Janesville26.4°

Going from one note to a symphony

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Kayla Bunge
February 5, 2008
— The campus on the shores of Geneva Lake once reserved for quiet reflection is buzzing with activity.

George Williams College of Aurora University is changing.


“We’re emerging out of a dormant phase,” said Wen-D Kersten, the college’s marketing director.


In the last five years, the institution has transformed from a one-note recreational tune to a symphony of degree programs and community offerings.


College staff believed it had an obligation to include the community in its metamorphosis.


“We have an enormous responsibility to add to the culture and education of everyone in the community,” Kersten said. “(The college) is a little diamond in the midst of this community. We have an opportunity to offer this community so many things.”


George Williams College long has been a staple in the lakes area, but it wasn’t until recently that it enjoyed an influential role in the community.


“People come to us looking for assistance,” said Bill Duncan, the college’s vice president and chief academic officer. “We play an important role in community life, now.”


Not only is the college a place people come for an education, but it’s also a place where people come to soak in culture.


“Our community is starved for things like that,” Kersten said.


Collaborating with the village


True to its roots in recreation, perhaps the college’s biggest contribution to the community has been its operation of the Williams Bay Recreation Department since 2001.


“It’s just a wonderful partnership,” said Village Administrator Bob Carlson.


The department previously was staffed only part time and didn’t offer much in the way of activities for youth and families. The village was growing, and officials knew they needed to step up their recreation department.


George Williams College’s School of Experiential Leadership offered the expertise needed to get the program off the ground.


Graduate students pursing their master’s degrees in recreation administration staff the department, which means they get real-world experience. And of course the village benefits from having a plethora of sports and leisure activities for its residents, from youth baseball and basketball to woodcarving and quilting.


“Most families and youth and adults are looking for things to do in their leisure time,” said Dr. Rita Yerkes, dean of the School of Experiential Leadership. “Particularly in the Bay, we have done special events not there before.”


Such events include a Halloween “Spooky Walk” through the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy, an Earth Day program and TGIF activities for seventh- and eighth-graders.


“We’ve tried to pay attention to what community residents would like to have happen,” Yerkes said of the expanded programming.


Carlson said the village’s collaboration with the college has a lot more people turning to the recreation than before.


Adding cultural attractions


And true to its role as an institution of higher learning, the college is bringing the community cultural opportunities.


“It’s something that you can’t say you have enough of,” Carlson said. “Culture and things for people to do of all ages—you don’t really have enough of that.”


Perhaps what started bringing George Williams College out of the woodwork was the rebirth of the popular summer concert series “Music by the Lake” in 2001.


“That brought people onto campus that hadn’t been there in years,” Duncan said.


Now in its eighth season, the series has featured an array of national performers, including Gaelic Storm, Manhattan Transfer, The Fifth Dimension and several orchestras.


George Williams College started a business speaker series, intimate “fireside chats” with local business leaders. The series’ first guest was Erik Buell, founder and CEO of Buell Motorcycle Co. of East Troy.


Standing-room-only attendance was proof there’s interest for such an event, said David Frost, assistant professor of business.


A series of Saturday-afternoon career management workshops add to the college’s offerings. The first workshop was held in December, and the second was held Jan. 26. The final workshop, “Balancing Work and Home,” will be held March 22.


Frost said the goal of such workshops is to provide working people with “pathways to healthy professional and personal lifestyles.”


George Williams College officials agree that the institution’s newfound role in the community—providing recreational and cultural opportunities—is just part of the job.


“It’s part of the history of colleges,” Duncan said, “to share ideas and try to raise the well being of an area.”


History of George Williams College

1844: Sir George William founded the Young Men’s Christian Association in London.


1886: The YMCA purchased four acres of land on Geneva Lake for a summer retreat for its leaders. It was known as “College Camp.”


1890: The YMCA opened a school in Chicago to educate young men for leadership.


1896: The school in Chicago merged with the campus in Lake Geneva and permanently was established in Chicago as the Secretarial Institute and Training School of the YMCA.


1913: The school was renamed the Young Men’s Christian Association College.


1915: YMCA College moved to Hyde Park on Chicago’s south side.


1933: YMCA College was named George Williams College in honor of the movement’s founder.


1966: GWC relocated to a new campus in Downers Grove, Ill.


1985: The college succumbed to financial difficulty and closed.


1986: Some programs were transferred to Aurora University in Aurora, Ill.


1988: The GWC board entertained proposals from several colleges and universities around the country to form an affiliation that would re-establish the college’s unique programs.


1992: GWC and Aurora University signed an affiliation agreement.


2000: GWC and Aurora University merged.



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