URBANA — When the first international students arrived at the University of Illinois in the early 1900s, they were greeted at the train station by staff members from the University YMCA.
The UI didn't have the kind of support system that serves its current 9,000-plus international students. The University Y, founded just four years after the university, would often put the students up in its third-floor dorms until they found more permanent housing.
The organization later expanded its services for international students, including an International Welcome Weekend. The university eventually hired the Y's director of international programs in the late 1960s to create its own Office of International Student Affairs.
Promoting global engagement remains a key focus for the University Y, along with faith in action, social justice and, in more recent decades, protecting the environment, said Executive Director Mike Doyle.
The organization, which is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year, plans to launch a five-year fund drive Saturday at a special event at the UI President's House, in part to fund several new global initiatives.
The "Sustaining the Legacy" campaign will attempt to raise $1 million for University Y programs, Doyle said.
"We've done a lot of growth in our programming in the last few years, a lot of exciting things," he said. "We want to make sure they are strong and viable."
The foundation for the new international initiatives was a $300,000 gift from the Cosmopolitan Club, which closed in 2010 after 99 years of service. The club sold its house on John Street and donated the money to bolster the Y's global programming, Doyle said.
The Y set up a task force to consider what programs would best address today's campus demographics and community needs. The Y's goal is to build student leadership by engaging them in projects where they can apply their skills to real-life situations, Doyle said.
The task force came up with five proposals that involve partnering with other campus and community groups:
— International service learning initiative: This would pull together the growing number of students going overseas for short service-learning projects and students from those targeted countries here on campus, Doyle said. The Y will host a symposium where they can share resources and cultural information, help prepare for their overseas visits and learn how to put the experience to use when they get back.
— Intercultural horizons: A collaboration with cultural houses and international programs at the UI, this would encourage more interaction between international students and domestic students on campus — something that students from other countries say doesn't happen enough. Students from both countries would go through training and be "change agents" in their classes, residence halls and departments, Doyle said.
— Intercambio: Once hosted by the McKinley Foundation, this program sponsors service trips to Yucatan to work with Mayan villages. The plan is to tie in to the growing Mayan community in Champaign-Urbana, to make it a "strong cultural program that benefits all of us, not just a handout kind of experience," Doyle said.
— Making Champaign-Urbana an "immigrant-friendly community," through mentoring programs at local high schools, the C-U Immigration forum, bringing together student groups with the local Latino community and celebrating the work of immigrants in Champaign-Urbana, Doyle said.
— Global health initiative: This project grew out of a service learning trip to Ghana by a group of medical students who realized there's broad interest in global health across campus, from nutrition researchers to scientists fighting diseases common to the developing world. Their plan is to form a partnership between campus and community groups here and a community overseas, preferably one with immigrants in Champaign-Urbana and one that is the focus of researchers at the UI, said Kenny Long, a medical student/bioengineering graduate student, former president of Engineers Without Borders and now a board member for the Y.
"Hopefully it would foster some exciting interdisciplinary kind of research centered around global health," he said.
Long said the University Y's use of the Cosmopolitan Club gift is ambitious but will have "a lasting and measurable impact both on the community and the campus community."
History of University Y
Founded in 1873, the University Y is Champaign-Urbana's oldest nonprofit organization, according to Executive Director Mike Doyle.
Besides international services, it also developed a number of programs later adopted by the university, including the "I Book," a student employment bureau and the first dorms on campus (now Illini Hall) as an alternative to sororities and fraternities.
The organization began life as a bridge from the campus to the community, with students organizing Bible studies in town. International services followed, and then in the 1940s and '50s the organization took on civil rights. Even as some local businesses refused to serve African Americans, the University Y adopted an open membership policy, inviting scorn from the community and losing its United Fund money as a result, Doyle said. It also sent students to the South to help with voter registration drives. Students for Environmental Concerns formed in the 1970s.
Doyle said the University Y's ability to adapt and change with student interests allowed it to survive even as hundreds of other campus YMCA chapters closed across the country. Of the nearly 1,000 campus Y's in the 1950s, less than two dozen remain.
More than 800 students take part in University Y's 12 student programs, from Students for Environmental Concerns to Amnesty International to Alternative Spring Break.
Board member Kenny Long, a UI medical student/bioengineering graduate student, said the University Y "isn't your typical swimming-pool-basketball-court YMCA. This is actually a group of students and adults who are all care about the same things I do — about service, about activism, about leadership, about sustainability."