believed in human potential, loved learning and had standards. More than 141 years later, we still do. We still attract students and teachers who think for themselves and act on their principles, who challenge and respect one another, who engage, serve and celebrate their diverse, dynamic, interdependent community.