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Vanguard University: People are worth everything

By Joel Kilpatrick

Sandals, sideburns and surfboards are the fashion fundamentals here at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif., where students are on a quest for spiritual growth and academic excellence. On a morning where the weather is so perfect that it seems a crime to leave it outdoors, students are streaming into the chapel for a service.

The sanctuary is full and a student-led worship band begins singing.

"Come, now is the time to worship," they sing. A young lady harmonizes, the drums pound, the guitarist catches the mood with his strumming. "Come just as you are to worship …."

A subdued passion begins to build. Some students lift their hands. By the end of the worship time everyone is fully engaged.

"And I love You for the Cross," the band sings, and more hands are raised. "I’m overwhelmed by the mystery. I will seek You in the morning, and learn to walk in Your ways."

A school administrator takes the platform and gives a brief devotional, then leads the group in receiving Communion. He calls forward anyone who feels sick and wants prayer. Two dozen students respond and senior class members pray and anoint them with oil.

The service dismisses and students hurry to class, some riding skateboards.

Vanguard’s location could not be more lovely. The beach is four miles away and sea breezes blow gently through. The campus is full of pine, palm and fir trees, spacious green lawns and flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors. The setting is certainly a draw for prospective students.

But Vanguard also boasts a challenging academic environment. Two professors were recently awarded a major grant for the study of HIV/AIDS, and this year the 105-voice Vanguard University Choir was invited to sing at Carnegie Hall.

In a morning sociology class taught by Dr. Elizabeth Leonard, students are busy stapling and turning in their homework. Today’s discussion topic: how religious beliefs affect social and political attitudes. Several students note how the church sometimes drags its feet on matters of social justice, but at other times leads, as it did in the slavery abolition movement in the early to mid-1800s.

"The professors are amazingly helpful and love the Lord," says Rachel Manville, 19, who came here from a small town in Oregon and is a sophomore studying psychology. "When I visited I could tell that the spiritual atmosphere was different than at other colleges."

Briklyn Wuich, 22, from nearby Orange, agrees. "When I walked on campus there was a really sweet presence," he says. "People are seeking God here. This school makes you want to give back to it."

For Ben Schoening, 22, the difference has been the professors’ personal touch. "It’s easy to get involved because the school is small enough," he says. "You get personal attention from your professors. Not a day goes by when I don’t see a professor praying with a student. They are willing to get involved in our lives."

Many students say the opportunities for ministry have shaped their core beliefs. David Lyke, 22, from Colorado Springs, Colo., spent summer and spring breaks on ministry trips to Mexico and the western United States. The trips helped him understand what God wanted him to do with his life, he says.

Ryan Geesey, 21, from central California, says being a resident advisor in the dorms changed his idea of what ministry is.

"You see incoming freshmen grow from believing, ‘Christianity is right because the Bible and my dad told me so,’ to looking to the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit to guide them and teach them things only He can teach them," he says.

Being an RA has been the most rewarding experience of his life, he adds.

Heather Rachels, 21, is a junior studying communications and public address. "The Lord’s presence is all over this place," she says. "Coming here my freshman year was amazing. The faculty invests in your life academically and spiritually. It has stretched me to be more than I thought I could be."

In their rooms or in computer labs students are tapping away at homework. Only the whir of printers breaks the silence.

Outside on a cork board, flyers are posted for a bowling league and ministry positions available at local churches; a home-made advertisement touts "very cheap custom surfboards."

Dorms bustle with activity and music. In the men’s dorm, dry-erase boards hang at every door to catch messages from friends who dropped by. "Hey, Craig. Have a good night!" reads one. Rooms display the interests of those who bunk there: acoustic guitars, books by 20th-century theologians, snowboarding and basketball posters, skateboards leaning against the wall and MP3 music files playing over speakers hooked up to laptop computers.

Outside where the sun tinges the breeze with mild warmth, the sound of choir practice drifts through a window at the music building. Inside the practice rooms other students are practicing alone, separately tuning a violin, playing the cello and singing the Lord’s Prayer to a taped accompaniment.

The chemistry lab, too, is busy, and smells like formaldehyde. Tubes, beakers and bottles of chemicals dominate the tables. In another room, this one dark, students are looking through microscopes and studying cells.

Many of the buildings are newly built or refurbished to accommodate the growing student body and faculty. Recent enrollment was 1,654, and in the last several years the school has grown rapidly.

Vanguard President Murray Dempster has a distinctive mane of white hair and a beard to match, and wears small rimless glasses and leather sandals that match his business suit. On his desk is a metal bust of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Our vision is to be a leading Christian university that is deeply influenced by our Pentecostal heritage," he says. "Here, you’re taught by people with Ph.D.s, and you have the intimacy of small class size. Our faculty members are authentically Christian and totally competent."

Dempster embraces the early Pentecostal movement’s emphasis on multi-culturalism and the prominence of women in leadership. He is ambitious in promoting racial diversity among the students and faculty and including women in positions of authority. Twenty percent of Vanguard’s student body are non-white.

He also knows that the college experience is about having the right feeling on campus.

"College is about living in the dorms, eating in the dining commons, going to the bookstore or the computer lab, and not having to go off campus if you don’t want to," he says. "That creates the family atmosphere that makes Vanguard attractive."

For students like Abi Kennedy, 21, that has made all the difference. A sociology major from Springfield, Mo., Kennedy was "afraid to go so far from home, but I fell in love with it," she says, "the whole atmosphere. And everyone I came into contact with was interested in me. I immediately formed friendships with people on my floor and they have really impacted my life."

Kennedy has had such a good experience being a resident advisor that she wants to make a career working with college students, giving others what she received at Vanguard.

In the waning afternoon, seven or eight students are sitting at easels at one end of a lawn, painting portraits of the library building. Praise music blasts from a sound system near one of the dorms, and the large gymnasium is full of the squeak of shoes as the basketball team plays a vigorous game of five on five.

"People come here and encounter Christ," says Rick Hardy, vice president for enrollment management and advancement. "They wrestle with what their walk with Christ means. Some students experience God for the first time here on their own. We integrate faith with the curriculum and challenge students to encounter Christ."

Talitha Cleveland, 22, a youth leadership major, is living proof.

"I knew I always wanted to go to a small Christian school to get a spiritual education," she says. "And since coming here I’ve watched myself grow spiritually and mentally. The people here are worth everything."

Joel Kilpatrick lives in Los Angeles, Calif.

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