Prospective Students Find Belonging at APU

by Nathan Foster

On a rainy Saturday in October, more than 180 students from Kern High School District (KHSD) filed onto six school buses and headed down the I-5. After a two-hour journey, they arrived on Azusa Pacific University’s campus and were welcomed into the Upper Turner Campus Center (UTCC) by a team of students, faculty, and staff. Led by Bryan Bowens, EdD ’14, the students made the trip as part of Project BEST (Black Excellence in Scholarship and Teaching). “I am a product of Project BEST and the Black Student Union from KHSD,” Bowens said. “I wanted these students to experience APU in the same way I experienced APU, to consider it as a viable option for college because it could change their lives in the same way it changed mine.”

As the high schoolers enjoyed breakfast, Keith Hall, EdD, vice president of student belonging and chief diversity officer, took the stage to deliver a keynote address. “I wanted to give students a vision of our hope as Christian higher education leaders and professionals for prospective and current students to thrive academically, socially, and spiritually—to consider ways they can acquire clarity on their calling and steward the knowledge, personal agency, influence, and faith to carry out a God-given purpose,” Hall said. Hall also spoke about the value of education and the choice students have to prioritize the educational experience in high school and college to open pathways to personal development, critical thought, social engagement, and an invaluable avenue to offer a meaningful contribution and make a difference in the world.

Following Hall’s keynote address was a panel discussion themed “Black Excellence in Higher Education,” featuring Michelle R. Cox, PhD, director of the School Counseling Program; LaShan Epperson, DBA, assistant professor in the School of Business and Management; Ta’Tyana Leonard, MA, campus pastor and associate director of the Office of Corporate Worship; Candice R. Williams, PhD, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice; Xavier Whitaker, EdD, dean of students; and Paul Dennis, executive director of Campus Safety. “They each shared their story of how they obtained their education and the obstacles they overcame in doing so. It was really powerful and their stories definitely resonated with the Kern students,” said Tina Sprague, enrollment partnerships manager, who helped put the event together.

The students then split into groups. One group heard from a panel of student club leaders, while the other group heard advice from the Gen1 Scholars Program. The students enjoyed a catered lunch from Chick-fil-a and talked with current APU students about their experiences. After lunch, the students headed to West Campus where many went on tours and participated in a workshop led by Bowens, while others worked with admissions representatives in an “on the spot” event. A total of 25 students filled out applications and were admitted to APU that same day.

These students benefit from APU’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with KHSD, a partnership that helps students fulfill their A-G requirements to be ready for college. With the MOU, Kern students are guaranteed to receive an academic scholarship from APU as well as an additional $1,000 scholarship to support their education if they maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher. “We’ve created a pathway for students to be able to afford a degree in higher education through our MOU with KHSD,” Sprague said. “When you go through higher education, more doors open for you. I have a passion for all students to have that opportunity, to be able to obtain a degree that will open a world of possibilities.”

The day concluded with a keynote speech from Antoine Hawkins, PhD, superintendent of the Evergreen Elementary School District in San Jose. Hawkins and Bowens are both members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest African American fraternity in the U.S. which develops leaders, promotes brotherhood, and academic excellence. Hawkins emphasized the importance of focusing in high school to the students, that college is within reach if they buckle down. Bowens seconded this message, encouraging his students in Project BEST to do everything they could now to prepare for college. “Higher education enhances one’s life, providing different perspectives of cultures and lifestyles and equipping students with the tools to think critically for themselves,” he said. “I want my students to know that they can do all things, including getting a degree, through Christ who strengthens them.”

Bowens recollected his time at APU fondly, talking about how he felt welcomed at APU and was inspired by seeing other leaders of color in the Educational Leadership Department. “I was around people that looked like me and shared the same lived life experiences as me. We motivated and pushed each other,” he said. “I had a strong sense of belonging and knew I was supposed to be here. I am who I am today because of how I was transformed as a leader at APU.” Bowens advises all of his students in Project BEST to apply to two colleges: Cal State Bakersfield (their local university) and APU. He said that his students were treated so well that he has already started planning another trip for at least 120 more Project BEST students to visit APU in the spring. “My students felt that same strong sense of belonging on APU’s campus. They loved being welcomed so warmly and I truly hope some of them matriculate to APU after graduation.”

Nathan Foster ('20) is the public relations manager in the Division of Strategic Communication and Engagement.