Like many higher education institutions in the early 20th century, Western had very few minority students. However, three years after the first day of classes on the new Western Illinois State Normal School campus, six Filipino students arrived in 1905 and became the first international/minority students to graduate in 1908. The first full-time African American college student at Western was Hazel Lewis of Quincy, who arrived during her junior year in 1917. The first African American graduate was Leala Burnett, also of Quincy, who received her diploma in 1923 at the age of 36. She later taught for 30 years in her hometown.*
Ninety-three years after Ms. Burnett’s graduation from Western Illinois State Normal School, the Western Illinois University of today has evolved into a progressive institution comprised of students, faculty and staff from a myriad of diverse backgrounds. We owe a debt of gratitude for those who paved the way to ensure that diversity would persist and thrive at Western.
Since 2006, Western has increased its total minority enrollment by 20.3 percent. Western’s current minority enrollment, which is 32.5 percent of the total student enrollment, is 3,309. Furthermore, the University continues to graduate a larger percentage of students from underrepresented, first-generation and low-income backgrounds.
In addition to recruiting an ethnically diverse student body, the University actively engages in recruiting underrepresented minority faculty and administrative staff through the dissertation fellowship and visiting professor programs for traditionally underrepresented groups. Such programs as the Expanding Cultural Diversity Project and the University Diversity Council provide outstanding opportunities to showcase our campus culture, and Western houses numerous student organizations dedicated to diversity, including the Black Student Association, Latin American Student Organization, Korean Student Association, International Friendship Club, Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center, Feminist Action Alliance, Unity, Tradicion Hispana Dance Troupe, Cultural Expressions Club, NAACP and more.
Earlier this semester, I had the honor of accepting the Minority Access, Inc. Commitment to Diversity Award. Western was among 38 colleges and universities from across the U.S., and the only Illinois public institution. The award was given to institutions that embrace diversity, their past experience(s) with diversity and strategies for creating a more inclusive environment, as well as the statistical results of those strategies.
Most recently, our University Housing and Dining Services received the Outstanding Commitment to Inclusion and Equity Award from GLACUHO (Great Lakes Association of College and University Housing Officers). The award recognizes a college or university that has implemented an innovative approach to enhancing diversity awareness, understanding and education on their campus.
Diversity is an integral part of Western’s Strategic Plan, and providing equal access and opportunity to all students and employees are our priorities. It is also our mission to provide an environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all. I am proud of Western Illinois University and our continued commitment to providing academic and extracurricular opportunities that support a culture of inclusion for all.
* From “First Century: A Pictorial History of Western Illinois University” by Western Illinois University Distinguished Professor Emeritus John Hallwas.