Elizabeth Robb recalls that when she arrived as a freshman at Webster College from Hopkinsville, Ky., in 1961, if she wanted to leave her dorm room in the evening, a proctor had to sign her out.
When bedtime came – around 10 or 10:30 p.m., as she remembers it, “the proctor came around and made sure you were still in your room and turned off the lights in the hall and your lights went off as well.”
By the time that Tim Noelker enrolled at the end of that turbulent decade, the campus had changed quite a bit. The college founded in 1915 to give Roman Catholic women the opportunity to earn a degree had gone coed, a lay board had taken over and under the leadership of Sister Jacqueline Grennan, its influence began to spread beyond the campus borders.
“It was just so confidence-building,” says Noelker, who went on to law school. “Sister Jacqueline would tell you that the best education is self-taught, and much of what Webster taught is was how to teach ourselves.
“I’m sure lots of schools do that, but it really worked here.”
As Webster kicks off a year-long centennial celebration Friday downtown, the school that has been a university since the 1980s is looking backward and forward, seeing the threads that have remained constant even as so much else has changed.
Even with its satellite campuses all over the world, from Asia to Europe to Africa, and its U.S. locations in urban areas and military outposts, Webster remains dedicated to serving the same unmet needs that sparked its founding. Beth Stroble, who has been the school’s 11th president since 2009, says the twin goals of diversity and inclusion will continue to drive the university’s growth, physically and academically.
“I look back over our 100 years,” Stroble says, “and all those changes were born out of that initial idea of open up education, create opportunity, then adapt yourself to provide the education in ways that meet students’ needs….
“Part of what happens at Webster University is that your imagination has a hard time developing as quickly as the reality shifts. It’s a university that’s always tried to lead rather than play catch-up.
“And it means that we have to be nimble and ready to evolve who we are and what we do more quickly than most universities.”
The cornerstone for the first building for the new Loretto College was laid in Webster Groves on Nov. 1, 1915. The school opened with five students, all women, and changed its name to Webster College in 1924.
The school had its first lay and first male president, George Donovan, from 1931 through the end of the 1940s and added more students and more buildings over several decades.
When the turbulent 1960s arrived, changes that buffeted society in general brought significant shifts to Webster as well.
Male students who previously had been allowed to take courses only in the arts – their other work was done at Saint Louis University – were welcomed as full-fledged Webster students. Sister Jacqueline became president in 1965, and her four-year tenure marked a time of growth and expansion, with the opening of the Loretto-Hilton center and the transfer of administration of the school to a lay board.
Subsequent decades brought new campuses, first in the United States, then worldwide, with the first opening abroad in Geneva in 1978. Webster’s presence on military bases also grew.
Closer to home, Webster’s presence in downtown St. Louis, which had begun in the old Lammert building, moved to the Old Post Office. Earlier this year, it announced plans to restore the historic Arcade Building as its new Gateway Campus downtown, with completion for the project set for 2016.
“If we want to serve a downtown population,” Stroble said, “increasingly the future of St. Louis is going to be about educational opportunity for everybody, no matter where they live. Then we need a bigger footprint downtown.”
What you need, when you need it
To Robb, a retired real estate executive who is chairing the university’s centennial celebration, the expansion downtown and around the world typifies Webster’s long-time mission.
“Webster can offer you want you need when you need it,” she said, “regardless of where you are or your circumstances.”
Noelker found rapidly changing circumstances when he arrived on campus. Saying that he may be one of the few people whose college campus was closer to home than his high school was, the Webster Groves native recalls an interesting mix of the traditional Webster student body with the growing male presence.
“Not only had Webster gone coed,” he said, “but there was a lot of recruiting that Webster did in the Northeast, so we had an interesting mix of basically Northeastern U.S.-New York-New Jersey male hippies – I haven’t even used that word in a long time – combined with some local people and some of the young ladies who still came here from Kansas City and Milwaukee and Kentucky.
“They were here because they were looking for the kind of college that Webster was shortly before I arrived, which was a very dynamic and interesting liberal arts college for Catholic women. I have to say the mix worked pretty well. It was a very interesting mix during that time. We all got along very well – still do, in fact.”
For Mitchelle Price, who graduated from the school with an MBA in 1993, that meant studying business to go along with her undergraduate degree in engineering. She said the expertise she gained is typical of the practical side of the education that Webster offers.
“Sometimes when you’re in a technical field,” Price said, “You can get away with being only technical. But it helped me to be more well-rounded and be able to communicate more effectively.
“The faculty came from industry, and that provided me with on-the-spot learning that I could take back immediately to my job and apply it. It offered me a path to see how my technical background could be intertwined into the business atmosphere.”
And that atmosphere goes beyond U.S. borders, Price says.
“It has such a global presence,” she added, “that if I’m traveling in a different country, and I’m wearing some Webster paraphernalia, it has happened to me on a number of occasions where a person will come up to me and say hey, I graduated from Webster University. It definitely has a very positive dynamic.”
What’s a Gorlok?
Current students say that dynamic still exists, from the lure of taking classes overseas to the practicality of their education.
“When you go to Webster, it’s almost like the common thing,” says Gaby Deimeke, a junior photography major from Auxvasse, Mo. “Oh, you studied abroad? I studied abroad, too. I think it’s so important that Webster pushes that so much.
“I had a completely amazing experience in London. I met so many people from completely different cultures and backgrounds and language barriers and I got to travel around Europe. Just having group projects with students from all around Europe and talking about their cultures and writing papers about their policies on ethics in the media, and what do your laws say as opposed to our laws – I thought it was just so interesting to learn about.”
And you can get a similar experience staying in Webster Groves, added Ethan Stohs, a sophomore from Omaha, Neb., majoring in audio production.
“I had people from all over the country living on my floor last year,” he said. “I had people from all over the world in my different classes, so it’s very globally recognized.
“Personally, I wouldn’t trade the on-campus experience for anything, but we do have this global interaction, and even though there are many other campuses in different locations, it’s still the Webster education, and you still get the same small classes, intense education that you can use within the world around you. It’s still a Webster-based experience.”
Added Brittany Wilson, who is working toward a master’s degree in communications management:
“I think it’s really awesome how Webster has been able to be such a global university but still remain very warm and friendly and local. That’s really cool.”
But she also appreciates the opportunity Webster provides with its satellite locations in places like downtown and Westport.
“There are people who have different experiences and situations,” she said. “If I lived in north county, that would be pretty far to travel.
“So there are people who have a lot of different responsibilities and can’t get to the campus. I think it’s awesome that Webster offers them a lot of different places where they can still get a really great education.”
Stohs, who serves as a “Gorlok Guide” and conducts campus tours for prospective students, says he wants to spread the message of how students feel about the school.
“I’ve found that Webster is a very personally based university,” he said. “You’re not just a number. You’re a student. They work toward making your college experience the best experience possible.”
And yes, he can explain why the Gorlok, the mascot who takes his name from the nearby streets of Lockwood and Gore, looks the way it does.
“It has the paws of a speeding cheetah, the horns of a fierce buffalo and the face of a dependable Saint Bernard,” he rattled off with a grin.
Global outlook, personal touch
The Gorlok may not have been around in 1915, but Stroble says the personal orientation for students at Webster is as old as the school itself.
“Students who come to Webster don’t get lost,” she said. “Faculty and staff and students, to use that old ‘Cheers’ expression, know your name.”
That’s even more important in a time when the world is growing smaller, Stroble added.
“We’re not an isolated community that’s untouched by world events,” she said. “So the future is going to require being well-grounded in your local reality, but knowing that that local reality is connected to a broader world, and you have to be knowledgeable about it, and your workplace and your family and your environment are touched by what happens in other places. We need to influence that. We can’t be isolationists anymore.
“So I think figuring out what’s the strategic thing to do to make the world a better place, that’s part of what you would find is true for almost every Webster student. They have an ‘other’ orientation. How do I make myself better, but how do I put that learning into action to make others better?”
In addition to its current campuses abroad, in Europe, Asia and its newest one in Ghana, Stroble is looking toward strengthening Webster’s ties in Southeast Asia as well as in South and Central America.
She also wants to expand academically, with new programs like cybersecurity and a new science building and more technology. And, Stroble added, as the university puts together a new strategic plan for its next 100 years, everything has to be developed so it is sustainable, not only ecologically but academically.
It all goes back, she said, to the impulses that the school’s founders had, to fill unmet needs. And Robb, the head of the centennial campaign, says Webster has worked for decades to make sure its graduates are equipped to handle whatever new challenges arise.
“No matter where you are,” she said, “you make of your life whatever you want. And I learned that at Webster College.”