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A Legacy of Transformation

Nearly 50,000 alumni have benefited from the university's mission to offer an exceptional and accessible education that prepares students with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to succeed in a global society.

(Editor's Note: This story was first reported in 2018; and updated in 2019.)

Like any freshman heading to college, Simone Jones was excited and apprehensive when she arrived on campus at Governors State University (GSU) in 2014. “I’m a first-generation college student, and I walked in not knowing how to go about doing things,” she said. “Academically I’ve always done pretty well, but college was just different.”

At the end of her first semester, Jones’ GPA was a devastating 1.7. Despite her disappointment, Jones remained positive. “Instead of thinking about everything that could go wrong, I thought about everything that could go right,” she said. “My second semester my GPA was 3.8, and I made the Dean’s list.”

Four years later, Jones shared her story at GSU’s 2018 Commencement, making history as a member of the university’s first freshman class to earn a baccalaureate degree. The turnaround was an amazing accomplishment for Jones. Her path—and all the effort GSU had made to help her succeed—also demonstrated GSU’s success to transform higher education in the Chicagoland area through a commitment to a new majority student body.

As GSU emerged from its 50-year anniversary celebration and  prepares to salute the end of President Elaine P. Maimon's tenure, the university recognizes much has changed since it opened its doors in 1969. The most notable difference is the 2014 expansion from an upper-division university teaching only juniors, seniors, and graduate students to one offering a full undergraduate experience.

For all the changes on campus, GSU’s founding commitment has endured: to serve a new majority—first-generation students, students of color, returning adults, and veterans. Ironically, many of these students belong to underserved groups and have been the focus at GSU since the beginning.

“Governors State has a deep commitment to minority groups—about 35 percent of the faculty and administrative staff are black or Mexican-American; about 30 percent of secretarial and support staff are from the same groups,” GSU’s first president, William E. Engbretson wrote in early promotional material archived by the GSU Library. While GSU would have few minority students at first, “limited by the location of the college,” Engbretson continued, “deliberate recruiting efforts indicate that minority students will comprise 20 percent of the incoming population.”

Some 50 years later, GSU’s original mission continues to resonate with students like Simone Jones who are determined to graduate.

Changes in the 21st Century

The decades after World War II brought rapid population growth and with it, a new expansion of higher education. Middle-class families demanded affordable, accessible college programs, leading to a boom in the creation of two-year community colleges. Students sought to continue their education, and in order to better manage community resources, dozens of upper-division colleges opened across the country. Among them was GSU, which opened its doors in 1969 in Chicago’s Southland.

For nearly five decades, GSU successfully educated thousands of students at the junior, senior, and graduate level. In the new millennium, demand began growing in the region for new options for quality, affordable public higher education. In response, the GSU Board of Trustees in 2011 voted unanimously to expand the university to offer a four-year undergraduate program, a move that also ensured its economic viability for decades to come.

Fortunately for GSU, leadership already had valuable expertise in making such a significant transition. Dr. Maimon, who was hired in 2007, had led the 2002 expansion of Arizona State University West from an upper-division university to the traditional four-year model in her position there as Chief Campus Officer, Vice President, and Provost. She had worked closely with ASU-West Executive Vice Provost and Chief Business Officer Gebeyehu Ejigu, who joined her at GSU as Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff in 2007.

During Dr. Maimon’s tenure at ASU West, she found success by forging a partnership first with Glendale Community College, establishing a pathway for students to earn a baccalaureate degree at the university. The key was establishing sound relationships with community colleges, she wrote in her book, “Leading Academic Change.”

 “Community college leaders understandably, at first, saw university lower-division courses as competition. Yet, it was clear to me in both Arizona and Illinois that the student population interested in a four-year university program does not overlap to a competitive extent with those deciding to begin higher education at the community college.”

GSU established the Dual Degree Program (DDP) in 2011 to forge this important link. The unique, award-winning partnership between GSU and 17 Chicagoland community colleges supports students in earning an associate degree first, a confidence-building accomplishment that makes them more likely to complete their baccalaureate degree when they transfer. To help bridge the gap between two bureaucracies, DDP students receive individualized advising and peer mentoring while they are still enrolled at their community college, learning the unspoken rules of degree attainment and professional development well before they arrive at GSU.

According to former GSU Board Chairman Patrick Ormsby, the DDP addressed the biggest issue in GSU’s transformation to a four-year university. “It gave community colleges the assurance that GSU was still very supportive by making it easier for those students to transfer to GSU,” he said. “President Maimon and her staff did a great job of talking through the impact, and it went very well.”

Starting at the beginning: Researching high-impact practices

Launching the bold transformation to a four-year university meant much more than simply adding classes and opening the door to younger students. It was an opportunity to become a model 21st century university that served a diverse student body outside Chicago. The goal was to offer a private liberal arts experience in a public education setting for GSU’s new majority students.

GSU faculty and administrators gathered to research high-impact practices and develop unique, foundational first- and second-year curricula. Faculty from every collegeCollege of Business, the College of Health and Human Services, the College of Education and the College of Arts & Sciencesworked as the General Education Task Force. The team was led by then Associate Provost and Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs Provost Dr. Ann Vendrely, Professor of Physical Therapy.

“We started by focusing on the literature produced by the Association of American State Colleges & Universities (AASCU) on high-impact practices and Complete College America (CCA), whose premise is that it’s important for freshmen to be full-time students so they can matriculate in a timely way without being saddled with debt or taking courses they don’t need,” Vendrely said.

Communicating with all faculty throughout the two-year process was important, not only to keep professors abreast of proposed developments but also to provide an avenue for feedback,” Vendrely said.

To create a general education curriculum from scratch, the committee laid out the framework and decided what the sequences would be. “For the main framework, the best practice was for all the courses to meet the Illinois Articulation Agreement,” she said, referring to the guidelines that ensure courses are transferable between universities. “This guaranteed that what students are getting at GSU is the standard, recognized coursework that’s been vetted through the state process,” Vendrely explained

Putting high-impact practices to work, GSU broke the mold for students’ freshman year in several ways. The highly structured program enrolled full-time students who attended daytime classes and took 15 credit hours each semester, an approach prescribed by CCA to ensure they stayed on schedule to graduate. Classes were small, with freshman composition limited to 15 students and all other classes limited to 30. A first-year seminar on interdisciplinary humanities introduced them to university intellectual life. All freshman classes were taught by full-time faculty. Freshmen were organized into learning communities focused on a particular theme—civic engagement, global citizenship and sustainability.

Above all, writing was key, with embedded tutors, supplemental instructors, a special advising unit, and a student competition with a monetary prize provided at the end of the freshman year. One writing-intensive course was required at each level to earn a baccalaureate degree, including a junior year seminar and a senior capstone course.

President Maimon heralded the idea of making sure only full-time faculty would teach freshmen, a feature offered by small liberal arts colleges but rarely offered at a state university. “The hardest courses to teach are the freshmen courses. That’s where you’re introducing students to critical thinking and writing and initiating them to the academy,” Dr. Maimon told Inside Higher Ed” in 2016. “But there’s nothing more important to do. These students are going to get a strong foundation that they’ll carry with them through their four years at university and beyond.”

By placing freshmen in learning communities (or cohorts) who took at least two courses together each semester, GSU helped ensure new students made friends. More than just making college enjoyable, research showed that having a close group of friends who provide academic support can actually help students graduate. Justin Smith, who was among members of the first freshman class, said his “posse” remained close through their four-year journey to graduation. “It helped that we conquered the jungle of life together,” he said. “The friends I made are still checking on each other.” Working toward a B.A. in business administration, the Lincoln Laureate award recipient participated in the school’s student choir, acted as a peer mentor, served as student ambassador and orientation leader, and served two terms as Student Body President.

 “I am the youngest of 12 children, and I always thought college was an unattainable thing,’’ Smith told guests gathered for the 50th anniversary Glitter and Gold Marvel Gala in April 2019. “Because of people like you who give back to GSU, I was able graduate debt free.” 

Graduation was the ultimate goal when the learning communities were created at GSU.

While the students work toward commencement, the co-horts provided a way for the university to assess its new general education program for the Higher Learning Commission, which oversees the accreditation of degree-granting colleges and universities in 19 states. in 2013, the Commission praised the university's efforts to create a four-year program for its first freshmen.

"The types of preparation made for this very significant change are being made in tandem with other significant changes in general education programming, assessment processes, institutional research, faculty development and other key areas. Such deep and significant change with such a high level of quality control and in such a short timeframe is rare in higher education,'' the Commission wrote.

Writing: the key to success

For GSU freshmen, a strong focus on writing began early and stretched beyond the required composition courses.

“All nine faculty members who were teaching the freshman year seminar had to come up with one common assignment,” said Maristela Zell, Professor of Social Work and Director of General Education. In addtion, the university adopted an new approach  known as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), which helps faculty across disciplines use student writing as an instructional tool in their teaching. President Maimon, one of its founders, said in her book, “WAC was the first major example of infusion and integration—hallmarks of twenty-first century instruction and scholarship.”

WAC helped create interdisciplinary experiences for GSU freshmen. Bradley Smith, Associate Professor of English, said, “It works best when students can see the links. The first year, I learned Stephen Wagner (Associate Professor of Management, Marketing & Entrepreneurship) was building a PowerPoint presentation in his freshman seminar on sustainability. I was talking about PowerPoint in mine, but I could dig deeper into the rhetorical features. There was a connection between learning how to present in his class and in creating a particular kind of text in mine.”

Wagner took a nontraditional approach to making writing assignments for his course, which was a writing-intensive class. Rather than require the student to produce the traditional 20-page research paper, he spread the written workload across the semester with weekly assignments. “Typically I’d assign them to watch a YouTube video or read a short article that corresponded to the topic, then write a one-page response. It was low stakes and they got regular feedback from the beginning, which is not as threatening or anxiety-provoking,” he said.

Student success in the freshman writing course was important. “We know that if you succeed in your freshman writing courses, your chances for graduating are much better,” said Associate Professor of English Kerri Morris, who helped develop the first-year writing program curriculum.

In freshman composition, students also learned the value of revision, a novel experience for many of them, according to Morris. Assigned to write personal narrative one semester, then revise it over the next semester, they were invited to submit it for an annual competition at GSU in which monetary prizes are awarded. “It’s important to let them know the goal is not to write a finished piece when they sit down to write,” Morris said. “I tell them if they’re struggling, they’re probably doing it right.”

In addition to the traditional Writing Center that offers student-to-student guidance, GSU created two new groups of peers to provide help. Embedded tutors in freshman composition classes were those who have gone through the course themselves and returned to offer guidance. (Embedded tutors also assist freshmen in math.)

Additional peer help came from Writing Fellows. Chosen for their writing excellence, they underwent extensive training in order to work with a professor to support the students as writers. Jason Zingsheim, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, said Writing Fellows “create a norm where students are more comfortable sharing their writing with peers as part of the ongoing writing process. I’ve seen a clear improvement in the quality of writing being submitted, which allows us to spend more time developing the ideas and the content.”

Younger students bring new programs and approaches

When GSU opened its doors to underclassmen, it meant welcoming a completely new demographic—younger and likely coming right from high school or with only a year or two of work experience. Faculty and administrators developed new programs and put services in place that have made a noticeable difference.

GSU required select students to attend Smart Start, a two-week program that provided academic boost and a dose of self-confidence. “Everyone can benefit,” said Aurélio Valente, Vice President for Student Affairs.

“It gets you ready. It makes you a better writer and mathematician. And it builds confidence in the two most important courses in the first year, math and English,” he said.

The benefits go beyond the classroom, too. “For two weeks, they’re the only students on campus,” Valente said. “They can find out where their classrooms are, pick their favorite spot in the lounge to chill, figure out where to park. They get their computers early so they can figure out how to access resources. They own the campus, and that is empowering on day one, particularly when other new students begin to arrive.”

For students looking to be challenged, GSU revamped its Honors Program in a way that has begun to take root at other universities. “It used to be very contract-based, where a student completed an honors seminar, wrote a thesis, and graduated with a certain GPA,” said Director of the Honors Program David Rhea, Professor of Communications, and Director of the Center for Junior Year, a unique GSU program to help freshmen and sophomores examine their interests and decide on a major.

The Honors Program operates on a points-based system in which students earn credit for high-impact educational practices that don’t occur in the classroom but are built on classroom experiences, like study abroad, research, or civic engagement, including leadership on campus or in the community, he said.

Rhea said GSU adjusted its initial requirements for the program after three years to better predict success. Rather than relying solely on an ACT or SAT score and student GPAs, GSU combined that data with other factors: the number of honors or Advanced Placement courses a student took in high school, his or her standardized test score for English, and the college proficiency of the student’s high school as defined by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

At the end of the 2018-19 school year, Rhea had excellent results to report about students who had taken six or more credit hours.

“Of 40 students admitted over the last two years, 85 percent of them have earned a 3.0 first semester GPA or higher,” he said. “It’s working.”

At any academic level, one key to success was providing a way for students to get help from other students, so GSU created the peer mentor program. Embedded in Smart Start, peer mentors work in several freshman courses and alongside faculty in the CJY as well. Seeing the value of students helping students, Rhea expanded the program in number and scope. “One-off meetings can get the student to think, but real change is going to take more than a meeting. Peer mentors need to take time to build trust and find out what’s really going on with a student who might be resistant to receiving help. But if you do fun things and build relationships, you can get to meaningful conversations.”

Living and Learning in the Midst of Art

Knowing the college experience is about much more than what takes place inside a classroom, GSU was able to offer incoming students something uniquely enriching: the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. Located on a 100-acre prairie where GSU is situated, the park is a collection of 29 masterworks made by giants of the art world. Placed around campus as well as inside, sculptures like Yes! For Lady Day, an homage to jazz singer Billie Holiday by Mark Di Suvero, created an art-infused campus that has inspired students in every major. Students also have found their muse at GSU’s Center for Performing Arts through theatrical classics and the music of legends ranging from Leonard Bernstein to Marvin Gaye.

Earmarks of a traditional campus

The look and feel of a traditional college campus invariably includes student housing, student athletics, even a school mascot. In preparing to welcome its first freshman class, GSU added all three.

In April 2013, GSU broke ground for Prairie Place. Designed not just as a dormitory but as a living-learning community, it was staffed by three faculty-in-residence, a full-time director, and trained resident assistants. The apartment-style units had fully-equipped kitchens and the building also offered floor lounges, study rooms, a classroom, a laundry room, vending machines, a service desk, and community kitchens.

“Prairie Place enabled us to recruit freshmen,” said Director Mushtaq Choudhary. “About 85 percent of our students came from within a 10- to 15-mile radius. They can have the full college experience of living on campus, but they can also go home or have family members visit easily.” Plus, GSU offers a safe place, as one of the safest public university campus in Illinois, which students appreciated. “You feel secure and can sleep well at night,” said Simone Jones of her nearly four years at Prairie Place.

She also appreciated the regular tutoring provided there. “The math tutoring really helped me get my grade up in stats,” she recalled.

The one change GSU made at Prairie Place after it opened was to offer a meal plan. “I find freshmen very cooking-challenged,” Choudhary said. By opting to live with a roommate in a two-bedroom suite—the most affordable plan—and adding a meal plan, he has told parents, “that will get your student through the semester.”

Early in 2014, the university announced its search for a mascot that would spark GSU’s new cultural identity. After several months that included input from faculty, staff, students, and the surrounding community, Jax the GSU Jaguar made his debut, rallying students as the university’s first mascot. Jax pumped up pride across campus and visibility across the region and quickly became a recognizable icon.

The Jaguar name was swiftly applied to GSU sports teams. By adding an athletics program and switching from club-level play to membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the change made it possible for GSU to recruit scholarship athletes who qualified for Pell and MAP grants, said Athletic Director Tony Bates. The combination—a focus on graduation coupled with financial aid—provides an affordable degree for about 85 students a year who might not attend college anywhere else, he said. GSU athletes have tasted success; the Jaguars men’s basketball team took first place in the NAIA competition in 2018. But to Bates, “Winning is graduation day because that’s the accomplishment they’re going to need for the rest of their lives. It’s got to be about education here.”

Meeting challenges head-on

As GSU welcomed freshmen and then sophomores, the university established new programs and the atmosphere of a small liberal arts colleges. But the student population mirrors those at other public universities, presenting the same challenges other schools are facing across the nation. In meeting their needs, GSU has drawn on its strengths.

Nearly 43 percent of GSU students are the first in their family to attend college, close to the national average of 50 percent (according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education). Research has indicated that students whose parents have no education beyond high school are significantly less likely to graduate than peers whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree.

But at GSU, wisdom and help often comes from nontraditional students, who have long made up the majority on campus. Adding younger students “completely changed the culture of the campus,” said Housing Director Choudhary. GSU, in a building that used to come to life at 4:30 p.m. each afternoon, was now bustling all day long. With the infusion of underclassmen, GSU became a community where younger, traditional students interacted with older nontraditional students in ways that benefited everyone.

Among them is “Mama” Linda Coleman, a graduate student working on her doctorate degree in communication. A peer mentor and former Student Trustee, she said, “Students would come to me—and not just because of academics. Everything ties in together.” After hearing many struggled with personal difficulties like food and housing insecurity, Coleman realized they were unaware of resources, pointing them to the Jaguar Pantry, an open food pantry that supplies nonperishable food, access to showers in the Athletics and Recreation Center, and counseling through the GSU Health and Student Counseling Center.

She solidified her response and turned it into her Leadership Capstone project, helping to create GSU4U, an initiative by the Office of the Dean of Students that connects students to campus and community resources. Coleman serves as the graduate assistant for the initiative while continuing to fulfill her many roles, on and off of campus: student, mother, grandmother, graduate assistant, member of the Student Senate, student trustee to the GSU Board of Trustees, president of both Tau Sigma and Upsilon Phi Delta National Honors Societies, Global Brigade president, and most of all—friend.

“They were coming to talk to me because I'm Linda,” she said.

As at any university, student retention also proved something of a challenge. The Honors Program helped, boosting GSU retention rates up to 70 to 80 percent.

Financial challenges at every level

As is invariably the case with college, some students faced financial hardship. About two-thirds of full-time students paid for college with the help of financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships—61 percent of undergraduates received federal, state, or institutional grants during the 2016 – 17 academic year, including 52 percent who received a federal Pell Grant based on economic need. Sixty percent took out student loans.

GSU leadership has long been committed to keeping tuition and fees among the lowest in Illinois. President Maimon recognized the importance of providing guidance for new majority students. “My vision included providing debt-free baccalaureate education for low-income community college transfer students,” she wrote in “Leading Academic Change.”

 “Fear of debt is a major obstacle to motivating economically struggling, first-generation college students to complete college. When we say ‘financial aid,’ many students hear ‘loans,’ even though outright grants are available,” she wrote. Instead of completing Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), they take on extra jobs and sign up for fewer courses. “Often the extra income decreases their eligibility for grants, and the lower course load makes them less likely to finish their degrees—ever.”

The university launched the GSU Promise to establish an endowment to supplement federal and state funds for students transferring from community colleges. GSU also made a special effort to improve access to financial aid, establishing a team of special advisors to offer guidance and remind students to apply early for FAFSA.

Fortunately, GSU had managed to accumulate a small surplus by coming in under budget for a number of years, said Ormsby. “That was really important during the budget crisis because we used some of the money to fund the losses,” he said. “But we didn’t know when it was going to end. We had to take a look at everything we were doing and see what opportunities we had for reducing cost without cutting into muscle. We looked at everything. My biggest concern was that we didn’t go after a certain number; instead we did a quality evaluation and considered all the downsides,” he said.

As a result, some programs were trimmed; others were combined. Ormsby said, “It wasn’t comfortable, but I was satisfied the administration had done a good job. Our job was to keep the university viable.”

Measuring impact

GSU’s founding commitment to diversity is the key to its current success as well as its future. Almost five decades after its founding, nearly 50,000 alumni have benefited from the university's mission to offer an exceptional and accessible education that prepares students with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to succeed in a global society. Significantly, Engbretson’s hopeful prediction that recruiting efforts would boost minority attendance has surpassed his forecast. The minority student population has grown significantly, and now stands at 50 percent. Some 38.5 percent are African-American and 8.4 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Nearly 70 percent of the campus is female.

In addition to the gender and ethnic/racial diversity, the campus is diverse by age with 18 year-old freshmen, 30 year-old undergraduates, and more than 10 percent of the campus aged 50 or older. “Traditional”- aged students (age 18-24) make up only 30.6 percent of the student body, another descriptor of GSU’s New majority.

Countless lives have been changed as a result of GSU’s mission and commitment to supporting New Majority students, and the evidence was on display at 2018 Commencement. Among the speakers was student advocate and former felon Jerry Davis EL, who credited trauma classes at GSU as a critical first step in reclaiming time lost to a vicious cycle of prison, poverty, drugs, and despair that began in his youth on Chicago’s West Side. He earned a Bachelor of Social Work Degree from GSU in 2016 after receiving the Illinois Student Laureate Award in 2015 for his civic engagement and excellence in curricular and extracurricular activities. In 2018, he received a Master of Social Work degree and continues his work as a champion for social justice.

Also among graduates were members of GSU’s first freshman class to earn baccalaureate degrees. The fruit of a bold initiative launched four years ago, the new graduates demonstrated GSU’s success at putting into practice some of the most sophisticated ideas in higher education. As Dr. Maimon wrote in “Leading Academic Change.”

“We can change outdated educational practices and shake up old hierarchies that stand in the way of reform. If we do that, we will unleash the power of an educated electorate to search for truth and to create an inclusive society worth of our highest aspirations,” she wrote.

Simone Jones, speaking at the 2018 Commencement ceremony, illustrated the point that continues to resonate as the university celebrates its origins as experimental approach to education.

“My favorite part of risk taking is not knowing the outcome but being brave enough to go through the ropes of possibilities,” Jones said.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.”