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story.lead_photo.caption A Westminster College student plods across the snowy landscape Wednesday afternoon. According to the college, applications have nearly doubled despite the ongoing pandemic. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

Westminster College continues to witness a dramatic increase in applications despite frequent headlines that colleges nationwide are suffering. Applications and student admissions at Westminster are up 96 percent since this time last year.

Not surprisingly, Free Application for Federal Student Aid submissions are also up 96 percent, and tuition deposits have increased 80 percent compared to February 2020.

Jesse Taylor, director of recruitment, theorized Westminster's personalized environment is particularly appealing to Generation Z. Taylor speculated that while they may be digitally plugged in and seemingly disconnected from others, prospective students today are completely engaged when it comes to college choice.

"They want to connect, and that really means something right now, in particular, with COVID," Taylor said. "We sit down with them and really listen. They desire that old-school connection, and because of the typical isolation everyone feels because of the pandemic, a big university might be scarier for them."

Westminster's in-person — but masked and socially distanced — Welcome to Westminster prospective student events in the fall of 2020 saw the largest attendance in four years despite the pandemic.

Dr. Paul Orscheln, vice president of enrollment services, marketing and strategic communications, added Welcome to Westminster is just one facet of the college's overall approach for reaching out to prospective students. Recently revamped recruitment efforts involve not just in-person tours but comprehensive virtual YouVisit tours, targeted letters/postcards and outreach over digital media.

"We are focusing on reaching students who are a good fit for Westminster at the right times in a very personalized way," he said.

Focused outreach takes place on multiple platforms in an coordinated fashion so students are contacted more than once.

In addition to personalized recruitment, Taylor said students he encounters want in-person classes, which Westminster continues to offer while being prepared to flip immediately to a virtual or hybrid environment as it did during stay-at-home orders last spring. Digital innovations on campus have continued to develop since spring 2020, allowing Westminster to offer hybrid, virtual and in-person classes through its Digital Blue program.

But classes aren't the entire college experience. Other important aspects of Westminster life have continued with pandemic-related safeguards in place.

Last fall, like many institutions nationwide, all games and conferences were canceled, and a majority of fall sports were bumped to spring semester 2021. With 50 percent of the campus participating in sports, students this semester are either on the court, in the field, or anxiously anticipating dashing away from the confines of their rooms and the dining hall.

Students Gretchen Durbala and Ian Smith are two senior student-athletes who are enjoying classes and sports at Westminster. Both transferred from MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, last semester after MacMurray closed in May 2020.

Smith, a business administration major from Griggsville, Illinois, is on the Blue Jays men's basketball team. He said he enjoyed campus life last semester despite COVID-caused campus irregularities.

"I think every student-athlete was struggling not being able to play," he said. "I still liked my time here, considering the school had to follow guidelines to keep the students safe, but I'm glad we are getting to have a season this spring, since I am a senior."

Durbala echoed Smith's feelings. A biochemistry major on the pre-medicine track, the native of Burlington, Iowa, said she came to Westminster to play volleyball and be academically challenged. She also wanted to have fun.

"I had a great first semester," she said. "With on-campus and off-campus activities, it was easy to stay busy."

Durbala, who will graduate in December, is finally playing the sport she loves. Her first volleyball game as a Blue Jay was a 3-1 victory over Fontbonne University.

Taylor said Durbala and others exemplify what's going right at Westminster right now.

"From a recruitment perspective, Westminster is in a fortunate position to offer a personalized, connective experience both inside and outside the classroom that contradicts happenings in the country and the world this past year as a result of COVID-19," he said.

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