Access and awakening: the transformative power of Christian higher education

by Michael Beachy

On campuses across the expanse of Michigan and into the northwest reaches of Ohio, Spring Arbor University has grown to encompass new demographics and programs, bringing an invaluable Christian higher education experience to students in formerly inaccessible communities. Graduate and undergraduate programs offered at regional campuses range from social work to business administration, to nursing to communications, sweeping through the breadth of possibilities for professional graduate and undergraduate students. Apart from the obvious convenience of being able to attend class at an SAU campus in places like Petoskey, Metro-Toledo or Grand Rapids, the students enrolled in these programs are also afforded the flexibility of meeting for class one night a week or twice a month, depending on the program. Additionally, online modalities allow for exciting new methods of delivery, interactivity and learning, bringing a virtual classroom to the most remote of students (some living as far away as Cambodia). This scope of accessibilities broadens SAU’s reach and brings an invaluable education to an ever-growing number of people, transforming the way they think, learn and live while empowering them to pursue new and better careers, opportunities and endeavors.

“For so long, the general philosophy was that students had to be on a traditional campus for a good education,” says Dr. Kenneth Coffman. Coffman served as president of then Spring Arbor College from 1979 to 1987, and spearheaded the professional education programs. “From my work in clinical psychology, I knew that people whose lives had steered them away from college could sometimes feel depressed or worthless. In the clinical setting, the plan was to find them education, volunteer or employment opportunities.” His voice is kind and welcoming, and he wears a patient smile suggestive of quiet wisdom and serenity. “That idea of opportunity was really the background for taking the concept of Spring Arbor off campus, and bringing it to professional learners — accessible education offered at alternative times at alternative sites. The idea was the first of its kind in the nation.”

The first degree offered by this pioneering program was a Bachelor’s in Management in Human Resources (MHR). “We were in the guinea pig program,” says Shirley Zeller ’84. She exudes an air of command and pragmatism that almost succeeds at hiding the generous twinkle in her eyes. As part of the first cohort of professional learners to experience SAU at a new campus, Zeller is apt with her metaphor. “They learned a lot from us, and at the end of our program we gave the director a guinea pig,” she says, chuckling. This pilot program appealed to Zeller because of her schedule and its acceptance of transfer credit. Before getting married she had less than a year’s worth of credits to take before graduating from Jackson College. The MHR program offered her the best option to complete her degree. “I was already working in business,” she says, “and so human resources was a good fit, even though I didn’t have much familiarity with human resources. But I wanted to advance in my career, to increase my salary. And after I graduated, it did. By a great deal!”

Students in that first MHR program, a cohort of 19 according to Zeller, met at a site in Jackson, every Thursday night for a four-hour class. “There were people from all different kinds of businesses there, people from different walks,” Zeller recalls. “Parents and singles and young and old.” They came from all over the area. For Zeller, it was a two-anda- half-hour commute. As the only program of its kind at the time, it was worth it in the long run. Zeller, now retired, enjoyed a long career in the engineering field, living and working in Idaho, Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico and Washington state, among other places. “In my field, you need to have a degree,” she says. “I earned mine, and years later I feel like I’ve been around the world.”

This idea of an accessible and valuable Christian education predates the inception of the graduate and professional studies programs at SAU. E.P. Hart founded Spring Arbor Seminary in 1873, dreaming of the possibilities it would bring to the area’s rural communities, the furtherance it would provide God’s Kingdom. Transformation is inherent to the idea of Christian education — with Christ at their center, as their perspective for learning, students are changed, their viewpoints shift and broaden to encompass new truths and place them within the contexts of faith and understanding. All Truth is God’s Truth, and this transformational reality, apart from being central to the accessible Christian education offered by SAU, allows students to inquire and explore, and to pursue God with greater clarity of thought and vision.

For Vivianne Robinson, pursuing her Master of Business Administration degree at SAU has been the realization of a lifelong pursuit of education. Robinson majored in a social science multidisciplinary program at Michigan State University, a pre-law program that she hoped would lay the foundation for attendance at Cooley Law School. “That was always my direction,” she says. “Ever since middle school.” Unbidden smiles light Robinson’s face, and she laughs with a genuine warmth that reveals an easy and friendly character. “After college, after I married my husband, I took the LSAT and was admitted to Cooley. But then I became pregnant.” Law school was put on hold, the years passed and Robinson continued to work while raising her son and caring for her mother, who had grown ill. When her son graduated high school in 2012 and her mother passed in 2014, Robinson assessed her career and the prospects of continuing her education.

Robinson currently serves as the director of human resources, recruitment and staff development for university advancement at MSU, and has worked at the university since her time as a student. “You know, I’ve been at Michigan State for 33 years,” she says. “I went there as an 18-year-old freshman, earned my bachelor’s degree there and have worked there professionally ever since. I really grew up there over the last 33 years.” But MSU did not offer a program conducive to Robinson’s personal and working lives. Spring Arbor University did. Inspired by her pastor’s wife and encouraged by a highly regarded friend, Robinson researched the online MBA program offered by SAU and was immediately impressed. “I can wake up at 4 a.m. and start homework if I need to, post on Blackboard during my lunch breaks,” she says. “There’s even a Blackboard app!” (Blackboard is the virtual classroom platform used by SAU for online education). “The professors have made themselves so accessible, too, allowing us to call them on the weekends, at times that I would personally find inconvenient. I really couldn’t ask for more.”

The most pronounced expression of this kind of professorial care came when Robinson journeyed to New York City for the International Business Summit, one of the MBA program’s main experiential features. Her husband, Anthony, accompanied her, as did the families of most everyone in Robinson’s online cohort. Upon her arrival to the summit’s orientation, Robinson felt anxious to begin preparing the presentations she and her small group would give at the end of the weekend session. Instead, Drs. Caleb Chan and Sharon Norris invited the students to bring their families to orientation. “At orientation, they laid out plans for the weekend, but their key point was that this was really all about us, the students. And they thanked us for choosing Spring Arbor University, and let us know that they loved and appreciated us. It felt like I was part of a big family.” That sense of connectedness has endured since the trip to New York, and Robinson cites it as one the program’s great strengths.

While the online MBA program allows for the ease of accessibility, it also requires a lot of hard work, and Robinson admits that there was time when she was ready to quit, when the balance of work and life and education became almost too much. “I asked myself if I could do it, what I was thinking getting into this,” she says. “But Dr. Norris was there to support and encourage me in class, and at home my husband and son said, ‘You know what? You have helped so many people along the way and you kept your promises to everybody else, so now you need to keep your promise to yourself.’” Robinson realized that they were right, that she didn’t have to do this for her mother, who had held education in such high regard, or for her professors, or even for her husband and son. She was doing it for herself and for God, because it was what God wanted her to do. Later this fall, she’ll graduate. “I’ll have completed a personal goal,” she says. “And the next step? I’m going to let the Lord lead me on that, because I would not be where I’m at right now if had not been for the Lord.”

Recognizing the role God plays in life, work and relationships is what led Stephen May ’10 ’16 to pursue his Master of Arts in Counseling degree at SAU Jackson. “I thought, ‘Ya know, a second career could be very interesting.’” May exhibits an open and exuberant energy when he talks, gesticulating and joking and winking. The thought came to him after he and his wife of 38 years, Tina May ’10, had been teaching classes at their church for some time. “We were leading classes for second-half of lifers, parents of teens, children, all kinds of groups,” he says. “And we were doing individual counseling. Really without much counseling background. I thought, ‘I could really do this until I’m 80.’” So a few years after obtaining his bachelor of business administration from SAU (as a working professional and student), he returned to pursue his MAC.

“The program, and SAU in general, fit really well into my belief system,” says May. “I think, as Christians, we’re called to be helpers.” It’s one of the reasons he became so involved in faith based counseling at his church. “The training I received through the program, though, has equipped me to be a super helper.” May acknowledges that he was of a far different mentality when he began the program, working under the assumption that people’s brokenness and failings were solely of a spiritual nature, that nothing else played a role. He soon learned that many other factors fed the dysfunction and suffering of those he now works with as clients. “Through the program, I was opened up to other people’s experiences. It made me vulnerable,” May admits, “and that vulnerability is where I grow, am growing.” The recognition and validation of sometimes alien experiences allowed May to access a greater depth within himself, to realign how he perceives people while still retaining his identity in Christ. In a sense, being more present to both his clients and himself has strengthened that identity. “The whole program was very eye opening for me. I had no idea, until sitting with people, of the depth of struggle they suffer in life. I had no idea that kind of vulnerability and sensitivity to others was inside me, an old white man!”

Given the profound change the MAC program has had on May, he and his wife have discussed her own possible re-enrollment at SAU. (Tina May earned her bachelor’s in the Family Relations Education program, and now works at Jackson College). The two went through church-based certification for premarital counseling together, prior to May’s return to SAU.

Since then, they’ve helped around 20 couples navigate the pre-marital counseling process. In addition to the continuing work with his wife, May splits his 20-hour-a-week client load between a handful of locations, one of which is a faith-based counseling center. “They’ve been operating for close to 40 years, and consider it more of a ministry than a licensed counseling center,” says May.

As May demonstrates, the graduate and professional studies programs at SAU allow for and even encourage and nurture an openness to God, to others and oneself. The experiences that Canena Adams ’14 has spun into personal and community change proclaim that openness and transformation with resounding joy and exultation. “I chose social work for my bachelor’s because it’s something I’ve been passionate about since I was a child,” says Adams. She is exuberant and thoughtful in turns, and her demeanor bespeaks adversities overcome, experience and joy intermixing and informing her attitudes, perspectives and role as founder and executive director of local non-profit Women of Worth, Inc. “I didn’t come from a two-parent home. I experienced a lot as a child, and there was a social worker who helped me. I remember being at Jackson County DHS, talking to her and telling her that when I grew up, I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to help people.” Years later, after life and marriage, Adams settled on SAU Jackson as her school of choice, drawn by the faith-based education and Christian perspective. (Her daughter, Kaylynn, was also drawn to SAU, and begins her junior year this fall).

Within the BSW program, Adams found a second family, a group of students — a cohort — who ate dinner together every night, prayed together and supported one another through their coursework. “My husband and I became pregnant during one of the courses,” says Adams. “I felt like I had to stop going. But my friends and professors were concerned and urged me to finish. ‘We’re going to help you finish,’ they said. And they did, and I finished.” Since graduating the program, Adams has worked for the Jackson County Department on Aging, assessing the quality of life of the elderly and coordinating Meals-on-Wheels eligibility, among other things. But perhaps the most expansive and far-reaching project Adams has undertaken is Women of Worth; her efforts with that organization culminated in an invitation to Washington, D.C. to speak before Congress, briefing them on issues that young women face in communities around the United States. Her focus was on sexual risk avoidance education, and the necessity of its funding for organizations like Women of Worth.

Adams founded Women of Worth a few years ago, her inspiration born from personal experience and community necessity. “I was a single, teen mom,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone mentoring me, telling me I could make better choices and that there was a big world out there, full of possibilities, and that I could actually become something.” These experiences directly inform Adams’ desire to leverage Women of Worth as a resource for young women in the Jackson community, offering them those mentors she never had and providing them with information and opportunities to make better choices for their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Through this support system, Adams’ aim is to help them improve their lives, and thus far it’s a been a great, and nationally recognized, success.

“Our first annual community conference drew about 250 women,” says Adams. “That was huge for us. For the second conference, last October, I had an even higher expectation (I’m kind of a daredevil, and believe in big, grand things). We had over 700 women in attendance for that conference! We received a lot of attention, and I made sure our message got out.” The message did get out, resulting in her trip to D.C. “I didn’t want to be another statistic, and I don’t want that for any other young woman. That’s really where my passion comes from, from my own story and struggle. And now that struggle has become my strength. And at the center of that, of everything I do, is my faith. I know the Lord has called me to this, to help the community.” Now, in the interest of furthering the message of Women of Worth, Adams has enrolled in SAU’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership program, hoping to make those community resources accessible to even more vulnerable women and communicate the necessity of making good and healthy choices.

SAU continues to adapt and expand its graduate and professional studies programs, offering an online Bachelor of Social Work program beginning this fall, and refining the existing business programs. Professional and graduate programs in communications, social work and business are lauded by online bodies and publications like “The Social Work Degree Guide” and “Christian

Universities Online” for their quality, accommodation, value and accessibility. And as SAU grows and expands, bringing these and other key features to those for whom education has hitherto been but a dream, Christ will always remain at the core of the experience on offer, informing the perspectives for learning and transforming lives so that they might yet transform others.



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