DePaul University celebrates 125th anniversary

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2023

DePaul University celebrates 125th anniversary

DePaul University is celebrating its 125th anniversary of educating people in the Vincentian spirit and tradition.
First student body of St. Vincent College in 1898. (DePaul University archives)
St. Vincent de Paul Church and baseball fields in a 1910 photo. (DePaul University archives)
Students walk in front of graffiti protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the deaths of Kent State University students in this 1971 photo. (DePaul University archives)
DePaul students cheer during the Blue Demon Welcome event Sept. 6, 2022. That month, DePaul kicked off yearlong celebrations for the university’s 125th anniversary. (Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)
The exterior of Soldier Field is lit up in DePaul colors on Jan. 25, 2023. (Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)
DePaul celebrates its 125th anniversary during a party Jan. 25, 2023 in the Lincoln Park Student Center. (Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)
A Chicago Transit Authority train passes by DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus on Oct. 4, 2019. (Randal Spriggs/DePaul University)
Vincentian Father Guillermo Campuzano, left, and President Rob Manuel during Designing DePaul, an event that launched DePaul toward creating a new strategic plan, Jan. 26 on the Lincoln Park Campus. (Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)
DePaul staff take part in a Digital Presence Design Session, March 3, 2023, in the Arts and Letters building on the Lincoln Park Campus. (Steve Woltmann/DePaul University)
Residential education students volunteer at Cradles to Crayons before the start of the 2019 school year. (Jeff Carrion, Randall Spriggs/DePaul University)

When St. Vincent’s College, the antecedent to DePaul University, opened its doors in 1898, the Vincentian priests who started it wanted to provide education to people at the margins — at that time, the sons of Catholic immigrants, many of them Irish, in Chicago. It began with an enrollment of about 70 students, each paying $40 in tuition for a 10-month term, according to a timeline published on DePaul’s website.

Now, as DePaul University celebrates its 125th anniversary, it enrolls nearly 21,000 students and is among the largest Catholic universities in the United States. Its core mission has stayed the same, even if the way it is expressed has changed, said Vincentian Father Guillermo Campuzano, DePaul’s vice president for mission and ministry.

“St. Vincent was passionate about supporting the integral needs of people with spiritual and material needs,” Campuzano said, linking the mission of the university to the charism of St. Vincent de Paul. “We are here to support the integral development of our students, not just their intellectual life. That includes social needs, relationships with their families, spiritual growth. … At DePaul, our mission is our students. We understand that education is an essential element to break the cycle of poverty, education is important for social mobility and education is necessary for people to thrive and to flourish.”

That focus continues to be on people who live on the margins, especially in Chicago, the city in which DePaul has rooted itself, Campuzano said. The university is heeding the call for “social fraternity” issued by Pope Francis in the encyclicals “Laudato Si’” (2015) and “Fratelli Tutti” (2020).

“We feel a call to work and to build a community that is founded in the principal of social equity,” he said. “Equity is a beautiful concept that embraces two things: the essential equality of all human beings in our God-given dignity, and the diversity in which this dignity is expressed. DePaul is a multi-faith, multicultural, multi-convictional institution. We are all equal being different, we are all different being equal. We think that this Vincentian concept is a way in which we can contribute to society, modeling social equity so that the human experiment is really sustainable.”

Campuzano said the university, which hired new president Robert Manuel in August 2022, is at a moment of hope as it begins “Designing DePaul,” an effort to create a new strategic plan.

Manuel said he was attracted to DePaul’s mission.

“I could see how everybody, no matter what their background, was connected the concepts and the charisms of the Catholic and Vincentian work,” Manuel said. “It has to do with reflection, discernment and then action. What you find here is a community that is engaged in discernment of how God acts through all people, and is engaged in helping marginalized people with quality of life.”

The university, Manuel said, is also inextricably linked to the city it calls home.

“In a lot of ways, DePaul and Chicago have grown up together,” he said. “As the quality of life and the cultural and social justice environment and the conversations about what economic life is like go, so go the fortunes of DePaul,” he said, adding that the vitality of Chicago and of DePaul feed off one another.

“You don’t get out of DePaul without spending time out in Chicago,” Manuel said. “Our students annually are doing 25,000 hours of community engagement, community service, as part of their learning.”

DePaul counts about 140,000 alumni living in the Chicago area, and one of them is Mary Dempsey, who graduated from DePaul College of Law in 1982. She is a former Chicago Public Library commissioner, and was the first woman to chair DePaul University’s board of trustees. While she still serves on the university’s board, she is now president of DePaul College Prep, a Vincentian-sponsored high school on the North Side of Chicago.

She attended DePaul for law school, she said, because she could get the financial aid she needed and because its Loop location was convenient to her job as a paralegal.

“What started as a choice of convenience ended up being a very good choice,” she said. “DePaul is community anchor, both in Lincoln Park and in the South Loop. As it was or me, and for so many Chicago students, it is a builder of lives.”

Keeping the university accessible to students who don’t come from affluent families is not easy, but it is important, Dempsey said.

“We’ve made that a top priority,” she said. “We’ve been working to grow our endowment; that’s really the way you have to do it. We want to give back to students who want to attend DePaul University, but will need assistance to do it. I needed it.”

Manuel said DePaul students receive about $120 million in grants and loans from federal sources, and a significant amount from state sources each year. “But the university provides $243 million in our own aid,” he added.

The other major challenge facing DePaul and every other institution of higher learning is learning how to provide university education in a post-COVID-19 pandemic environment, he said.

“The biggest opportunity right now is to engage Chicago as we all reconvene from the isolation of COVID,” Manuel said. “We’ll do well to be connected to the ethos of DePaul, and our students will do well to be connected to the issues of the day.”

To do that, DePaul plans to launch three interdisciplinary centers focused on the issues of poverty, environmental sustainability and human-computer interaction in the 2023-2024 academic year. The idea is to get students and faculty from all disciplines — from business and health science to theater and music — to bring their ideas to bear on those issues, Manuel said.

Getting students from communities of color and other marginalized groups through the door is only part of the battle, said Valerie Johnson, a political science associate professor and interim provost for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Johnson is pleased that DEI will be a priority in the plan that comes out of the “Designing DePaul” process, but said the university now must focus as much on giving students and faculty from communities of color a voice in decision-making, and to respect the wisdom of the communities around it.

“Part of our mission is sort of very savior-oriented,” Johnson said. “It’s outreach, ‘We’re helping you.’  It’s only recently that DePaul has come to grips with some of the societal problems that are faced in Chicago. Right now what DePaul is doing for Chicago is giving it an opportunity to address some of the societal issues that we’ve been complicit in.”

That includes the decades of the 20th century when DePaul did not welcome Black students, as related by a memo in the university archives from the 1930s, and the history of some members of the Vincentian religious community enslaving people, she said.

“Now it’s almost like an accompaniment, if you will,” she said, “DePaul is now accompanying civic activists and civic institutions in attending to some of the problems.”

The opportunity to learn from professors like Johnson was one factor that drew Magoli Garcia to DePaul. Garcia, a junior, is vice president of the student government association and is studying political science. She works as a law clerk in a litigation firm and hopes to go to law school.

Garcia graduated from high school in San Antonio, Texas, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was already advocating for change in her local school district’s policies on racial harassment.

“Because of people saying racial slurs, a lot of the Black and brown students at my school district were tired,” Garcia said. “Me and my friend, we recognized that nothing was going to happen unless there were policy changes in the school district. We drafted a proposed policy and started a petition, and we got 1,000 signatures the first day, 2,000 signatures after 72 hours. I was engaging with community members, legislative staff attorneys. I realized that was something that fueled my fire, and that was what I saw myself doing as a career.”

Garcia spent her first three months as a DePaul student attending virtual classes from Texas, where she was able to see her proposed school district policy enacted. By the time she arrived on campus, she already had a fellowship to work for an Illinois state senator.

Her work in student government puts her in contact with all kinds of students, she said, and she can see how they internalize the Vincentian mission of DePaul.

“When I think about the Vincentian mission, I think about the core value of justice,” she said. “When I think of justice, I think people tie it to our actions. I think what’s unique about the Vincentian mission is that it’s not just about our actions. It’s about the way we carry it within ourselves. It fuels our spirit as well.”



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