Imagine Big Changes

Funds raised during the Imagine Campaign have transformed campus and students’ learning


Nearly 10 years ago, Northwestern launched its boldest fundraising effort yet: the Imagine Campaign. Under the leadership of then-president Dr. Bruce Murphy—and with input from campaign consultants and architects—administrators, faculty and staff imagined a campus transformed by an investment in people, places and programs that value and nurture learning in community.

Murphy retired and President Greg Christy was hired in 2008, just as the nation faced a recession that prompted many organizations, including colleges, to reevaluate priorities and spending.

Northwestern scaled back the campaign. Donors stepped up. This fall, campus community members and college supporters celebrated the successful completion of an effort that honored Northwestern’s faith-and-learning heritage by raising $48 million for programs and resources to strengthen this distinctive Christian academic community.

At the center of what Imagine Campaign supporters accomplished stands the DeWitt Learning Commons, a building that demonstrates both excellent stewardship of resources and an extravagant investment in a place where ideas take root—and imagination takes flight.

The Heart of Campus

“Stunning” has been a common reaction to the Jack & Mary DeWitt Learning Commons, which opened as classes started in August. Appreciation for the building’s gorgeous form has been eclipsed only by the college community’s gratitude for its function as the heart of campus and for the courageous and faithful learning that takes place there.


A new block-long grand entrance to campus was part of the learning commons construction. Visitors now arrive from the north via a bannered boulevard that directs them to a view of the DeWitt Learning Commons on the west, Christ Chapel on the east, and Zwemer Hall straight ahead. It’s a stunning path to a place with a proud history of integrating faith and learning.

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“The building is so busy most evenings that it can be hard to find a free place to sit,” says DeWitt Library Director Dr. Tim Schlak. He estimates student usage of the learning commons is five times higher than that of Ramaker Library.

“A typical day in DeWitt feels like the busiest day of the semester in Ramaker,” he says. “Within a few hours of opening, all the individual study niches were filled, and students were using the space in ways we’d hoped: studying and socializing.”

“I can study and get tasks accomplished,” says sophomore public relations major Stephen Dykstra, Pella, Iowa. “Then I can meet a friend for coffee or read out on the balcony—all in the same building.”

In addition to the DeWitt Library (named in memory of Jack’s parents, Marvin and Jerene) and the Vogel Community Room (which honors Northwestern benefactors Frank ’47 and Lois Vogel) the learning commons also includes the college’s tutoring center, a multimedia laboratory, and the college’s archives and Dutch heritage collection.

Just inside the main entrance is one of students’ favorite features: the Common Grounds coffee bar. “I love the atmosphere,” says senior social work major Kelsey Martinez, Sibley, Iowa, who considers caffeine a study essential.


Student scholarships were the Imagine Campaign’s most direct investment in learning. This year Northwestern students received $839,502 in scholarships from college alumni and friends. Seventy-five new scholarships were established during the campaign, bringing the total number funded by NWC supporters to more than 700.

Brook Stephens, an athletic training major from Colorado Springs, is grateful for the learning commons’ multi-functional convenience. “Before if we wanted to study in a large group, we had to go to the RSC. If I wanted a quiet place to read, head to the library. Peer tutoring or whiteboards for group projects? Van Peursem Hall. Now all those things are under one roof. It’s made it so I no longer have an excuse not to be a great student.”

In a September Beacon editorial, Kiersten Van Wyhe, a senior elementary education major from Springfield, Mo., expressed what the learning commons means for students. “It isn’t just a building,” she wrote. “It’s a place to learn for generations of college students who may leave here and serve the poor, provide nursing care, teach children no one else cares about …

“People who supported what looks on the surface like a fancy building in fact supported the training of future world-changers—which I hope we all become in small or large ways.”

Wise Investments

The DeWitt Learning Commons is the most visible part of a campaign that improved facilities across campus and supported students’ learning in classrooms as far away as Romania and Oman—not to mention cyberspace.


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Campaign-funded renovation projects in the Rowenhorst Student Center began in 2006 and finished this October. The RSC was given a facelift that involved raising a 30-foot-wide section of the roof six feet and rimming it with windows to transform the student center from a cave-like labyrinth into a sunlit, airy concourse filled with comfortable furniture and flanked by student development and health services offices—as well as the bookstore, mailroom and Hub café.

During the summers of 2011 and 2013, a similarly sleek makeover was given to the DeWitt Physical Fitness Center, which includes the college’s indoor track and courts as well as state-of-the-art fitness and recreation equipment.



Northwestern’s food service provider, Sodexo, took the lead on a remodel of the DeWitt Center cafeteria during the summers of 2012 and 2013. As a result, crowded buffet lines were traded for made-to-order serving stations, and long tables were removed, making room for round ones where students can enjoy intimate, family-style dining.

The campaign supported globalization of the college’s on-campus curriculum in addition to off-campus semesters that enable Northwestern students to learn around the globe. The Spanish translation and interpretation major demonstrated responsiveness to a society that is increasingly diverse. And three new academic minors were developed that prepare graduates to pursue God’s redeeming work in the world: Christian mission, Middle East studies, and Christian community development.


Of the more than 50 students who study off campus each year, up to 20 are participating in Northwestern’s own semester programs.

The Romania Semester began in 2007. Students live in the coal-mining Jiu Valley and use adventure education and service-learning to help youth rebuild their communities and learn to trust others.

In 2011, students inaugurated the Oman Semester. Ellen Tolsma ’12, a University of Iowa law student, says studying in the Middle East broadened her worldview: “I experienced issues like freedom of religion and women’s rights from a different cultural perspective, and I learned to embrace the gray areas.”

Last spring the Denver Urban Semester began, enabling students to learn about careers in nonprofits while interning with organizations that serve addicts, pregnant teens, homeless people and others who live on society’s margins.

Nurses aren’t the only caregivers in demand by an aging U.S. population. To prepare graduates for growing career opportunities in health and wellness, Northwestern also added a sport (and fitness) management major and a program in strength and conditioning.


Northwestern’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program began around the same time the Imagine Campaign did, with the first students taking classes in 2006–07. In 2009 a federal appropriation of nearly $425,000 enabled the expansion of the nursing arts laboratory to include state-of-the-art human patient simulators.

To date, 83 BSN graduates are practicing Northwestern’s shalom-style nursing in clinics, hospitals and other healthcare settings around the world.


Northwestern administrators believe the college’s distinctive faith-infused education isn’t just for students who can live on or near campus. That’s why they’re investing in online programs for working adults and others who want to grow in their careers and lives. An online analytics certificate program—preparing business professionals to manage and utilize big data—began last May, and the online RN-to-BSN program started this fall.


The Franken Servant Leadership Institute was founded in 2010 in memory of James Franken ’75 of Sioux Center. The institute supports experiential learning initiatives like Portage, a reflective pre-enrollment camping and canoeing trip for incoming freshmen, and Impact Clubs, in which Northwestern students mentor area youth and model investing in one’s community through volunteerism.



Redesigned by faculty for implementation this fall, Northwestern’s new Integrative General Education features a 14- to 16-credit core of classes all NWC students will take, including: a first-year seminar (FYS) that engages new college students in the Christian liberal arts (read “Learning in Community”); eight credits of classes that focus on the Christian story and tradition; courses that fall under learning themes such as belief and reason, cross-cultural engagement, historical perspectives, and self and society; and a senior-year seminar that ensures graduates are prepared to apply all they’ve learned—both in their major and in their general education classes—to their future career and a life of integrity and social responsibility.

More than a century ago, when Northwestern was just a high school academy and the campus consisted of a single building, Principal James Zwemer said, “[This] academy of learning … was built to stand as a testimony to the importance of higher education; a protest against ignorance and materialism … [a determinant of] whether we would be a people only for hogs and corn, or also for ‘dedication’ and culture.”

Northwestern College is still a testimony: It’s a place where devotion to God and the longing to learn about the world not only coexist—they’re the same thing.

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