Wright State 'changing lives' for over 45 years
Dayton Daily News
DAYTON, Ohio — Melissa Kelbley never thought she would graduate from college. But she had never heard of Wright State University.
In June, Kelbley became one of the nearly 98,000 people to earn a degree from Wright State in the university’s 45 years. Wright State uniquely allowed Kelbley, now 23, to attend college with its services for people with physical disabilities.
“It’s definitely a huge accomplishment that I didn’t think I would ever be able to do,” said the Fostoria, Ohio native, who uses a wheelchair. “I feel like I can be a role model now.”
Wright State celebrated 45 years of “changing lives” in 2012. The university was launched with a grassroots campaign that raised $3 million. When the first students began classes in Allyn Hall on Sept. 8, 1964, the institution was the Dayton Campus of Miami and the Ohio State University. It wasn’t until three years later that Wright State was designated Ohio’s 12th public university with 5,000 students.
Today, Wright State has 17,930 students between its Fairborn and Lake campuses, employs nearly 2,400 faculty and staff and operates on a $443.8 million budget, according to the university.
“We have grown and we have improved and we have now developed programs that are nationally recognized. In so many ways, what we celebrated on our 45th was the tremendous impact this institution now has,” said President David Hopkins.
Leading since the start
In some areas, Wright State has been leading since it was established to give access to higher education to Dayton-area residents who otherwise could not attend a four-year university because of cost or distance.
“We needed to improve the educational attainment level of this region, and we have done that,” Hopkins said.
Wright State still serves the non-traditional student. About one-third of students are over the age of 25. The university has awarded 59,853 degrees to residents of Raider Country — the 16-county region surrounding Dayton.
“If you think about the individuals we have graduating that have stayed right here, these are individuals who are now becoming the leaders of the region,” Hopkins said.
Wright State has been named to many top lists, including four consecutive years as a military-friendly school by multiple publications for serving more than 600 military veterans or military-connected students. The university even offers military-only classes for students returning from service.
Wright State also is considered among the nation’s top disability-friendly schools. The university was serving students with physical disabilities through offerings such as personal assistance even before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, said Jeff Vernooy, director of the Office of Disability Services.
From its accessible underground tunnels to its alternative textbooks to a course that helps students with physical disabilities manage their personal assistants, Kelbley said Wright State made it possible for her to not only attend college, but graduate.
She said Wright State students are “different.” “There’s a sense of growth there that maybe you don’t get at other colleges,” said Kelbley, who is now searching for a job.
Other honors Wright State has received have been built over the years, including the university surpassing $100 million in annual research and sponsored programs and being recognized with seven Centers of Excellence by the state of Ohio in areas from medical readiness to micro air vehicle research.
Even Tom Hanks took notice, in 2011 congratulating the university’s arts program in a video for the Collaborative Education, Leadership and Innovation in Arts becoming an Ohio Center of Excellence, according to Wright State.
Wright State has grown physically, as well, to 26 academic-related buildings and 30 residential structures. The campus is an economic engine for the area with the Nutter Center, which opened in 1990 and hosts athletic games, concerts and other events.
Looking back on the growth Wright State has achieved in 45 years, Hopkins said it is the staff and students who made it possible.
Former secretary Orlas (Semler) Schwallie, who registered the school’s first students, said the growth has been “amazing.”
When her own daughter graduated from Wright State in 1993, Schwallie said she felt proud of the school, “because we came from nothing.”
“It’s something to be very proud of in the community. It’s amazing to me when I go over there and see the change. I know it filled a need,” she said.
“We didn’t know how fast it was going to grow,” said her husband, Gordon Schwallie.
The university is planning even more growth, including a $37 million Neuroscience Engineering Collaboration building where engineers and neuroscientists will work together, according to Wright State.
Hopkins said the institution will continue to endeavor to be “Ohio’s most innovative university” in every area in honor of its namesake, the Wright Brothers, who invented the airplane near where the university sits today.
“As an institution, we want to make sure for every student, that there is an understanding of what it means to be creative and entrepreneurial in the way they use their knowledge,” Hopkins said.