What are college and university students really like in the United States these days — especially in our increasingly secular world? You might picture a self-centered generation motivated by financial success. But in reality, the majority of undergraduates are searching for meaning and identity, looking for answers to life's big questions just as they always have.
For example, researchers at the University of California, in Los Angeles, recently surveyed more than 112,000 new students at 236 colleges and universities.1 They discovered the following:
• 80 percent of students have an interest in spirituality.
• 76 percent search for meaning and purpose in life.
• 47 percent seek out opportunities to grow spiritually.
• 65 percent sometimes feel distant from God.
• 57 percent sometimes question their beliefs.
Years ago, most colleges included an emphasis on service, morality and spirituality. But these elements began to disappear with the growth of public universities and a drift toward secularization in many private colleges. With time, intellectual growth became the primary focus. As a result, today's university students who grapple with the "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", "What's my place in life?" questions often must try to find answers on their own.
At Walla Walla University, we believe there's a better option.
"The college-university years are a crucial period in the development of character, worldview and commitments," says John McVay, WWU president. "To live out those years at WWU is a great advantage, as it is a place where rigorous academics meet vigorous spirituality."
This combination of study and Christianity, first outlined by Ellen White in the late 1800s and early 1900s, continues to guide the development of Adventist education today.2 She described an education that:
• Affirms God as the Creator and ultimate source of truth.
• Is Bible-based, Christ-centered and focuses toward eternal life with God.
• Seeks harmonious development of heart, mind, body and relationships.
• Nurtures character growth based on Christian values.
• Provides a balance of scholarship, creative thinking and practical skills.
• Promotes loving service to others as life's highest calling.
• Encourages students to commit their lives to Christ and join the Adventist Church.
The value offered by Adventist education isn't just temporal — it's eternal.
"The most vital outcome [isn't prestige, degrees and salaries]. It's whether our children are standing beside us as parents, pastors and teachers at the foot of the cross," writes Larry Blackmer, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists vice president of education.3
A belief that Jesus is coming soon, that we can be ready and that we have the privilege of sharing this good news with the world provides context and meaning for each student's life at WWU. This philosophy attracts students4 and fulfills them.
Whether it's in worships, Sabbath services, prayers in class or seen reflected in the lives of faculty, staff and students, spirituality is part of the fabric of WWU.
"I have definitely grown in my relationship with Jesus while at WWU," says Jonathan Woodruff, a senior business administration student. "People like Alex Bryan, Paddy McCoy and Troy Fitzgerald do an excellent job of consistently lifting Jesus up in their sermons. Many of my business professors are also open about their faith in God. I find this inspiring."
When she was deciding which university to go to, Hannah Myers, a freshman biology major who attended a public high school, recalls focusing on three areas — campus life, spiritual life and academics.
"I have always loved the University of Oregon and was certain that I would go there," she says. "But when it came time to make the final decision, I felt that WWU would offer a stronger spiritual atmosphere — something that was important to me. Here I've discovered not only a first-rate education, but a place to establish both a sense of self and a sense of spirituality. WWU challenges one to search deeper, try harder and love more. It is a place that offers the perfect setting in which to meet God. In my time here, I have come to know God as a friend. I believe that relationship will enable me to do more than I ever dreamed possible."
Andrew Santos, a junior accounting major, chose to enroll at WWU after graduating from an Adventist academy.
"I have learned the biggest thing that will benefit me as I press forward in life will be my walk with Jesus Christ," he says. "Coming to WWU has strengthened my walk with Christ and taught me to rely on Him each and every single day. I know now to do my best and give Him the rest."
Santos mentions John Foote, WWU dean of men, as a person who is spiritually inspiring.
"He is one of the most Christ like people I know. He is battling cancer but always manages to have a positive attitude. He has taught me to put everything in God's hands and always to have a smile on my face," Santos says.
"The Christian life is an argument in favor of God, and it's the ultimate goal of an Adventist education," says Alex Bryan, Walla Walla University Church senior pastor.
"Higher education in Adventism [historically] did not come out of a season of inward focus," he says. "The purpose was for outward focus and engagement with the culture. The purpose of coming to Walla Walla University is not so you can escape the world but so you can be highly trained to impact the world."
"All who engage in the acquisition of knowledge should strive to reach the highest round of the ladder. Let students advance as fast and as far as they can; let the field of their study be as broad as their powers can compass," Ellen White wrote years ago.5
Her challenge is being met today as evidenced by results from the CognitiveGenesis study. Since 2006, data from Iowa Tests have been collected on more than 50,000 K–12 students enrolled in Seventh-day Adventist schools in North America. In each subject category, students attending Adventist schools scored higher than the national average, even after controlling for individual ability.6
This pattern of achievement continues at the university level.
"WWU offers an excellent academic program with many stories to tell about students going to well-reputed graduate programs and good jobs," says Ginger Ketting-Weller, WWU vice president for academic administration.
For example, Johnny Jesson, a 2009 mathematics graduate, was awarded a competitive two-year fellowship at T. Rowe Price, an investment management firm. Most of the competition were from schools such as Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California Berkeley.
The year before, WWU graduate Brandon Fetroe was accepted into Stanford University's aeronautical engineering program, which is ranked No. 2 in the country. He has been working with NASA's Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) team. LISA consists of three spacecraft that have been designed to measure gravitational forces in the universe.
"Our students are active, able and engaged to a level that exceeds what I have seen in prior decades," McVay says. "They know how to create and communicate. They are masters of our technologically savvy world. And they are emotionally authentic and accessible to others."
"I feel that the teachers are highly qualified and are experts in their fields of study. They are so willing to help you and truly want you to succeed. The academic programs have a strong and consistent reputation. The school not only prepares you for your future job, but also to succeed in life," says Santos.
At WWU, a strong belief in God goes hand in hand with reaching out to others. "To separate faith and service would be a travesty," McVay says. "Faith feeds service and grants perseverance to carry it forward. Service gives reality and maturity to faith," he says.
One example of this combination would be the student missions program. Since 1959, WWU has sent more than 2,500 student missionaries throughout the world to serve as teachers, deans, surgeons' assistants, orphanage managers, radio maintenance workers, engineers and more. This year, 88 students are serving in 26 countries, including the United States. To see a full list of students who have participated in this program, visit www.wallawalla.edu/called.
Students also routinely help individuals and organizations in the community during service days. The ongoing commitment to service is contagious and can be seen reflected in the lives and dreams of students.
"Immediately after graduating I'd like to go to an unfamiliar country and serve in medical clinics. Eventually I would like to graduate from medical school and continue to serve in distant places," says Sara Park, a biology major.
Tim Swope, an engineering major major, talks about his goals: "I'd like to be involved in a project where I can influence people's lives, whether it's by building or designing structures in other countries or learning how to design huge skyscrapers and then using the money to run mission trips," he says. "God is in control. I just need to let Him lead."
The future may not always be clearly mapped, as is the case with Christine Zenthoefer, senior graphic design and pre-law major. But the value she places on helping others is easy to see.
"I'm still not sure exactly what I want to do with life," Zenthoefer says. "But the one thing I know is that I want my life to have meaning and I want to make a difference in the lives of others. Money is not that important to me. When I'm old and gray, I'd much rather have my wealth be in memories of all the people I've helped than stored up in a bank account somewhere."
Considering our place near the end of earth's history and the imperative, urgent call of the Great Commission to spread the good news of salvation, we firmly believe that Adventist education has been built for such a time as this.
"The Seventh-day Adventist Church was birthed as a youth movement, where young adults owned the mission and crafted the strategies to share it. In a rather different world, WWU is at the cutting edge of mentoring Seventh-day Adventist young adults in leadership in church and society. We are all about returning the church to its origins as a youth movement," McVay says.
As you consider how you might support and participate in Christian education at WWU, McVay suggests three ways you can help:
1. Pray for everyone involved — faculty, staff and students.
2. Send able and committed students to participate in the resources available at WWU.
3. Give to help strengthen WWU and ensure its strength and success in the future.
Finally, if you're a student making a decision about which school to attend, pray about the options. "Put the decision in God's hands, and let Him guide you to where He wants you to be rather than where you might want to be," Santos says.
1. Alexander W. Astin et al., Freshman Survey (Higher Education Research Institute: University of California, Los Angeles, 2004-2005).
2. Humberto M. Rasi, "Adventist Education in the 21st Century: Eight Significant Trends," The Journal of Adventist Education, Summer 2010.
3. Larry Blackmer, "Adventist Education Refocuses on Mission," Adventist Review, March 13, 2008.
4. John 12:32.
5. Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1943), p. 394.
6. Elissa Kido, "For Real Education Reform, Take a Cue From the Adventists," The Christian Science Monitor, online edition, November 15, 2010.