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MOLINE — Light rain and the threat of thunderstorms didn’t dampen the “New Student Welcome” Wednesday afternoon at Western Illinois University-Quad Cities, where students, faculty and university leaders kicked off the new school year with a sunny, upbeat program.

The hour-long event was a chance for the university to make a good first impression with its newest crop of students.

“Today Western Illinois University is stronger because you have decided to join the best university in the United States,” said Joseph Rives, senior vice president for strategic planning and initiatives, who oversees WIU-QC.

Despite declining university enrollment, which has stoked concerns about WIU’s future, the event’s tone was decidedly optimistic.

Students new and returning came for free food and desserts, an activities fair held in a nearby hallway, and a 45-minute program of speeches that focused on strategies for student wellness and featured words of encouragement.

Attention centered on the university’s new provost and acting president, Martin Abraham, who took over university leadership earlier this summer.

“Here in the Quad-Cities, we have programs geared for students from a variety of backgrounds,” Abraham said in his extemporaneous speech. He emphasized WIU’s connections to local businesses as a major asset for students.

Abraham also implored students to utilize campus resources — counselors, professors, even the president himself — in order to stay enrolled and graduate.

“Life will happen. We’re here to help with that,” said Abraham, who previously worked at Youngstown State University in Ohio. “The last thing I want you to worry about while you’re struggling with a problem outside the university is that you’ll fail a class because you’re missing class.”

Along with other speakers, Abraham encouraged students to attend a Leatherneck football game in Macomb. The team's home opener, against Montana State University, is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 14.

“Take advantage of what’s going on there (in Macomb) as well as here,” Abraham said. “I know it’s harder to do that because it’s an hour-and-a-half drive. It’s not a particularly exciting drive. But it’s not terrible.”

The program also included speeches from Polly Radosh, chair of the university's board of trustees, and Greg Aguilar, a trustee from East Moline.

Radosh relayed a story about a high school counselor who told her she “wasn’t college material” and should become a hairdresser instead. The sexism motivated her to succeed.

“People will misjudge you. They’ll employ stereotypes that do not fit you. Persevere,” Radosh advised the roughly 50 students in attendance. “Use the misguided judgment of others as your own tool for success.

“Enjoy your education,” Radosh concluded. “You are so, so lucky to be here.”

Aguilar, who works as the Q2030 director at the Quad Cities Chamber, cited WIU’s connections to big companies, including Deere & Co., Arconic and Group O.

“We have two beautiful campuses. Network with everyone you meet,” he said.

In an interview after the event, Aguilar said that he feels “very optimistic” about the university’s coming year. His vision for the campus, he said, is to “support current students and prepare for the next generation.”

In his closing remarks, Rives promised that buses will be provided for Quad-Cities students interested in attending football games in Macomb.

But the upbeat program hit a minor hitch when Rives was interrupted by a heckler, a returning student studying business and engineering.

The lighthearted yet awkward exchange did not sour the afternoon. In an interview afterward, the student, who said his outburst got him scolded for being “unprofessional,” called the event “fantastic” and even spoke fondly about his WIU education.

Rives, for his part, said the event went well.

“It’s important to us to have a welcoming environment at the very beginning,” he said.

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