THE GATEWAY TO SERVICE
Weymouth Spence leads a Christian university located just outside the capital of the United States. Larry Evans, Editor of the Dynamic Steward and Associate Director of GC Stewardship Ministries, explores with him some of the challenges and opportunities related to developing the potential of his students. Washington Adventist University is experiencing its largest enrollment and is listed among the top 50 colleges in the northern part of the United States.
When some of our students arrive, they don’t think they can be successful. Some have no idea what they want to do in life. Previously they may not have had a good experience in school, or a good role model at home. We work to help create a positive environment while they attend this university."
LRE: As I visit your campus I notice that there’s a sign that says, “The Gateway to Service.” What does that sign mean to you as the university president? WS: It is significant. I think the early leadership of this institution recognized that, as a church, we prepare young people for a type of ministry that is vital to society. What we have done is to hard-wire the idea of “The Gateway to Service” into the life of this campus. It highlights service to our community and to the world. When students get here, we not only prepare them to be outstanding nurses and accountants and teachers and more; we also prepare them for moral leadership that can be taken back into their own communities. This can be done regardless of one’s background. This is a real need in society today. That’s why it is so important that we designate two days out of the academic year where we close down the university. Our students, faculty, and staff go out into the community to provide service in nursing homes, animal farms and soup kitchens. The faculty is strongly supportive and participate alongside the students in these community projects.
LRE: The university’s location places it at the crossroads of international attention. Is this factored into the schools’ curriculum?
WS: It is definitely woven into our curriculum. As a matter of fact, our strategic plan is built utilizing the environment so we can minister to society. For example, our radio station, WGTS, plays Christian music. It is often said that in the Pentagon they are listening to WGTS. It is in the top 10 Christian radio stations listened to in the United States.
LRE: There are many talented individuals living in this area. While your university is dedicated to building talents how do you relate talents to the development of spiritual gifts, or is there a difference?
WS: One of my first actions here at the university was to hire a vice president of ministry. Before, we had a chaplain, and the focus was on students. However, the entire university community needs to blend faith and learning into one whole. This blending links spirituality with the talents. Let me give you an example. We have the Acro-airs, which is our gymnastic team. They have outstanding talents in tumbling but they use their skills as a way of extending our spiritual mission. For example, when they do the half-time program for the Wizards (Washington’s basketball team) or when they travel, home and abroad, they help promote a drug-free environment. By doing this they convey to other youth the benefits of being drug-free.
LRE: Do you anticipate your graduates serving both church and society?
WS: Our vision is to prepare competent graduates with moral leadership and those attributes are needed for both society and the church. What is distinctive about us is that our accountants and nurses also have a spiritual base for moral leadership and service. When an employer hires one of our nurses they will receive not only a competent nurse but also someone who will serve with compassion.
LRE: Do you have ways of incorporating the needs of society into your present curriculum?
Our vision is to prepare competent graduates with moral leadership and those attributes are needed for both society and the church."
WS: We do that in part through arranged internships such as those at the radio station, the local soup-kitchen and various governmental agencies. Just this semester I received an e-mail from the White House asking if we have students who would like to intern there. The needs of the community enhance the development of the competencies we teach but they also provide the opportunity to link service with the development of academic competencies.
LRE: When it comes to bringing out the best in a student, what personal qualities do you look for in a professor?
WS: Within our value system we look at competence in the discipline, but along with that we have a requirement that each professor, each employee of this institution, model the life and teachings of Jesus. They may not actually teach about the life and teachings of Jesus, but we do ask them to model it. This helps convey the compassion and a knowledge base of what a Christian ought to be like.
LRE: It has been said by one author, “We are born to win and conditioned to lose.” How does a Christian university bring the best out of its students so they can keep the winner’s edge?
WS: When some of our students arrive, they don’t think they can be successful. Some have no idea what they want to do in life. Previously they may not have had a good experience in school, or a good role model at home. We work to help create a positive environment while they attend this university. We tell our students that it’s very likely that this class will graduate together and together you will take your place in society. Learning to work together now is an important value for us. The university has, therefore, developed a support system within our dormitories, cafeteria, student life and the classroom to support student-success. Our retention or graduation rate is a way we measure our success. For us, Christian education means developing competencies within the student’s chosen field but to also prepare the student to be able to apply their learning to a society that may not always be friendly to their endeavors.
When some of our students arrive, they don’t think they can be successful. Some have no idea what they want to do in life.
LRE: Our world has been brought to the brink of financial disaster. In the news of late, greed and selfishness have been exposed as dominating influences behind much of the chaos. Often those guilty of this are those with the brightest minds and who have graduated from highly respected universities. What’s missing?
WS: This brings us right back to the motto of “Gateway to Service.” We’re preparing students not for self-promotion but for serving others. We want them to understand that their legacy in life is not the dollars they earn or the homes they live in, but how well they impact others. That’s really the key. It is from that point that I believe the world has deviated. Our blessings and talents don’t stop with us. They are for others as well. The greatest satisfaction I receive is when a graduate reaches out and impacts others. It’s not that it is wrong for our business students to become rich or wealthy; that may happen, but it is what they do with that wealth and those riches that matters. That difference can begin here with a Christian education. Using one’s talents for others is clearly part of a Christian’s stewardship.
LRE: By the time some students arrive on your campus, it may be that they’ve made some pretty poor choices over time. What hope do they have in turning their life around?
WS: There’s great hope. As the saying goes, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Our university is designed to be part of that hope. Our advising team is here to guide them and the Christian environment helps provide the setting for turning one’s life around. If the students are willing—not only motivated but willing—to do what is necessary, we will supply the zeal and the power and whatever it takes to help them become successful. But they have a key role to play. Too often there is a tendency to be independent and try to go out alone. Oftentimes in life, however, we need to come to a point where we reach out to others and show a sense of inter-dependence if we are to succeed. This is also true of divine help.
LRE: After spending your life with youth, how much confidence do you have for the future?
WS: I’m very confident about the future. And you’re correct—I spent quite a bit of my life with youth. I’ve lived long enough to see them work their way through the system and about taking their places in society and making a difference. That’s what is so encouraging about Christian education. You get to see the rewards of your labor within your lifetime.
LRE: Are we in good hands for the future?
WS: Yes, we’re in good hands for the future! I’ve lived long enough that I can testify that when we partner with the Lord, outstanding things can happen.