At its core, St. Ambrose University is the same place it was when founded more than a century ago. Certainly, it has evolved, but the university has always stayed true to its mission to provide an outstanding academic experience rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition.
"We know-and accept-who we are and what we believe in as an institution," says James Loftus, vice president of enrollment management and student services. "It's what allows the people and this place to continue to flourish."
And grow Ambrose has, with a record first-year class last fall of 575 students. Innovative programs, such as the new master's in speech-language pathology, are fulfilling community needs, and construction is nearly finished on the Health Sciences Education Center on the west campus of Genesis Medical Center.
But this growth hasn't always been easy for St. Ambrose, particularly over the past few years as the institution has faced an ever-crowded field of for-profit higher educational institutions and online degree programs, on top of traditional competitors across the region. In the Quad Cities alone, the face of education has changed drastically: For instance, Western Illinois University in Macomb has established a Moline campus, where WIU intends to grow its current enrollment of 1,400 students to 3,000 by spring 2011. Satellite locations and online offerings at both non- and for-profit institutions seem to pop up with the change of seasons.
Acknowledging that in today's higher education landscape it is anything but business as usual, three years ago St. Ambrose embarked on a branding process. The goal was not to change the university, but to
convey more congruently and consistently to our natural constituents that which makes Ambrose unique and is most valuable to them. As a result, St. Ambrose is staking our claim-establishing our relevance-in the changing marketplace.
"We offer an experience beyond that of other universities in the region-so much more than career preparation," Loftus says. "This can be seen in our commitment to our mission and offering programs that allow each student to fulfill their academic, social and spiritual potential. The result is a one-of-a-kind learning environment you won't find elsewhere."
On the hunt to understand what exactly makes St. Ambrose, well, St. Ambrose, administrators, with the help of top marketing experts, engaged current and prospective students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the St. Ambrose community in a series of surveys and focus groups.
The research showed that there are core attributes Ambrosians and prospective students across the board value: the holistic education, our Catholic identity, the
personal and supportive environment offered, as well as lifelong learning, social justice teachings and inclusive atmosphere. These features are lived out by the university's people and potential, says Karen Buck, director of cross media strategy at Zehno Cross Media Communications, the New Orleans-based firm that continues to work with St. Ambrose to implement its branding strategy.
Once the university authenticated the distinctions that make up the St. Ambrose brand, the challenge became how to highlight this strong identity both internally and beyond campus. (see sidebar)
"We needed to express just as fully and personally the realities about Ambrose-that we graduate curious, informed students who are engaged with their community ethically and intellectually," Buck says. "And, we wanted to share the stories of transformation across the country, conveying how Ambrose and its people live up to the promise of enriching lives every single day. As a collective, these stories express what it means to be Ambrosian."
Just one of these stories is 2008 master's of criminal justice graduate Tracy Dietsch, who carries St. Ambrose's values with her as she goes behind the bars of the state penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa, each morning. As associate warden of treatment in the maximum security, all-male prison, her goal each day is to support the inmates-many serving life sentences without parole-in walking a path toward a more meaningful life.
Recently, her department trained 26 inmates to provide hospice care for their
fellow incarcerated. For many of them, it is the first time they've ever had to face the reality of death and aging.
"These volunteers are doing something for someone else, and at the same time are getting something in return," Dietsch says. "For many of them, it's turning their lives around, offering a new perspective many may not have had before. I'd like to think that it's giving them a better life."
"Enriching lives-something we talk about so often at St. Ambrose-is ingrained in our campus culture," Loftus says. "It's reflected in the people and places near and far that make up our community. It's the foundation for the university. It's the foundation for our brand."
Although he may not have realized it at the time, it was just such a desire to make a difference that attracted Tom Bowman to St. Ambrose to pursue his master's degree. The 2006 Augustana College graduate left the Quad Cities for a few years, working at jobs that "had nothing to do with my major," but found his way back because Ambrose began offering a new master's program in speech-language pathology-a career path he knew in his heart was right for him. Already, he's changing young lives through participating in one of the program's speech therapy clinical settings at area preschools.
"When I started the program, I may have been in it for a more selfish reason-to get the degree and become successful," Tom says. "But now when I go to the preschool, the kids' eyes light up. They're excited to see me. I care about them and I'm concerned with their wellbeing. It's opened my eyes to the importance of the work, and the change I may be able to effect after college."
Those "a-ha" moments are exactly what should be happening at Ambrose every day, Loftus says.
"Recognition of our strengths is an important move forward for the university," he says, "but it ultimately won't fulfill our vision to be the leading Catholic higher educational institution in the Midwest. Our success relies on what our world-class faculty and students do in the classroom and community, now and after graduation," as alumni who live out Ambrose's core values.
Students like Munir are already making that connection.
"Ambrose has opened my eyes to how people can come together for a common purpose and achieve great things," he says. "This place, and the people who are part of it, has showed me that college isn't just about getting a piece of paper. It's about getting ready to change the world."