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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

Some Students Still Choosing WIU Despite the School's Problems

Courtesy WIU

Western Illinois University has been making headlines for decreasing enrollment, employee layoffs, and program cuts. Yet, some students are still drawn to Western. A few of them are even willing to travel a great distance to attend WIU.

Harish Reddy Anam is a graduate student from India. Anam said a lot of research went into his decision to study computer science at Western.

“And after doing my research on state universities, I found that Western Illinois University has been ranked as the best regional university, and it has more placement opportunities than others,” Anam said.

Credit Emily Stieren
Harish Reddy Anam (left)

He said he didn’t experience a culture shock when he arrived in the U.S. and already feels at home in Macomb after just a few months at Western. Anam said he won’t be visiting home anytime soon and stays connected to his family via video calls.

Haley Richards, on the other hand, said she did experience a bit of culture shock when she arrived in town. Richards is from the U.S. but grew far away from Macomb – she is from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“The food I eat is New Mexican food, it’s not even Mexican food. Red and green chili. It would stink to go to a breakfast place and not have chili on my omelet or something, so that was hard,” Richards said.

“And also, just the Midwest weather.”

Richards said she was recruited to play soccer at WIU, but an academic program convinced her Western was the right choice.

“When I went on my official visit, when I saw that they had a sports broadcasting program, I thought that that was really unique, so that’s what sold me on Western,” Richards said. “It was like the cherry on top of being able to play soccer. That (sports broadcasting) was something I wanted to do, but not a lot of places offered it.”

Richards came to WIU in the fall of 2015 and said she enjoyed the academic aspect of Western. She said her professors taught her a lot and made it easier to be so far away from home.

Richards is back in New Mexico. She completed her degree in December, 2018 and doesn’t know what she’s going to do next. She said leaving her home state for a university that is an 18 hour drive away prepared her for adulthood.

“Me going away to school so far was probably one of the greatest experiences,” Richards said. “Western was a great experience, but just moving away and having to be so independent, it just taught me a lot, so that was probably another perk of going to Western.”

For some students, Western is much closer to home.

Credit Emily Stieren
Ashley Lefringhouse

Ashley Lefringhouse said she has known about WIU for a long time. The speech-language pathology major is from Liberty, a western Illinois community that is about an hour away from the Macomb campus.

“A lot of people from my high school either went to John Wood, Quincy University, or Western usually, so it was always kind of in the back of my mind too through word of mouth stuff, not really like I got it in the mail or anything,” Lefringhouse said.

Lefringhouse said the proximity to home and a scholarship made Western the best choice. She said she visits her family often.

Lefringhouse is set to graduate in May and will be attending graduate school at Western. She said she applied to just one other master’s degree program, which was at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Credit Emily Stieren
Alleshia Justice

Another student, Alleshia Justice, is a bit more cautious about Western and its future. Justice is completing her junior year at the university. She is from the central Illinois town of Pekin and said she applied to just two universities because of the lack of guidance in high school. Justice said she aims to guide others in their college choices.

Justice said she was hesitant when her high school-aged cousin asked about Western.

“The fact that we’re having budget cuts, and the fact that some programs are getting cut, the fact that there’s not a lot to do in Macomb, and because there’s all those cons, plus the fact that tuition is still going up,” Justice said.

“For some people, they’re like, ‘Why would I pay more than previous people who went there, when it feels like I’m getting less?’”

Despite her concerns, Justice plans to complete her degree at Western.

For some students, the perks of going to Western seem to decrease daily as programs and employees keep getting cut. However, whether it’s because of a signature program, the thrill of a new place, or the familiarly of a school close to home, Western is still attracting some students from near and far.

This story was produced by Tri States Public Radio.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the important issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.