One of the many virtues of working and living on a college campus comes from the regular contact with young women and men. It offers a perspective on the zeitgeist that would be difficult to gain any other way.
The Beloit College Mindset List (co-founded by Ronald Nief P’99) provides a small window into the experiences and thinking of incoming first-year students. The 2013 list included observations about this generation of entering students, such as, “With GPS, they have never needed directions to get someplace, just an address,” “They have known only two presidents,” and “Having a chat has seldom involved talking.”
To that list, I would add one more observation: They have always known Wheaton as a coeducational institution.
It’s a fact that I’ve had reason to contemplate lately. Twenty-five years ago, 324 young women and 74 young men began their studies as Wheaton’s first coeducational class. For those students, it was the beginning of a four-year adventure that prepared them for professional careers and adult life. I have also come to understand how acutely aware they were of their role as pioneers, too. And in that role, they would have a say about what coeducation would mean to the college and our community.
Throughout this year, we are marking that milestone in multiple ways, from gatherings of graduates who played on the new men’s athletic teams that were established in 1988 to a weekend gathering on March 28‒30 that will include a panel discussion about the community’s experiences during the transition and a reunion of the Gentlemen Callers.
There is a lot to discuss. It is remarkable how much our community has accomplished in that time span. Enrollment has more than doubled since 1988, and the number of applications for admission submitted each year has increased at an even greater rate. At the same time, the academic promise of our students has remained strong. The accomplishments of our students—winning national scholarships, conducting original research on their own and with faculty—testify to our academic strength.
The college’s success is rooted in its history. While the decision may have been controversial, Wheaton planned well for the transition carefully and comprehensively. The college’s leaders took advantage of what could be learned from other institutions that had preceded us in becoming coeducational, and they applied those lessons in every facet of campus life. Indeed, other institutions have come to Wheaton in the years since to learn from us.
The most impressive aspect of the planning overseen by former president Alice F. Emerson was the way it incorporated the legacy of Wheaton’s historic mission. Twenty-five years later, we remain true to the college’s collaborative culture and its commitment to promoting an inclusive society.
In the early ’80s, the Wheaton faculty developed the pioneering Balanced Curriculum Project, which integrated scholarship by and about women throughout the college’s course offerings. That holistic and integrated approach kept issues of gender in the forefront as Wheaton became coeducational. Equally important, the project created a model for the college’s efforts to extend its commitment to equity beyond women to embrace issues of race, ethnicity, nationality and class as well. The college’s curriculum now incorporates scholarship representing these perspectives across the disciplines.
Our student body mirrors the diversity of perspectives embraced by the curriculum. Students today represent 43 states and 68 countries. Twenty percent of them identify themselves as people of color; 9 percent are international students.
The result: tangible improvements to the quality of Wheaton’s educational experience. Our students learn to navigate and appreciate diverse perspectives in their studies, through the scholarly material with which they engage and through their interactions with peers who represent many backgrounds and viewpoints. These experiences will prepare them well for a complex and connected global society.
The college has many miles yet to go in fully realizing the benefits of an inclusive educational environment, but 25 years on, Wheaton has made tremendous progress in remaining true to its liberal arts tradition while expanding its focus to embrace the broad range of issues and opportunities in our global society.