At a Lifelong Learning class at Northern Illinois University this week, led by Elizabeth Bass, the broad-ranging discussion included the decline in NIU’s enrollment and its economic impact on the DeKalb and DeKalb County.
Reflecting on that, I had this thought: The city is a college town. We like to bandy about the term “communiversity” and use it whenever a town-and-gown issue arises. But in reality, probably less than a third of the noncollege-related residents have any contact with the students, other than seeing them out shopping, at a sporting event or in an eatery.
What if we became a student-friendly community, formally setting up a program where incoming freshman and equally important, foreign students, are matched with local residents who agree to be hosts. It could work much as the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, where you meet, support, mentor and keep in regularly-scheduled contact with the one or two students assigned to you.
An office at the university, supported by our local Chamber of Commerce and city staffs, could provide a questionnaire for all incoming freshmen, transfers and foreign students, asking whether they would like to be matched with a community family or person, then do the same with the local populace.
This would require a mass mailing to all DeKalb residents and a website to collect online responses.
Then they would be paired for a semester or even a year.
Visits could alternate between the host homes and campus residences. Dinners, outings or tours could be arranged by participants. Even planning joint social events such as a picnic, entertainment or a Huskies sporting event on campus, then maybe a community gathering at Faranda’s, for example. The biggest cost would be for coordinators at NIU and in the city. The outside activities could be covered by donations or the DeKalb County Community Foundation.
A person-to-person approach would create a friendlier atmosphere for students who have never been to DeKalb or outside the metropolitan area and presently have little or no contact with the local populace. This might keep the students coming back another year, maybe even improve their study habits with the encouragement of their hosts/mentors. The advantage for residents is having someone to help them with their computers, provide a new recipe or ethnic specialty, or even a baby-sitter (for a fee). Students would develop ties to the community and have someone they could count on locally and a friendly ear.
Looking at statistics provided by Lisa Miner, senior director of institutional communications at NIU, I found that there are 1,398 foreign students enrolled, so maybe have two matched with each resident. The freshman class of 1,850 probably has a third of its members from the nearby area who wouldn’t need a host, leaving about 1,200 students who could be matched, again on a 2-to-1 basis. Outside of DeKalb, there are hundreds more homes, specifically in Sycamore and area farms. So the pool of hosts is larger than only the city.
I hope this gives NIU President Lisa Freeman and her staff something to think about, and maybe DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith will consider the idea as well.
Let’s help the university retain its students, thus increasing enrollment, and the benefits will be felt throughout the area.
Plus, new friendships will be established across generational and/or cultural lines.