Change in name, attitude credited with 150 percent growth in new students.
MOUNT PLEASANT — Despite her Chicago roots, Nina Williams attended a small high school — the kind where everybody knows your name.
She had a lot of college options by the time her senior year came around, but her decision went beyond stats and travel distance. She wanted to feel valued and comfortable.
“I thought a small college would be a better fit for me,” she said.
Williams, 18, started her freshman year Monday at Iowa Wesleyan University, and was nothing but smiles at the school’s “Rock Around the Campus” 175th anniversary celebration Thursday night. It’s been only four days, but Williams knows she made the right choice.
“When I came here for orientation, I just felt like I really belonged here. Like this was the place for me,” said Williams, who is majoring in psychology with a minor in criminal justice.
Hundreds of students, teachers, faculty, staff and unaffiliated locals turned out for the event, which started with a traditional picnic with faculty serving students.
“This is amazing,” said Chris Plunkett, vice president of finance for Iowa Wesleyan. “We’re on a pretty big growth roll right now. We’re hearing a lot from returning students that it just feels different. There’s a lot more energy.”
Plunkett was serving fried chicken during the picnic, and nothing but positives fell from her mouth. According to Plunkett, the school has 182 freshman this year, compared to 120 last year. There were only 75 freshman in 2014, which means enrollment has increased about 150 percent over the past two years. The number of student-athletes has increased as well, rising from 51 last year to 85 this year. The school had to order more football helmets.
“Our resident halls were at 50 percent capacity a year ago, and now they’re full,” Plunkett said.
Although the school’s official census day isn’t until Sept. 6, the college is boasting about 290 new students — counting exchange and transfer students. Iowa Wesleyan converted from a college to a university just more than a year ago, and Plunkett believes the change directly correlates to the increased numbers.
“We’re putting our identity out there as an all-around university,” she said. “We put a lot more focus this past year on our admissions team and how to go about prioritizing the students who are likely to come here. “
Organized in conjunction with the Mount Pleasant Chamber Alliance, the celebration had a little something for everyone. Live music from a Chicago-based band, children’s games, inflatable houses and a dunk tank.
“They (the Mount Pleasant Chamber Alliance) do a Rock around the Block event once a month every summer, and the last month of every summer, the university is a sponsor,” said Meg Richtman, vice president of strategic initiative for Iowa Wesleyan. “We wanted to bring the community to campus to celebrate this time.”
Iowa Wesleyan President Steven Titus spoke after the celebration began, but not before the Mount Pleasant High School marching band and cheerleaders energized the crowd. Bearing hordes of purple and white balloons (the university’s colors), the cheerleaders trumpeted the Iowa Wesleyan name. Many of the Iowa Wesleyan students danced en-masse earlier in the evening, taking advantage of the free deejay music.
“Iowa Wesleyan University is the first and the oldest four-year co-educational university in the state, and the second oldest west of the Mississippi,” Titus said. “What we have here is a great heritage, and that heritage is cultivated because we’re in a great community.”
Titus said the 290 new students comprise the largest incoming Iowa Wesleyan class in about 40 years, and he also mentioned the cheerleading program has been reinstated. Nina Williams is one of those cheerleaders.
“We just had our first practice Tuesday,” she said.
The celebration is far from over, though. An open house for the recently renovated Chadwick Library is planned for Sept. 30, and more anniversary events will follow. The library was a recipient of a donation from the estate of Donald E. Young, a long-time Henry County educator and 1950 Wesleyan graduate. He left a $385,617 bequest for a 21st century library as the building celebrates its 50th anniversary, and the renovations are nearly complete.
By William Smith, The Hawk Eye