Wheaton College shows off comfy new Welcome Center

 
 
Updated 12/8/2017 12:21 PM
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  • Wheaton College officials held a dedication ceremony Thursday to unveil the school's $4.7 million Welcome Center to donors and alumni.

      Wheaton College officials held a dedication ceremony Thursday to unveil the school's $4.7 million Welcome Center to donors and alumni. Katlyn Smith | Staff Photographer

  • The center's "Great Hall" is an inviting space with a fireplace, cozy furniture and views of historic campus buildings.

      The center's "Great Hall" is an inviting space with a fireplace, cozy furniture and views of historic campus buildings. Katlyn Smith | Staff Photographer

Wheaton College admission counselors used to meet with prospective students and their families about life-changing decisions in an underwhelming office that was hard to find on campus.

In that setting, college leaders knew they weren't doing the best job of providing hospitality to school visitors.

But in the college's new Welcome Center are all the comforts of a cozy living room: a stone fireplace, natural sunlight and a Christmas tree.

There's such a familiarity to the center that a parent of one high schooler recently wanted to know if the space had been renovated, Wheaton College President Philip Ryken told a gathering Thursday at the dedication ceremony for the $4.7 million building at the corner of College Avenue and Chase Street.

And that familiarity will help put prospective students at ease as they visit with counselors in a new admissions office housed in the center and talk about tuition, living away from home, scholarships -- all the "life-changing" conversations, Ryken said.

"We really wanted to communicate in a very strong way not just, 'You are welcome here, but this could become your home,'" Ryken said. "That was the sense we wanted to give particularly to prospective students."

Architects also achieved a sense of history in the two-story, 11,000-square-foot Welcome Center. Limestone materials echo the facade of the school's most recognizable building -- Blanchard Hall -- and dormer windows are an homage to the McManis-Evans residence hall.

In the center's "Great Hall" are views of the Blanchard tower and McCully stadium.

"You can see the Billy Graham Center. You can see the athletics," said Bruce Koenigsberg, the college's architect. "So it's a great place to say, 'Let me tell you about Wheaton College. Let me show you here. Let me show you there. This is what you could expect if you were a student here.'"

Interactive videos, exhibits and even a Lego replica of campus inside the center tell the history of Wheaton College and alumni accomplishments.

"This is meant to help us put our best foot forward, tell the story of Wheaton College and what we think is unique and special about this place and hopefully inspire students to want to come here," said Kirk Farney, the school's vice president for advancement.

Leaving that welcoming first impression on high schoolers is even more important given that roughly 80 percent of the college's students come from outside of Illinois.

"Through admissions now housed in this beautiful space, prospective students will be invited to discover the value of a Wheaton education, to explore the highest form of a Christian liberal arts education and to discover what it might be like to join the Wheaton family," said Ray Chang, a ministry associate for discipleship in the school's chaplain's office.

College officials broke ground on the Welcome Center more than a year ago. An apartment building and a student house were demolished to make way for the center.

As part of the school's $175 million "From the Heart, For the Kingdom" capital campaign, the college raised roughly $4 million for the project.

Overall, the school has garnered about $154 million in the fundraising campaign that will close when the fiscal year ends June 30, Farney said. The campaign has supported projects across campus, including the newly transformed Armerding Center for Music and the Arts. College leaders also hope to raise enough funds to build a concert hall.

"We're pushing hard right now to make sure it closes strong," Farney said of the campaign.

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