It's a great honor to be invited to speak here today.
Last year at about this time, Rev. Jesse Jackson came to our campus in DeKalb to help us open a traveling museum exhibition called "Quilts and Human Rights." He spent the day talking with students and faculty, and he told us that quilting is a great metaphor for an inclusive society: individually, different pieces of cloth are just rags, he said, but sewn together, they make a blanket of strength that warms and protects us.
That was just one of the things I remember about Rev. Jackson's visit. Publicly, he also encouraged us to "start conversations that are out of your comfort zone," and, as a university, we embrace that challenge. Privately, Rev. Jackson told me that even though DeKalb is an hour away from Chicago, he said, "We're too close to be far from each other." And, of course, he was right.
So today I want to tell you about Northern Illinois University.
We're a major research university with a strong commitment to student success and community engagement. NIU was founded in 1895 - we are almost 125 years old. Currently, there are nearly a quarter of a million NIU graduates living around the world. The majority of these alumni have lived and loved and built families and careers here in the State of Illinois - in Chicagoland.
From its earliest days, NIU has been committed to social justice and inclusion.
We've recognized for a long time that talent is universal, whereas opportunity is not.
In 1968, we created a program called CHANCE to identify, recruit, admit and assist students who show promise for succeeding in college despite limited preparation and resources. After 50 years of service to students on NIU's campus, with more than 15,000 alumni, NIU graduates who were admitted through CHANCE are now serving their communities as dentists, teachers, physicians, engineers, artists, entrepreneurs, accountants, athletes and public servants.
Many alumni continue to support the program by volunteering to assist currently enrolled students as they pursue their academic goals at NIU, or by providing scholarship support to today's talented students.
We have a great example sitting here with us today: The chairman of the NIU Board of Trustees, Mr. Wheeler Coleman. Wheeler, will you stand?
Today, our university continues its tradition of providing access and opportunity. NIU is committed to all of our students and their educational pursuits, regardless of their immigration status. We support our student-led organization DREAM Action, and share their belief that higher education is a fundamental human right for all, regardless of citizenship status. We have created a new position specifically to help undocumented students navigate their college education and their complex personal lives. And we are working with our students and our donors to increase the number of grants and scholarships available to undocumented students who are not eligible for state or federal financial aid.
Regardless of background, we know that the biggest challenge for most students who want to attend college is the cost. That's why we have made scholarships our No. 1 fundraising priority at NIU. We recently announced $5 million worth of new scholarships, with a large percentage aimed directly at students who have attended Chicago Public Schools or are transferring from the City Colleges of Chicago. If you have a student or know of one who might benefit from this type of financial help, please go to niu.edu/aimhigh for more information. That's niu.edu/aimhigh.
At the beginning of my remarks, I described NIU as a major research university. You may wonder why I emphasized research, so allow me to explain.
At NIU, our students - even freshmen - get a chance to engage in research and artistry projects, mentored by professors from our nationally and internationally recognized faculty.
The diverse identities, perspectives and experiences of our students contribute to the success of these efforts, because diversity is a dimension of excellence.
And, our students benefit from this type of engagement, because it fosters critical thinking skills, an appreciation for balancing risk and rewards, and an understanding of the discovery and innovation processes.
This past week, we hosted a large career fair at NIU. When I spoke to the employers who hire our students as interns and employees, they complimented our students' professionalism and their ability to work effectively on teams with colleagues from diverse backgrounds. We are proud of that. At the same time, we want to make sure that our students are prepared not only for success at that first job, but for success throughout their lives and careers - in graduate or professional school, in executive leadership positions, as entrepreneurs - or wherever their dreams dictate.
Last week, we held a news conference to announce a new research facility on our campus. The Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability will focus on issues that impact our future and our quality of life: food systems … water resources … and environmental change. The Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability will create locally based innovative solutions for a world with fewer natural resources, more extreme weather events and a more urbanized environment. This is the kind of research that will help Illinois expand its economy and address issues like food deserts here in Chicago. And yes, students will be part of that important work.
If I sound like I'm extraordinarily proud of NIU, it's because I am. We have excellent faculty and staff, a beautiful campus, a growing portfolio of online degrees and a community that strives to be welcoming and inclusive. We were among the first universities in Illinois to create the position of Chief Diversity Officer - you're going to be hearing from her in just a minute - and the programming she and her staff have developed tackles tough issues head-on. When we ask our students and our professors why they chose NIU, or what they value most about our university, the rich diversity of our student body is consistently at the top of their list. To borrow a metaphor from Rev. Jackson, we celebrate every piece of our living quilt.
Thank you for inviting me here today. For those of you with children or grandchildren thinking about college, please encourage them to explore NIU. They'll be glad you did. Thank you.