Becoming a Thriving University of Choice

In 2020, students entering college or graduate school face seemingly insurmountable challenges––a global pandemic, racial injustice, a divided nation, and financial uncertainty appear to make higher education a dream to be deferred by many. Higher education as a whole is under increased scrutiny, with the value of a Christian university questioned more than ever before. Yet, it is no accident that Azusa Pacific University chose this year to unveil its Strategic Plan, Renewal: Strengthening Our Capacity for Cultivating Christ-Centered Scholars and Leaders, as a bold vision of hope.

Grand Initiative 2 is to become a Thriving University of Choice for students, staff, and faculty. This signals our commitment to provide the highest levels of academic and personal excellence to meet this generation’s needs. Diverse and technologically savvy, today’s students are well aware that they are inheriting a world where problems far outweigh solutions, and virtue and truth are in short supply. Many are the first in their family to attend college or persons of color who have not been well-served by the educational system. Whether a recent high school graduate beginning the college journey or a seasoned professional entering a doctoral program, students who choose APU will recognize us as a place where they can thrive––a place that will help them discover and develop God’s call on their lives. For students, they must feel they belong here––that this is a place where deep learning occurs and relationships are cultivated, where the Spirit is at work, and their dreams can be realized.

Consider Anthony, an African-American first-generation college student with great potential who enrolled at APU. He started his first year unsure of himself, undecided regarding his major, and uncertain about his future. Over the course of his academic journey, he developed clarity on his identity, his faith, and his calling. He attributes his development to God working through a number of faculty, staff, peers, and experiences at APU, affirming his talents and challenging him to think deeply and critically about the connection between his capacity and calling. Now Anthony passionately serves as a chaplain at an esteemed high school, strategically and skillfully assisting diverse, impressionable students in deepening their faith and developing a heart to serve the disenfranchised.

One of the first steps toward creating a campus culture where all students can flourish is to adopt an institutional framework that defines and operationalizes APU’s commitment to equity and inclusive excellence. This framework will inform such strategic efforts as longitudinal and comparative assessment to ensure equitable outcomes, curricular and co-curricular redesign for inclusive excellence, and structural changes to bolster the recruitment and retention of diverse faculty, staff, and students. As we grow into our strategic plan, we will forge more extensive partnerships beyond our campus with community colleges whose students desire a four-year degree and with local community partners in the areas our regional campuses serve. Our support will expand to ensure we are reaching all students and meeting their needs. These strategic priorities will enable APU to employ a Christ-centered, comprehensive, equity-minded approach to student success and establish us as a destination of choice.

As a Christian university, everything we do is infused with a deep intentionality about following Christ—in our teaching, research, support of students, athletics programs, performing arts, and engagement in Azusa, throughout California, and beyond. Others will see our work and want to be part of it. Our commitment to inclusive academic excellence means that we strive for every classroom to be a place of transformational learning where students’ curiosity is cultivated and their faith is nurtured; where they are challenged and supported; where their gifts, talents, and cultural strengths are affirmed; and where they are changed as a result of the learning process. It means our graduates enter their chosen careers well-equipped to meet the needs of a hurting world. We are committed to supporting students both in and out of the classroom who bring a variety of perspectives, knowledge, and experiences to this institution. By intentionally opening our enrollment to students regardless of their religious beliefs, we strive to be like Christ in providing a supportive space for questions and exploration.

This approach requires a collaborative partnership between academics and student affairs to support the holistic development of students. The Student Affairs division offers services and programs to nurture students as they mature in their understanding of their identity, faith, and calling, while also supporting their emotional and physical well-being. APU’s Student Affairs division encourages students’ spiritual development through opportunities such as corporate worship, local and global service, and spiritual care.

Our graduate students often choose APU as a result of hearing about us from their colleagues at work. APU graduates are known for being compassionate, competent, and courageous leaders. Many are drawn to APU by the type of education their colleagues describe—an education that is rigorous, but also provides mentoring by faculty, an opportunity to do research that makes a difference, and networking connections throughout the U.S. and globally. An example is Dr. Melanie Humphreys, president of King’s University in Edmonton, Canada. The first woman president of a Christian college in Canada, Humphreys came to APU having heard about us through our global connections. She joined the Ph.D. in Higher Education program, wanting to increase her capacity as a student affairs leader. As she learned more about herself, higher education, and how God was calling her to lead, she had the confidence and skills to apply for a presidency—and is making a difference in the lives of university students in Canada.

Our desire for APU to be a thriving university of choice means that not only do students choose us because we will bring out their best, but our faculty and staff also see APU as the place where God has called them to be, a place where they are valued and where meaningful, life-giving work is done together. Many of our faculty are researchers as well as teachers; they have chosen to work at APU because they want to be in a place where their scholarship can bring glory to God. They have chosen APU as a place that supports them as both scholars and teachers, but also challenges them to continually find new perspectives within their discipline, new ways of reaching their students, and new ways of creating space for the mystery of God and the rich diversity of God’s realm. They could choose to go anywhere, but they have chosen APU as the place where they belong.

So imagine it’s 2027 and APU has fulfilled the bold vision of its strategic plan to be a thriving university of choice. As you walk across campus, you feel at home as you see people who look like you. You see groups of students and faculty gathered around tables deep in conversation. It’s easy to figure out where to go to meet your needs, even if it’s your first time on a university campus, and warm smiles and offers of assistance welcome you as you enter staff offices.

As you pass by classrooms, you notice the diversity of faculty and students. You see state-of-the-art technology and labs, with students actively engaged with one another and their instructor. You meet faculty who believe that any student admitted to our undergraduate, professional, master’s, or doctoral programs can succeed—and they see it as their job to bring out the best in students, as they support and challenge them to the highest levels of excellence. You encounter student life staff, peer mentors, academic advisors, athletic coaches, and spiritual life staff who are clearly working together and engaged in a job they love—helping students grow into who God has called them to be in order to do the work God has designed them to do.

As you talk to students, you hear stories of transformation. You hear of obstacles they have overcome with the help of faculty and staff; you hear about the clear pathways to success that were outlined for them from the moment they were admitted to APU. They speak of APU as a place where they not only feel welcome and safe, but where they can engage and belong. They tell you that APU’s reputation for inclusive academic excellence is indeed deserved, as there is a strong sense of community on campus and no racial or ethnic disparities in student success and graduation rates. In fact, you learn that when graduates cross the stage, whether the student is a first-generation student from Azusa graduating with their bachelor’s degree, a master’s-level graduate who took evening classes while holding down a full-time job, or a Ph.D. graduate now able to enter the top of their field, APU has been a place that has helped them thrive in order to make a difference in the world.

By saying we desire to be a thriving university of choice for a diverse student body, faculty, and staff, we are saying boldly and unequivocally that we want to impact the world, walk alongside the marginalized, and help our students reach their God-given potential. Through our research, teaching, and service to the community, we want to make a difference in the world, and we are eager to begin this important work.