Even as North Central College celebrates its sesquicentennial this weekend, officials at the Naperville school are looking ahead to the school's next 150 years.
In the final installment of our two-part series, President Harold Wilde talks to the Daily Herald about the college's future and its ever-changing student body.
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Q. How has the student body evolved at North Central?
A. When I came here, North Central had 2,500 students and a little less than half were part-time. Today we have 3,000 and of those, a little over 2,500 are full-time. The number of full-time students in my time here has just about doubled. That shift reflects that 20 years ago there weren't many local schools serving the needs of part-time students. Now there's about 10.
We have put our emphasis over the past 20 years on growing the full-time undergraduate population. We've more than doubled the number of students who live on campus. Those are significant changes and they've happened by element of our strategic plan.
The goal has been to strengthen the core component of the college experience and I think that has happened. I think we have a much more vibrant student life over the past 20 years. Every way you would measure the student experience, having that critical mass of full-time graduates, has ramped up that experience in a positive way.
Q. What element of North Central's history are you most proud of? What are you most proud of during your tenure?
A. It's exciting to know the history and discover how many things make North Central distinctive and a school I love. How many of those things have been here throughout our history?
The first president of the college, A.A. Smith, came here and was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He became the first president in the first year of the Civil War and he wasn't even a member of the parent religious denomination. The school was founded by German Methodists.
From the day the school was founded, it was a school that was committed to equal rights. From the day it was founded, it was a coed school which was rare. The day it was founded it was a school that was religiously -- even though it was equally grounded in a Christian tradition -- open to diverse perspectives. You look back and say in 1861, that was all pretty rare and a special thing.
You come back 150 years later and know this college has always had a deep commitment to service, a deep commitment to citizenship and it's always been a school that had high standards. These are things that attracted me here 21 years ago.
As I look back on my tenure here, my hope is not that we've veered off into a new direction but rather that we've kept the college on a path and a trajectory set by those remarkable founders a century and a half ago.
Q. What does the future hold for North Central?
A. A couple students sent me an email a couple days ago and they said they wanted to get a banner from the sesquicentennial celebration and take a photo with me so they can take a photo with the president at their 50th reunion. My response was "What makes you think I won't still be here?"
What the sesquicentennial is all about is knowing our past better so we can ensure our future. That's why the slogan is "A Promising Start." We're reminding ourselves that a celebration like this is about using this moment, not just to have a big party and pat ourselves on the back, not just to feel good about all of the ways the college has grown throughout the years.
Those are all good things but we also need to raise the money to lay the groundwork for the college to come. And we're a great institution but there are still challenges.
We want to build a new science center and that will be the most expensive project in the college's history. We don't use debt for those projects so we need to raise a ton of money. We need to make sure we have scholarship dollars to maintain. Right now, up to one-third of our first-year students are on Federal Pell grants and Illinois Map grants. It's a wonderful thing that the college is more economically diverse than it ever has been, but federal dollars are also more iffy than in any point in history.
If we do our job right over this year, we will have set in motion some steps that will ensure the remarkable momentum the college has had for many many years will sustain far into the future.