Photo by Dustin Reynolds, '07, MBA'10.
Photo by Dustin Reynolds, '07, MBA'10.

**The APU Distinctive: An Education that Bridges Career, Calling, and Connectivity

by Caitlin Gipson

Blake Heal ’08, MBA ’10, emerged from the back of an RV to see the Golden Gate Bridge.

The sight ended a 14-day trip across the continental United States and the last step in his production company’s quest to produce the perfect Levi’s viral ad. A product of Azusa Pacific University’s cinema and broadcast arts and Young Executive MBA programs, Heal is managing partner of Conscious Minds, which produces advertisements and digital content for an impressive list of big-name clients. Brands like Coca-Cola, Nike, General Mills, and Red Bull trust him to tell their stories in new and unique ways. The Levi’s viral ad conveyed the brand’s patriotic roots through 2,700 photographs of a man in Levi’s 501 jeans walking across the country and garnered more than 10 million views. “We convince brands that they can tell more honest stories, more human stories,” he said. “To find truth in their messaging that stands for something consumers can rally around.”

Heal attributes his success to marrying his God-given calling with marketable skills while at APU. “The APU approach prompts you to consider more: You’ve learned your tangible craft, now what is your calling within film? Now that you know how to use film, how do you want to influence the film world? I could have pursued several routes, but APU helped me connect my calling to my career.”

Heal’s entrepreneurial success while pursuing his calling illustrates a combination of significant importance to Azusa Pacific and the nation. News headlines chronicle a shift from a degree-at-all-costs mentality to a focus on outcomes and employability. “Millennial College Graduates: Young, Educated, and Jobless” bemoans Newsweek. “Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?” asks New York Times Magazine. “One Vision of Tomorrow’s College: Cheap, and You Get an Education, Not a Degree” suggests the Washington Post. And while the overall unemployment rate has fallen in the U.S. to 5.4 percent, Forbes gripes that “The 5.4% Unemployment Rate Means Nothing for Millennials,” since unemployment among recent college graduates still outpaces that of older, more established workers. Even the White House entered the discussion by proposing an accountability rating system for colleges and universities, with the President emphasizing that American families need to “get the most bang for their educational buck.”

Much of the response focuses on careers and outcomes for alumni. “This is a national shift,” said Philip Brazell ’08, M.A. ’13, director of APU’s Center for Career and Calling. “American universities realize they’ve been approaching career services and alumni relations as separate functions, rather than seamlessly assisting undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree alumni at a higher level.” This paradigm shift yields sweeping changes—UC San Diego combined its Career Services and Alumni offices into a single unit, Wake Forest University hired a 10-person employer relations team for building industry contacts, and Stanford University’s Career Development Center now fosters networking relationships, replacing traditional workshops with “career meet-ups” for current students and alumni in various fields.

Azusa Pacific’s equally robust response maximizes a long-standing emphasis on valuing each student and building relationships, expressed most recently in the university’s Shared Vision 2022. “We aim to become the premier Christian university and recognized leader in higher education by 2022,” said APU President Jon R. Wallace, DBA. “This drives our vision for students as they transition into alumni, and blurs the distinction between the two. How does the premier Christian university enhance relationships with and between alumni over the course of their lives? The answer: With more intention and holistically, with an eye on community building, service, and partnership—the very hallmarks of an APU education since our founding in 1899.”

To add more resources to this effort, Wallace appointed Annie Tsai, Ph.D., as the university’s first vice president for alumni, vocation, and innovation, in October 2014. Overseeing the Office of Alumni Relations, Office of Parent and Family Relations, the renamed Center for Career and Calling, and emerging entrepreneurship initiatives, Tsai strategically connects these areas as they reenvision what it means to support APU alumni over a lifetime. “We want to serve our students as they enter the workforce, explore their career options, shift course, and consider new careers,” said Tsai. “We want APU to be the place you pursue your academic dreams, retool or shift focus, fill your organization’s job opening, start your job search, volunteer time, network, start your business, and rediscover your calling as it changes over the lifelong development of your career. APU is here to walk alongside you for life.”

With these goals in mind, Tsai, along with the Career and Calling team, launched multiple initiatives beginning with a more comprehensive use of the First-Destination Survey. Developed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the First-Destination Survey identifies where undergraduate students end up six months after graduation. “Not everyone transitions into a job immediately after graduation,” said Brazell. “While we surveyed alumni before, this is the first year we are doing so on a macro scale with the goal of discovering where 100 percent of our alumni end up. This data will help us become more strategic as we determine what the national trends mean for APU.”

While the First-Destination Survey lays the foundation for higher-level reporting, other initiatives help increase alumni affiliations, such as multiple new LinkedIn groups and, the enterprise-level alumni career network. “We have more than 50,000 alumni out in the world making a difference,” said Tim Kapadia ’97, MBA ’01, APU’s director of alumni relations and development. “We want to cultivate a bridge between our alumni who are out there doing—using their APU education to make a difference as teachers, doctors, businesspeople, missionaries-and our current and recently graduated students about to take a similar bold leap. We hope that what begins as career contacts will organically lead to mentor relationships and a deeper sense of community.”

Still other established programs connect alumni with employers and go hand in hand with the “Education to Vocation” focus identified by APU Provost Mark Stanton, Ph.D., ABPP, which emphasizes ushering students from the classroom to an applied internship setting, followed by paid work experiences. In addition, entrepreneurial students and alumni participate in Zuventurez, an in-house, start-up business plan competition, and Elevate, a groundbreaking, nationwide, faith-based business plan competition founded by APU. “These endeavors demonstrate that when you enter APU, you join a community that will support and empower you to realize your dreams, respond to God’s call on your life, and meet each new chapter along life’s path with confidence,” said Tsai. “APU’s emphasis on character and competence provides a competitive edge. Being part of the APU family and holding an APU degree yield an advantage as you network, pursue career opportunities, and seek talent.”

Employers agree. More and more, businesses seek out APU graduates. “The APU alumni I’ve hired are intelligent, flexible, organized, and have a high degree of integrity,” said Eric Simons, M.S. ’02, MBA ’08, senior director of software quality assurance for Cornerstone On Demand. “I also like the strong communication skills that I see in these graduates, which are hard to find in the technology field. Several of my hires stand out, and now hiring managers in other divisions want to recruit with me at APU.”

This combination, coupled with a change-the-world orientation, appeals to employers. “Our APU recruits and coworkers eagerly apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to make a difference,” said Andrew Henck, M.A. ’13, professional development programmes manager at World Vision International. “They are excited to use their skills to contribute solutions to big problems.”

Paul Solis ’98, instructor for the Disney College program at the Disneyland Resort, noted that APU’s emphasis on calling and service produces guest-focused employees, known as cast members. “Disney’s culture is very customer-centric, and APU’s service-oriented approach produces graduates who transition very easily into our organization. APU alumni work in Disney TV animation, guest service management, and multiple other areas. Our current Disneyland Resort ambassador—the official host of Disneyland and emissary of goodwill—is Jessica (Nash ’04) Bernard. Selected for one of two coveted positions, her responsibilities include spreading magic in the community on behalf of the Disneyland Resort and meeting with dignitaries when they come to the park. All of this confirms that APU produces individuals ready to lead in many fields, and Disney reaps the benefit.”

Lauren Cray ’08 serves as the production coordinator for Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero, an animated series produced by Disney Television Animation. “I tell people considering APU that one of the biggest benefits is the people—your friends, who inevitably become your network and want to help you succeed,” she said. “It’s building those bonds with a group of like-minded people. It begins in college with the classes we take, the chapels we attend, the service projects we do. After college, we stick together. The networking is invaluable. You connect with people you trust, who have the same vision for making a difference, and those connections stay with you in the workplace. Now I’m that person—I get to be the connection at Disney for APU grads. I get a call every couple of weeks from an APU student asking how to break into animation, and I love being able to pay it forward to our alumni.”

Sarah (Stafford ’07) Guerrero, a middle school principal in Texas, tells a similar story. “There’s a group of five of us who keep in contact: three in education, another an entrepreneur, and another in ministry. One friend came to work in Houston through a connection I had. I love the accountability and link to people who share the same vision.”

Many alumni credit APU faculty and staff for job leads after graduation. Jobob Taelisi ’13, who helps manage social media and events for professional athletes like former NFL running back Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye ’87, points to a relationship with Terry Franson, Ph.D., APU’s senior vice president for student life/dean of students, as instrumental in his career. “Terry called me once a week with different job opportunities during my senior year. APU’s administrators were accessible and invested in me. Looking back, I realize how unique that was. Terry called Christian on my behalf and made connections for me.”

Sometimes those connections result from relationships with faculty scholar-practitioners. Sandra Harden ’04, M.Ed. ’06, BSN ’15, applied to APU’s Entry-Level Master’s (ELM) program at the Inland Empire Regional Center when she decided to change careers, and her contact with nursing faculty there led to a job offer at a faculty member’s hospital. “The employability of APU nursing students was a major reason why I chose APU for my nursing degree,” she said. “APU’s nursing programs are highly respected, and I wanted that head start in getting a job when I finished the program.” Sure enough, Harden was the first in her cohort to receive a job offer, and she now works with her former professor at Methodist Hospital of Southern California as a labor and delivery nurse while she completes her remaining master’s courses.

Heal echoes these experiences, citing APU connections as key to milestones in his entrepreneurial venture with Conscious Minds. “David Bixby mentored me,” he said of APU’s acting president. “APU is where I connected with an APU alum who worked at Nike and gave me my first ‘in,’ another alum connected me with our now angel investor, and an APU professor introduced me to a VP at Warner Bros. who helped me get my first internship at the Burbank studio. My journey is peppered with doors opened by my APU network. Of course, I charged through them and delivered when the time came, but APU gave me the opportunity to show what I could do.”

In fact, of his 12 employees, 5 are APU alumni, along with one of his business partners, Cameron DeArmond ’02, and Heal employs 8 to 10 additional APU alumni on an ongoing contract basis. “It’s not just a degree,” he said. “It’s a community and network of people I trust.”

That trust is what sets APU and its alumni apart—trust in 116 years of an unwavering mission to keep God First and in the people called upon to represent Christ in diverse fields throughout the world. “Higher education is changing,” said Tsai. “We must help our students connect their strengths to a career that makes them employable, and continue to focus on calling and equipping difference makers.”

Caitlin Gipson ’01 is a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and search engine optimizer in Reedley, California. Contact her at [email protected]

Originally published in the Fall '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.