'Honoring past, looking forward' as Dakota Wesleyan celebrates history with new four-pronged initiative

“As I look back at our history, I see the DNA that gives me optimism for the future. From the very beginning, we have done things differently,” Daniel Kittle, president of Dakota Wesleyan.

Daniel Kittle, president of Dakota Wesleyan University, address the audience Thursday, April 27 at the school's Founders Day event.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — Influential founders. Notable students and alumni. The impact of the school’s programs over the years.

There was much reflection Thursday on the history of Dakota Wesleyan University. Community leaders, school officials and students who gathered in the Sherman Center on the campus of DWU heard more than a few stories.

But it was also a chance to focus on the future.

“We’re honoring our past and our legacy as an institute that turns 138 years old. We honor the pioneering spirit of those responsible for establishing this university on this day, April 27 in the year 1885. So it is appropriate that we look back with gratitude and admiration,” Daniel Kittle, president of Dakota Wesleyan University, told the assembled crowd at the Sherman Center on the school campus. “It is also the day we look forward, as our founders did, with a sense of possibility and optimism.”

The gathering was part of the school’s first Founders Day event, where it took time to look back on the history and accomplishments of the school, its alumni and its faculty and staff while also rededicating itself to continuing that legacy through the Wesleyan: On Purpose strategic initiative.


“As I look back at our history, I see the DNA that gives me optimism for the future. From the very beginning, we have done things differently. In fact, you could say that we exist because we did it differently,” Kittle said.

Kittle, who offered opening and closing remarks for the event, recounted a story of when the Dakota Conference of the United Methodist Church was contemplating where to build the school that would later become Dakota Wesleyan University. There were three choices on where to build at the time: Mitchell, Huron or Ordway. Each town had a group of people boosting for it to come to their community.

Ashley Digmann, chair of the education department at Dakota Wesleyan University, speaks Thursday, April 27, during the school's Founders Day event.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Church leadership was poised to meet again to make a final decision, but the community leaders in Mitchell decided not to wait. To show dedication to the cause, they decided to begin construction on the first campus building before a decision on location was even made.

It worked. Mitchell was selected as the site for the school.

“I love that spirit. I love that story because it implanted in those of us now who carry the responsibility of maintaining this university that can-do spirit, one that takes strategic risks and one that does so because we are motivated by meaning and purpose,” Kittle said.

The initiative encompasses four themes on which to focus into the future: cultivating a culture of learning and growth; strengthening learner success; responsibly optimizing and diversifying the student body; and reinforcing university foundations.

Four speakers, each a student or faculty member at the school, offered remarks on each of those themes, beginning with Ashley Digmann, a class of 2006 DWU graduate and a professor in the school’s department of education.

Institutions that are struggling sometimes draw on the principal of their institution’s endowment to cover operating costs.

“We work hard to provide our students with skills like adaptability, creative and critical thinking, artistic expression, innovation, collaboration and cultivation of a deeper understanding of our global community,” Digmann said.


She recounted the impact of educators who attended or worked with or through Dakota Wesleyan throughout the years, including local influencers and leaders like Gertie Belle Rogers, for whom the local elementary school is named. She noted that the class of 1888 included six women who earned their normal certificates and used their education to become teachers.

Those early leaders represent that first theme well, she said, and today’s leaders and educators at the school are the direct descendants of those early trailblazers.

“What is important about these stories is the commitment that countless men and women displayed their calling — that of teaching. (The first theme) states that DWU will cultivate a culture of learning and growth, and history shows that teaching and learning are the fundamental supports of the university,” Digmann said. “This theme ensures that our work and the work of those who follow us will continue long into the future.”

Adam DeJong, a student at Dakota Wesleyan University, speaks Thursday, April 27 during the school's Founders Day event.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Adam DeJong, a senior nursing student who also serves as captain of the Dakota Wesleyan Tigers football team, spoke of how the school can continue to strengthen learner success, the second theme of the initiative.

“Dakota Wesleyan has already valued the student as far back as the founding by our Methodist forefathers. Countless grades have gone on to influential careers, taking the message of Dakota Wesleyan success out into the world,” DeJong said.

DeJong highlighted several alumni who made an impact in leadership and the political realm. Among them were Francis Case, who served South Dakota in the United States Senate and for whom Lake Francis Case is named and George McGovern, perhaps the school’s most famous alum, who was the 1972 Democratic nominee for President of the United States.

Many graduates went on to serve as pastors or missionaries or in other fields, he said.

“Each of these stories is fascinating in its own right, but one thing they all had in common is that they are clear examples of students taking their education out into the real world and affecting, influencing and impacting countless lives,” DeJong said. “Our charge as students it o never take this education for granted, to take the best of what we’ve learned and pass it on to others. To show care, compassion and concern to all we teach, heal, minister to, advise, entertain or lead, even as we experience our own personal lives.”


Corbin Kramer, a theater and music major at Dakota Wesleyan University who is expected to begin working for the school after graduation, expounded on the theme of responsibility optimizing and diversifying the student body.

“What does it mean to responsibly optimize? How do we seek to diversify? Who are the next generation of students who will live and study (at DWU)?” Kramer asked. “Since 1885, students have sought out Dakota Wesleyan for their higher education because it was a place they felt they fit. A place that welcomed them, made an effort to make them feel at home and included them on sports teams, Bible study and campus clubs. Even at our dinner tables when we’d go home for our weekends and holidays.”

Corbin Kramer, a student at Dakota Wesleyan University, speaks Thursday, April 27 during the school's Founders Day event.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Students at the school come in a wide variety, he said. That can be traced at least as far back as Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II because of the heritage. Some of those individuals made their way to Dakota Wesleyan in the late 1940s, increasing the diversity of the South Dakota college.

He noted Nancy Quon, who graduated from the school in 1972 and is a Dakota Wesleyan trustee.

“She came from Hong Kong and found a place where her individuality as a Chinese woman was recognized, and her ability as a woman in science were appreciated,” Kramer said.

As a future instructor at Dakota Wesleyan, Kramer will focus on finding new student talent, no matter the background or heritage of that student.

“My personal charge is to help recruit the finest talent in vocal and instrumental music and leaders to grow this program. Dakota Wesleyan has a long history of providing art education. The charge for everyone who works here is to help bring in students of all ages, of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all races and of all geographic regions. To help them find a place to play, study and to perhaps find respite from war or political strife,” Kramer said.

Adaya Plastow, a member of the class of 2024 and a legacy student at Dakota Wesleyan, spoke on reinforcing university foundations, the fourth theme of the initiative.


She circled back to those Mitchell community members who jumped the gun and began building the college ahead of official approval.

Ashley Plastow, a student at Dakota Wesleyan University, speaks Thursday, April 27 during the school's Founders Day event.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

But the university survived into the modern day, and went on to host students from around the country, including several members of Plastow’s family, Among the alumni in her family are a pair of great-grandparents, a pair of grandparents and her parents. An uncle even works for Fresh Ideas Food Service, the food service provider at DWU.

“Now it’s my turn. What brought me here to follow in some pretty large and impressive footsteps? It was not pressure or the assumption of guilt that I would attend DWU. It was the family feeling I got when I toured campus. It was the sense of accomplishment while completing my degree. It’s the friends I made playing basketball and being a member of the cross country and track and field teams,” Plastow said.

But the gift she cherishes most is the chance to continue to build upon the foundation laid down by students before her, including members of her own family.

“The gift that I’ve been given is that I’m a legacy student. (I’m part of) the generation who have built their lives on a foundation of learning. That gift is one of finding a home here and finding a place where I can make each and every experience my own,” Plastow said. “I’m grateful for these opportunities, and I hope to one day pass that legacy on to my own family.”

Kittle hopes that will be the case well into the future, as Dakota Wesleyan continues to look to the future. And thanks to its leadership, its faculty, its students and its supportive community, he expects the school to guide the next generation of learners and leaders into another new era.

“We know our vision and we will pursue it on purpose, as our plan’s title suggests,” Kittle said. “We will make progress, you will see progress, and I will expect nothing less of ourselves.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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