ELMHURST – Elmhurst College President Troy Van Aken arrived on campus this summer to start his new position.
In advance of the fall semester, Van Aken sat down with Suburban Life correspondent Juan Pablo Garcia to talk about his first impression of the college and the community, as well as to look ahead at his first year of presidency.
Garcia: It’s been a little over a month since you officially started as the new president of Elmhurst College. What is your first impression so far?
Van Aken: There are mornings when my wife and I pinch ourselves. You know, to be in one of the top suburbs of Chicago and at an institution that externally has a lot of recognition.
As a first-generation college graduate, I think this is the type of environment that is ideal for young people that are getting their college education to live in these four years. Both on campus and a few blocks off campus, they get to be involved in other things and activities, whether it is the city or catching the Metra downtown Chicago. I kind of expected to be impressed, but I’ll be honest with you, I’m even more impressed.
Garcia: What about your family? How are they adjusting to their new home in Elmhurst?
Van Aken: I have two children: a daughter who is 18 and is heading off to college this year, and a son who just turned 20 is in college as well. Both want to be in the medical field. That was one of the pleasant surprises. I’m blown away to see them excited about their new home. It has just been really rewarding for Annette and I. We have really taken advantage of Chicago. It has cost me a little bit for Coldplay tickets because my daughter and her friends coerced me into buying them tickets, but it was a great time.
Garcia: Why did you decide to say yes to the job?
Van Aken: It probably sounds like a cliché, but it was because of fit. I think Elmhurst is an organization that needs leadership, but it has to be someone who is passionate about young people and individuals that are trying to advance their life through education. I think higher education is at a crossroads. The financial basis of higher education is changing, and Elmhurst College is finding a way forward to a new reality. Humbly I would say those are strengths of mine having had experiences certainly as a faculty member but also as the chief financial officer at a higher education institution.
Garcia: The budgetary crisis in the state of Illinois has made it difficult for those who rely on MAP grants to make ends meet. How will the college address that issue?
Van Aken: That’s one of the surprises of the not-so-pleasant nature that I found when I took the position here. The MAP funding is being discussed and which way it’s going to continue forward. We are fortunate that it was funded for last fiscal year 2015-16, but I think we are trying to prepare to that maybe being reduced or maybe down the line not being available at all. So for this year, what we have done is said that Elmhurst College will honor the MAP awards for all incoming freshmen whether the state does or not. That means taking additional risk on our part, but we are so committed in young people and helping them reach their potential that we feel that this is important to do right now.
Garcia: What do you consider will be your greatest area of focus and the greatest challenge you will face as president?
Van Aken: My greatest area of focus will be the students. My calling or my vocation is to work with these people when they are transforming their lives through educational opportunities. That’s going to be my focus, and I’ll always light up when I’m around students.
I think the area I will find challenging is dealing with this intersection of cost and affordability and student success. I look back at my own life and I actually met my wife, who is also a first-generation college graduate, at a school much like Elmhurst. Had people not helped us at that time when we were in need of a little assistance, I wouldn’t have the privilege of talking to people like you or living in this wonderful community because I wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunities.
Fundraising will be very important. To address that cost and affordability there are things you can do to be more efficient, but I think private higher education needs to seek external sources because the families in most cases cannot assume any more of the burden. I am anticipating us raising a lot of money. I’d like to think we are going to raise more money than Elmhurst has any time before. You can report on that two or three or four years down the road.
Garcia: Finally, what do you look forward to in your first year as president?
Van Aken: I think being able to get to know a new organization while bringing in some prior experience leading a higher education institution. Elmhurst College is at a point where they are ready to build, build programs and address certain realities in higher education. I’m really excited by those types of opportunities to certainly build buildings, but also build programs and find ways to do things that will have more of an impact in student achievement in terms of graduation and employability down the road.