A Commitment to Diversity

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.

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Diversity is an integral part of Western’s Strategic Plan, and providing equal access and opportunity to all students and employees are our priorities.

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.

The Leatherneck Spirit

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From school colors of purple and gold to the “Leatherneck” nickname, Western Illinois University is alive with spirit and traditions.

Our school colors date back 113 years, to 1902, the opening year of what was then called the Western Illinois Normal School. A first-year student, Mary Jarvis, inspired by the surrounding “golden prairie” filled with purple coneflowers, suggested the color combination as part of a school-wide contest. The purple and gold ribbons can be found on her 1906 diploma, which is housed in the Leslie F. Malpass Library Archives.

Ms. Jarvis was the first to see the power and pride in the purple and the gold. As I have told students at Commencement, those affiliated with Western have purple passion and gold grit. Purple is the color of good judgment and peace of mind. Gold is associated with higher ideas, wisdom, understanding, and enlightenment. It is the color of success, achievement, and triumph. Gold also represents generosity and giving. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of Western Illinois University represent that passion, that wisdom, that grit.

And no one represents “grit” better than a Leatherneck. We are so fortunate to be associated with this powerful nickname, and we have the late, longtime Coach and Athletic Director Ray “Rock” Hanson to thank for our nickname, “The Fighting Leathernecks.” Hanson, who served at WIU from 1926 to 1964, was a decorated Marine Corps colonel and a war hero. Because of his affiliation with the Marine Corps, Hanson was able to secure permission to use the nickname, “Leathernecks,” for Western Illinois University. Today, WIU remains the only public school allowed to use the “Leathernecks” nickname.

Our mascot, Col. Rock III, aka “Rocky,” is named after that legendary coach and administrator. The first Rocky arrived on campus in 1958, followed by a succession of four-legged, and two-legged costumed, mascots. Our current mascot, Col. Rock III, joined the Western family in May 2015.

Wearing the school colors with pride, singing the fight song loud and clear and recognizing such traditions as celebrating Purple and Gold Day every April 24 and Founders’ Day every Sept. 23 are part of what keeps our school spirit and traditions alive and going strong. To ensure the spirit continues, new freshmen are indoctrinated into WIU culture during move-in weekend with the “Leatherneck Legacy” program.

“Leatherneck Legacy,” which was established by WIU Admissions in Fall 2014, brings new freshmen together in Western Hall on the second day of move-in weekend to learn the fight song and to hear from motivational speakers about the importance of Leatherneck tradition and pride. During the inaugural event, Jude Kiah, the former director of Go West Transit and the University Bookstore, shared “What It Means to Be a Leatherneck.” I think Mr. Kiah’s words bear repeating as we talk about spirit and tradition:

A.) To some, it means sports, athletics, games, being outdoors, intramurals.

B.) To others, it means you’ll open your mind to so many new things. The people who make it here will get connected and try new things. Join new clubs, make new friends, get connected.

C.) Being a Leatherneck means being focused, having a focus. You didn’t come here for just any reason. You came to get a degree and to eventually have a career. You are here to do something special.

D.) Being a Leatherneck is about fun. These will be the best four years if you let them be. But if you get too far into the fun, they can also be the worst four years.

E.) And finally, being a Leatherneck is about being home.

As we begin a new academic year, I ask our students, our faculty, and our staff to wear your school colors with pride. Get involved in campus activities and attend campus events. Be a true part of Western Illinois University. Embrace the traditions and the Leatherneck Legacy.

It’s a great day to be a Leatherneck!