Commentary: Looking back, looking forward as Wesley College departs


In these last days of Wesley College, let’s take a moment for some context: In July 1873, Jesse James pulled off his first successful train robbery. That August, George Armstrong Custer had his first clash with the Sioux Indians. In Dover, on Sept. 1, the Wilmington Conference Academy — which later became Wesley College — was officially chartered, three weeks before a stock market crash led to a major national depression. I continue to doubt that Wesley’s charter had anything to do with the Panic of 1873.

Wesley accepted its first female students in 1874, and the institution’s name was changed to the Wesley Collegiate Institute in 1918, as the preparatory school evolved into a two-year college. Again renamed Wesley Junior College in 1941, Wesley College began offering four-year programs in 1976 and awarded its first bachelor’s degrees in 1978. Graduate degrees were first conferred in 1996.

For 147 years, Wesley College has been a foundational institution in downtown Dover and the oldest private college in Delaware.

About six weeks ago, the last graduating class walked across the stage, and Wednesday will mark the last day of Wesley College’s independent existence. On July 1, Delaware State University acquires the campus as home to the new — and appropriately named — Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences.

 I have absolutely no doubt that my friends and colleagues at Delaware State University are serious about maintaining the traditions associated with Wesley College and continuing to curate its proud legacy, but that does not lessen the sadness of a great institution’s passing.

As the son of two university professors in California, I came to Delaware in 1988 to attend Wesley College. Far from my family and separated from my twin brother, Griffin, by the breadth of a continent for the first time, Wesley represented to me then what it has meant to tens of thousands of other young people: a small, intimate campus where students were nurtured, guided, taught and valued as individuals precious in the eyes of God.

For over a century, small, private (often church-sponsored) liberal arts colleges such as Wesley have been a peculiarly valuable mainstay of American higher education. Recently, however, inexorable financial and economic forces have been closing in, the ranks of these institutions are thinning, and the survivors are increasingly beleaguered.

That’s unfortunate, because Wesley and colleges like it are in the business of changing lives. These small colleges provide an education focused on the individual and on developing the character and great potential of each human being. I did not sit in large survey classes; I knew my professors personally. They would not let me fail, even though there were times I tried. Wesley gave me a world-class education and opportunities to grow. I cannot imagine any other college in America where I could have become senior class president and lettered in three sports. I cannot imagine any other college retaining such a piece of my soul for over three decades.

I came to Dover to attend Wesley College, and I never left Delaware. Wesley can have that effect on you.

For 30 years, I have watched my alma mater struggle against those implacably wearing economic forces without compromising her identity. Delaware and the surrounding region are filled with Wesley College graduates in all walks of life, who contribute their all for our common good. If you attended Delaware public schools, you have almost certainly been taught at some point by a Wesley College-trained teacher. If you have been treated in a Delaware hospital, odds are that a Wesley College-trained nurse was part of your care team.

Much of what is good about Delaware today is part of that Wesley College legacy.

On the occasion of Wesley’s acquisition by Delaware State University (who Wesley alumni think of wryly as our “younger sister,” being only 130 years old), it seems appropriate to say: Thank you, Wesley College. We love and honor you, and we will miss you. We are sad that you will be gone, but we are eternally grateful that you were here.

In this, I speak confidently for all my Wesley brothers and sisters, for the alumni, students, faculty, staff, administrators and loyal supporters who remained committed to the idea that “Great Things Await.”

Sen. Colin Bonini represents the Dover-area 16th District and is a 1991 Wesley College graduate.

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