Elmhurst College welcomed 506 first-year students this fall, bringing the total number of Elmhurst students to 3,210. The Class of 2017 hails from 21 states and includes 95 students from outside Illinois, a higher percentage than in previous years. It’s a diverse class, with students of color accounting for 33 percent of the student body, and it’s also well prepared, with a mean high school GPA of 3.32. But numbers don't tell the whole story. To really get to know the newest group of Elmhurst students, you have to consider them in all their diverse, quirky and marvelously distinct glory.
President S. Alan Ray remembers the first time he stood to speak to an incoming class of new students at the College’s annual August Convocation. It was his debut as president in 2008, and he was delivering what he now recalls as a standard, earnest welcoming speech. Then he paused to look at his audience.
“They were reasonably attentive, but they looked really tired,” he remembers. “They’d just moved in, probably lugging little refrigerators up three flights of stairs on a hot day, and so I wondered, ‘Isn’t there some way we can reinvigorate them, something that might provide a contrast to the solemnities that students experience otherwise during an occasion like this?’”
So was born a new Elmhurst tradition. For the past five years, Ray has used his Convocation address as an opportunity to introduce the newly arrived students to the most idiosyncratic of their classmates. The idea is to welcome students to their new academic home by celebrating what Ray calls “examples of blatant unusualness,” students whose stories, achievements and leisure-time pursuits are interesting and unique.
The last thing he wants to do, Ray insists, is embarrass anybody. Rather, he aims to make a point and, if possible, have a few laughs along the way. “This is a college where you can be distinctive and unusual and also not take yourself all that seriously,” he explains. “I want to set a tone that it’s okay to stand out a little bit.”
So meet Marshall, who collects nutcrackers. And Mark, who has seen solar eclipses from six continents. And Sean, who can simultaneously juggle, eat an apple and name every president of the United States. The list goes on, but as Ray tells his audience, “the names have been changed to protect the talented and quirky.”
And we haven’t even gotten to the national trampoline champion, or the church accordionist, or the Miss Illinois Teen Pageant hopeful.
A remarkable class, you might think. And you’d be right. But then you remember Convocations past, when Ray saluted students who doubled as circus performers, folk dancers, country-music recording artists, master Scuba divers and bagpipers. Clearly, quirkiness is not exclusive to the Class of 2017.
Nor, for that matter, is the need for a little reassurance about feeling at home during your first week of your new life at college.
“One of the things that I think is most concerning for first-year students is this fear of needing to conform, to feel comfortable among 1,500 strangers,” said Ray. “I want to say that it’s okay, you can take a social risk. We celebrate difference.”
To get to know each new class, Ray pages through material submitted by newly admitted students (voluntarily) to the Office of Admission. He also shares his email address during each Convocation speech and invites students to contact him or see him during his open office hours. And students take him up on the offer.
“They will sometimes introduce themselves and say, ‘I was the one you mentioned in your speech,’” he says. “Students say they enjoy it.”
Ray’s speeches do tend to produce more laughs than students might expect of a typical academic ceremony. Which is fine with Ray. “We take our work seriously here, but not ourselves,” he says. “I want to put students at ease.”
Or, as he told students at this year’s Convocation, “At Elmhurst, being blatantly unusual is good. I’m living proof.” So we challenged the president to produce some example of his own quirkiness, some distinction that would prove him worthy of the most unconventional individuals of the Class of 2017.
In response, Ray began by mentioning his work on issues of importance to Native Americans, including the Cherokee Nation, of which he is a citizen. He also mentioned being the first Catholic president of a college affiliated with the United Church of Christ. And then, as if to seal his claim on unusualness, he produced this:
“Being a guy who’s 57 and has three children under 10 years old is pretty unusual,” he said. “That’s different.”
Indeed. And fitting enough for the president of such a “blatantly unusual” college.