Student Life & the Pursuit of God First

by Cynndie Hoff

Expectations and motivations of college students shift from generation to generation, creating a ripple effect of change throughout higher education. As students seek a more spiritual and meaningful side to learning, they look to Azusa Pacific University.

"What we're seeing in recent reports is a shift in the expectations and goals of incoming freshmen," said Terry Franson, Ph.D., vice president for student life/dean of students. "This generation values family and community above all. Their motivation for attending college moved from strictly a means to increased earning power to a more philosophical approach. Once again, students are beginning to ask, 'What is the purpose of life?' They are searching for answers to spiritual questions, seeking deeper meaning, and looking for a university that can give them an education that is both spiritually grounded and culturally relevant. And they are finding it at APU."

While many colleges and universities across the country react to the research and trends, adding ethics courses to their curricula and initiating community service projects, Azusa Pacific University stands fully equipped and backed by 108 years of experience offering the rich, holistic education students want. "Students change," said Franson, "but Jesus never does. APU has always been in the business of integrating faith and learning in a timeless way that is relevant to all generations."

When some hear of an institution that has remained steadfast to its foundational mission, they assume stagnation and obsolescence. APU debunks that theory. With a century-old mission to keep God First, striving for excellence in every area becomes a unifying goal–that includes keeping up to date on every front. APU leaders carefully monitor technological, social, and market trends important to student success, and make adjustments to ensure a culturally relevant education. For example, in 2001, APU launched All Access, an initiative to enhance scholarship through state-of-the-art technology. While studying outside the libraries or meeting in common areas, students can log on to the Web, connect to the university intranet, and use online library resources without plugging in. Through wireless networks and wireless-enabled laptops, professors can hold virtual office hours while university operations personnel can complete paperwork on the spot and submit work orders from the field. In October, 2005, Intel Corporation ranked APU among the top 50 most unwired college campuses across the nation for wireless Internet access and quality.

"The 21st century student expects spontaneous access to information; in fact, instant access is now a commodity," said John Reynolds, NH Dip: Comp Sys, executive vice president. "We are proud to be acknowledged as a campus that is meeting students' needs with a wireless environment."

Keeping a finger on the pulse of the marketplace only addresses half of the issue, however, "knowing the students on our campus, intentionally creating an atmosphere where they can connect with each other and develop lasting relationships is perhaps one of the most important things we do here at APU," said Franson. To that end, the Board of Trustees recently devoted an entire retreat to learning about current and incoming APU students and developing strategies that build upon an already solid foundation of enriching student experiences and programs.

Through tools such as the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) survey, the National College Health Assessment, chapel surveys, ASB surveys, focus groups, and the Student Satisfaction Inventory, little remains a mystery about today's APU student. "Here is a glimpse of what we know," said Franson. "The number one reason freshmen choose APU is for its foundation in Christian faith. The next reason is academic reputation. Our students desire deeper relationships with one another and with their mentors. They are looking for meaningful engagement in the life of the mind but also want to observe Sabbath, a time when they can rest and renew. They know they don't have all the answers, but they have discovered where to start the search."

That journey spans students' entire time at APU and includes countless daily experiences that add up to a changed life. From the 160 chapel services held annually to the Discipleship Groups (D-Groups) to the missions opportunities (see sidebar), student life at APU teems with purposeful activity.

Adding to the mix, the Board of Trustees discussed new initiatives to impact generations of skilled and compassionate global citizens. Student leaders will start the year with a new Student Leader Covenant based on the model of leadership outlined in I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. The leadership community (350+ strong) plans to meet seven times each year to seek God's direction and establish common goals. The Office of Chapel Programs anticipates a new faculty/staff care retreat that will focus on intentional discipleship of APU employees; plans to assign a chaplain to existing groups such as athletic teams, choirs, and living areas to foster discipleship; is brainstorming ideas about how to incorporate discipleship into study abroad programs; developed new D-Groups to reach those with little or no previous Christian experience; and has slated four on-campus mini-retreats for students to strengthen their spiritual formation.

"APU represents a beautiful mosaic of students from many different back-grounds," said Franson. "The university models the framework of Jesus Christ, and in that, there is freedom to figure out who God wants you to be. We are at an exciting but challenging time right now; the hunger for spiritual truth is on the rise in America.

"We want APU to be a place where students can move from a foreclosed identity to an achieved identity; that is, to transition from preconceived notions to a faith in Christ that is their very own. Many students come here with baggage. Our goal is to help them unpack it all and help them sort through their stuff. Unpacking can be messy. Change is rough. Some act out. That's okay. Because if we do our job, by the time they leave, many will have discarded much of the old and repacked their bag with their own thoughts and beliefs with Jesus as the chief cornerstone. It is our hope that this process reflects the Apostle Paul's teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:17: 'Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!' This is transformational scholarship."

Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer living in Walnut, California. [email protected]