Higher education has changed dramatically in the past decade. Some of this change has coincided with the changes in technology—other shifts are driven, by increasing workforce gaps. The demographics of the students have also shifted drastically. A significant amount of well-settled adults—with full-time jobs and families—are now opting for higher education. Dr. Jamel Santa Cruze Wright, the President of Eureka College understands the implications of these modern challenges in the education system. She has devised unique administrative and institutional methods to address the need of the hour.
Dr. Jamel was a first-generation student who studied Communication at Missouri Western State University and later went to the University of Kansas, where she obtained her master’s and Ph.D. in communication. She is a knowledgeable, financially astute, and highly collaborative higher education administrator. A respected and decorated visionary, educator, and transformative leader, Dr. Jamel possesses over two decades of experience as an academic advisor, administrator, and faculty member at reputable institutions, including Boston College, Saint Louis University, and the University of Kansas. She is also the first woman and African-American to lead the prestigious Eureka College in its history of more than 166 years.
“At Eureka, we are serving the needs of the students as well as the communities of today and tomorrow,” asserts Dr. Jamel.
A Distinguished Leader
After gaining experience as a professor, Dr. Jamel joined Eureka College in 2014 as a special assistant to the President. She subsequently served as the Vice President of Strategic & Diverse Initiatives before becoming President in 2016.
Dr. Jamel is a highly recognized professional and community member, both locally and nationally. An author, trainer, and consultant, she is also a recipient of the ‘2018 African American Hall of Fame Museum’ in Peoria, Illinois. She has received the ‘2019 Mayor’s Community Service Award’ from Peoria mayor, Jim Ardis. In 2019, she was awarded the ‘2019 Distinguished Alumni Award,’ by Missouri Western State University.
Jamel also serves on several boards, including the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges & Universities, Association of Colleges of Illinois, Carle BroMenn/Eureka Hospital, and Easterseals.
Dr. Jamel and her team have been successful in ensuring the financial health and stability of the college, evidenced by consistently meeting the Department of Education composite score and paying down nearly one-third of the college’s debt.
Honoring the Values of the Institution
Eureka College was chartered in 1855, by abolitionists in Illinois. The founders of the institution were committed to providing a broad liberal arts education to students. They believed in an education infused with values as the basis for leadership development. Dr. Jamel believes in the deeply rooted values of Eureka College and is dedicated to its future by developing an adaptive, innovative and entrepreneurial campus culture that cultivates transferable skills and confidence in the students while continually promoting the liberal arts and lifelong learning.
“Our focus is on sustainability, strategic partnerships and maintaining a distinctive higher education experience that is student-centered and accessible to diverse populations of students,” revealed Dr. Jamel.
As a result, 97% of Eureka College graduates are employed or continuing their education within 6 months of graduation.
Eureka College was the first institution in Illinois to educate women and men as equals at a time when few other colleges in the US had a co-education system. Gradually, Eureka became a recognized higher education institution, with its alumni occupying leadership positions in different fields and organizations nationwide. The college also has former US president, late Ronald Wilson Reagan, as an alumnus.
The “10 Essentials” Curriculum
The signature general education curriculum at the college is distinct because it allows students the flexibility to customize their educational experiences, foster richer classroom discussions, and provides hands-on experience that enhances the value of the education received. Eureka College has methodically devised a curriculum that is designed to inculcate 10 essential lifelong and transferable skills that the students need and employers want, including–intellect, communication skills, aesthetic awareness, cultural awareness, understanding of the natural environment, health and physical fitness, greater social awareness, and a sense of personal responsibility, values, and leadership.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the heart of Eureka College’s founding and an integral part of its core values and campus sustainability efforts. An example is Intergroup Dialogue, which blends theory and experiential learning to facilitate student learning about social group identity, social inequality, and intergroup relations. The program prepares students to live and work in a diverse world and educates them in making choices that advance equity, justice, and peace.
“Some of our efforts include identifying an inclusive excellence director, creating programs that expose the campus community to different lived experiences and practices, and continuing to commit to ongoing education on diverse issues,” mentioned Dr. Jamel.
Dedicated to a Holistic Approach
Dr. Jamel believes in the holistic development of the students. She says, “Co- and extracurricular activities provide students an opportunity to explore, experience, and reinforce the learned lessons to the real world.”
Eureka College has over 30 clubs and organizations, which allows every student to find their passion and unique niche. The college has a rich athletic tradition with 12 NCAA Division III athletic programs—which include football, volleyball, soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, golf, and cross country.
Due to COVID-19, the higher education sector had to undergo several dramatic changes and challenges, including remote learning, declining enrollments, financial distress, strict campus protocols, lack of in-person interaction and events. But one of the most significant effects of the pandemic is the acceleration of several previously foreseen changes. Given the many challenges, Dr. Jamel said, the business model associated with higher education must undergo a complete transformation. Colleges must use radical imagination to ensure the positive disruptive change needed to survive and thrive.
She mentioned that the way Eureka College has navigated the pandemic has shown the nimbleness and resilience of the college and the importance of its sustainable practices.
Adapting to the Digital Norm
Technology represents one of the most significant changes in higher education. Jamel says that the cost of higher education has increased, in part, in order to meet the expectations of technological advancements. Institutions like Eureka College have invested in the enhancement of its campus technological capabilities.
When the pandemic began, EC provided an AI Chatbot that helps the students access institutional resources and convey challenges. The Chatbot is used to monitor the performance of the students—both mentally and academically. It also has the capability to guide the students through the campus–meet faculty and locate different offices for support. Most of Eureka College’s students engaged with the Chatbot throughout the pandemic.
Stepping Into the Future
Based on the latest state and CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19, classes at Eureka College are, once again, set to commence on-campus in the fall 2021. As the vaccines are becoming readily available and COVID-19 positivity is declining, EC is hopeful and optimistic. “We are looking forward to being able to host more in-person events with more guests in attendance,” said Dr. Jamel.
Under the guidance of President Jamel Wright, Eureka College is strategically prepared to face the modern challenges of higher education, and is positioned for future growth and success as an institution. Eureka College is set to launch several new initiatives and programs, along with renovation projects, in the near future.
ALSO READ: The 10 Influential Education Leaders, 2023