What We Lost at Wheeling Jesuit University

Author’s note: It was impossible for me to write a piece on WJU objectively, so I did a deep dive into my personal experience. I believe the courses of study left at WJU for the upcoming year are no less important majors or careers than mine.

I had been hearing hints for years that Wheeling Jesuit University was in trouble and could be headed for a big change. In 2017, many professors and staff were laid off or given an early retirement option, a clear indication that things were not going well. Maybe I just chose to hold out hope that someone would swoop in and stop the inevitable from happening.

But, the inevitable happened. Wheeling Jesuit University announced it was cutting all but 11 programs for the 2019-20 year. And the main programs to be cut are, in my opinion, the heart and soul of the school — the humanities and arts. What we have left is a shadow of what my alma mater was.

You guessed it. I am a 2004 graduate of the English literature department at WJU, just shy of a history minor because I enjoyed the subject and professors so much I couldn’t quit taking their courses. When the devastating news hit last month that a major overhaul was in the works, and was swiftly followed by cutting all of the arts programs, I felt a strong need to share the value I found in those programs, in what a Bachelor of Arts at WJU was like.

WJU was not my first try at college. I lasted five weeks at another school. In 1999, I took what the kids today call a “gap year” — the difference was it started five weeks into a fall semester and was unplanned. I got a job bagging groceries, which left plenty of time to think about what I had done — quit college — and where I was headed — professional grocery bagger. (A job I still wouldn’t shrug off today that gave me so many fond memories, one I’d even say I have a nostalgia for. But that’s another story for another day.) I knew I personally needed more.

I feel like I actually got two rounds at WJU. My brother attended from 1995-99, and, I got to spend a lot of time on the campus with his friends. I’m happy to say many are still my dear friends today. It was where I went to see his band play and hang out with him on weekends. It was where he sat with me in the computer room at the NTTC (National Technology Transfer Center) on campus and showed me the wonders of this new thing called the Internet.

After he graduated, I started to think about WJU as an option for me. I knew the campus well, and it already felt like home, with its picturesque green lawns and flowering trees in the springtime. I had a friend, a recent WJU graduate, who worked in the admissions office at the time. I started brainstorming with her about starting Jesuit the following fall. From the word go, the WJU community worked its magic on me — a recent graduate helping me and convincing me to give Jesuit a try, that it would be worth my time if I did. So in the fall of 2000, I became a Cardinal. What it was exactly that I was doing there, I wasn’t quite sure of yet. I had only written a total of maybe three research papers in high school, and I was declared an undecided major when I started WJU. I had a long way to go.

Because I was an undecided major, I dove right into the core classes, many taught by humanities professors, and they changed me. I gave a passing effort in high school, but at Jesuit the classes were fascinating, and I wanted to work hard. The people I thank for this were my English, history, theology and philosophy professors and fellow students. I have a lot of memories, and some of them deserve to be mentioned and to be given their due for shaping me into who I am today.

Freshman year seminar and wellness programs were offered simply to better ourselves and to help us adjust to our new world. One of our tasks in my seminar class was community service. My group of classmates went to Moundsville and read library books to grade school students. I felt a connection with those students while I read to them, remembering being read to when I was their age. I was giving them something, a story time, without asking for or expecting something in return. I was just doing some good for goodness sake and helping others. I was exercising one of the key Jesuit values of “Women and Men for and with Others.”

I had my first history course, and it opened my eyes to so many things. I feel that I truly began to learn about our country and our place in the world in my little 20th century history class. I had to write my first college research paper on something that impacted the culture of the United States of America. I chose the British Invasion of popular music in America, particularly the Beatles, and got my first taste of what it’s like to write about something you actually enjoy. To have a professor sign off on your idea and be excited with you; to conduct your first research on a topic you love and then succeed at it — this was huge for me.

This same history professor offered a course later in my career at WJU on women in religion, and I realize now that it laid the groundwork for me becoming a feminist. Prior to this class, I believe I thought feminism was just burning bras in the 1960s. I didn’t realize it was about to help define who I was as a person and a mother. There was extra credit for this class, and one option was a visit to the nuns of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Wheeling, West Virginia. It was a fascinating evening with my professor to an establishment I didn’t even know existed prior to taking this course. My horizons were broadening, and I was learning things. Not only just about women, but about the community of Wheeling and myself.

I had an intro to world religions course. In a society that is lacking today in tolerance and understanding of others, I so greatly wish everyone had a chance to take that course. To approach learning about things you don’t understand with an open mind; to explore new beliefs and traditions; to learn what religions have in common and where they differ; to discover that we are all just human at the core of it all.

I had a Jesuit priest for another religion class whose lectures were like entertaining performances. We learned about Native American religion and peyote. We read Our Kind. We listened to a Meatloaf song on cassette and dissected the lyrics. We learned that this professor would often stop his car when a turtle was dangerously crossing the road to help the turtle to the other side. Sometimes these turtles would end up in the garden on campus that the resident priests tended for their own meals. This class was only held once a week for three hours. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was some of the best three hours of my week.

I had philosophy classes where we argued the meaning of love and the importance put on material possessions. We would take tests in Blue Books — a test book designed for writing an answer to one essay question on the spot. Talk about pressure, but you had to be able to articulate your thoughts quickly and precisely — a life skill that helps me to this very day. I took an intro to psychology class and finally started getting all of the Freud jokes. I did a project on manic depression. All of these courses opened my eyes and my mind and helped shape me into who I am today.

All of these courses opened my eyes and my mind and helped shape me into who I am today.

And then I met the English department.

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I took a banned books class, and I knew immediately that if I could have in-depth conversations about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22 on a regular basis, I had found my place in the university. I met with the head of the department to discuss my options, and I remember fighting back tears because she was telling me, basically, this was something she thought I could do … and you will be good at doing. This is a major that is so all-encompassing — research, public speaking, gathering your thoughts, writing, debating — that you will not have a hard time finding a career when you graduate. That you will be seen as a smart, well-rounded person who would be an asset at any job. Join us. And suddenly I had a purpose.

The scared kid who quit college the first time around now had a network of professors helping me every step of the way and getting excited with me about my projects and my future. I read and understood The Sound and The Fury, thanks to my studies in fiction professor who went over every detail of the novel. I took a Shakespeare class and would get together with a group of other students to study, and we would have the absolute best time picking characters and reading Shakespeare plays aloud to each other.

The final semester of our junior year, we had to choose our thesis topic for the following fall — researching, writing and presenting your senior thesis was a major part of your final grade and reflected on how well you understood your chosen topic and chosen major. I would check in with my thesis director throughout the summer about possible ideas, and she would return my worried emails, on her own time, with calm and thoughtful advice. The director of the Academic Resource Center sat with me and helped me fine-tune my thesis with many rewrites, giving me encouragement every step of the way.

One of my greater accomplishments was being able to present my thesis at a research symposium and present it well. To get up in front of a room of strangers and discuss my topic and answer questions intelligently. I was as finely groomed as I could possibly be thanks to my department working with me every step of the way. I understand that this year, 2019, was the 20th anniversary of WJU’s research day. A chance for all students to share their knowledge in their chosen fields and departments with a friendly competition day on campus — always a day of pride on campus. Was this the 20th and the final year for the research day tradition? I have a hard time thinking it will continue when the psychology professor who started research day will be let go at the end of this semester along with so many majors that participated in the special day.

I was not a perfect student. I remember a nice math tutor at the school doing her absolute best to help me with developmental math — almost a lost cause.

I didn’t stick around much on the weekends or partake in a lot of the social activities at WJU, a lot of that was due to being an introvert and being busy with a job and relationship off campus. But the Wheeling Jesuit University campus will forever be the place where I learned about Matthew Shepard by attending the stage play The Laramie Project and wept like a baby along with my professors. It’s where I watched my fellow students give a riveting production of Waiting for Godot and saw author Tim O’ Brien give a talk on his novel The Things They Carried; where I watched in class and then discussed the movies Malcom X, Fight Club and The Godfather; where I read the novel Johnny Got His Gun and was faced with the horrors of war; it’s where on the night of the 9/11 attacks we all gathered on the campus lawn in the dark with lit candles and had an impromptu remembrance and mass while we were still trying to figure out what had happened.

It’s where I learned to take risks; do good research; begin to realize my thoughts on the world and my country; learned the importance of community. It was where I had the opportunity to go on a snorkeling trip with manatees and to take a yearly trip to Canada to attend the Stratford Festival to see Shakespeare plays and musicals, and to dine and socialize with my professors and fellow students as friends and peers.

When the devastation hit in early March that a major overhaul was about to happen, then was later followed by the news that 20 faculty and staff would lose their jobs at the end of this school year, I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. How could my university, the one that taught me about “service with and among others,” turn its back on its own community? On professors and priests who had devoted their lives to teaching students about Jesuit values? Some who have been there for 30 years or more, and then turn them away without even so much as a thank-you severance? And at the end of a school year, no less, when it will be so hard to find jobs in their field?

WJU is no longer a liberal arts school or even a Jesuit school, and we are left with so many questions. How can you be bailed out of debt in 2017 and then turn around and gut your course offerings and staff? Somehow they got so far off track that the school is unrecognizable from my class of 2004 and my brother’s class of 1999, and every class since. My heart breaks for the current students and professors. This isn’t just losing a job or a major — this is losing an identity and a piece of yourself. This is Wheeling losing a part of its identity.

I was a lucky beneficiary of this great little college in Wheeling, West Virginia. I have had a career for the past 15 years with my Bachelor of Arts degree that I earned there. I have taken the knowledge those professors bestowed on me in those classes and turned it around and put it back into the community of Wheeling. I only wish those who are in charge of the institution that shares the same name as my little college could say the same.

A poem by my brother:

Catalogue of Sunsets in a Small Jesuit College

Wheeling College 1954-2019

The garden our priests and brothers tenured,

thick dark stalks trimmed in golds and red

along the east side of the residence,

saw no sunset. By afternoon prayer,

shadows of Whelan Hall brought the obsculta

of the honeybee and aphid. Argiopinae scripts

unwove, and carpenters put down their projects.

As in some old stories, there arrived a figure

in simple clothes to pull stake on trellis and row.

To have joined them at noon was to imagine

what most of the earth does not know.

— Jacob Strautmann

(Jacob Strautmann’s debut book of poems, The Land of the Dead is Open for Business, is forthcoming in spring 2020 from Four Way Books. He’s the managing director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University where he teaches creative writing. His poems can be found in Southern Humanities Review, Agni Magazine and elsewhere. Poems are forthcoming in Blackbird and Salamander Magazine. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wheeling Jesuit University in history and English.)

A GoFundMe page has been set up independently by Wheeling Jesuit Alumni to help the professors who are being let go.

Kelly Strautmann lives out in the country of Cameron, W.Va., and proofreads in the city of Wheeling. She has a supportive and talented husband and two ridiculous daughters who keep her busy and full of love.