Story by
Margaret D. Smith

Lilly Endowment Grant Will Fund Exploration of Vocation at SPU

How can a career goal become a calling? A grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. will provide Seattle Pacific University students with new opportunities to answer that question for themselves. The Endowment recently awarded SPU $2 million to support a campus-wide program called SERVE: Spiritual and Educational Resources for Vocational Exploration.

With the funds, Seattle Pacific plans to more fully integrate the exploration of vocation, or spiritual calling, across the University's academic and student life programs. In every academic field, students will be asked to consider how God fits into their career plans. SPU is one of 28 colleges and universities in the United States to receive grants from the Lilly Endowment to create or enhance programs that "enable talented young people to draw upon the resources of religious wisdom as they think about their vocational choice." Based in Indianapolis, the Endowment is a private foundation that supports religion, education and community development.

Seattle Pacific's SERVE program is exactly the kind of effort the Endowment wants to support, says Craig Dykstra, the foundation's vice president for religion. "It's obvious that SPU thought seriously and productively about how to encourage young people to consider questions of faith and commitment as they choose their careers."

One goal of SERVE is to challenge Seattle Pacific students to focus on finding a calling, based on their God-given talents, rather than simply finding a job. Another goal is to encourage them to consider Christian ministry among their vocational options. A third goal is to assist faculty members in exploring their own vocations as professors.

"It's a tremendous honor — and challenge — to receive this grant," says Director of the Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development Susan Gallagher, who co-directs SERVE with Professor of Christian Ministries and Education Bob Drovdahl. "We're embarking on the huge process of launching 16 program enhancements, and the vision of what we can do with those programs is extremely exciting."

One enhancement will be to the women's studies program, which will gain new faculty support. "The shift in the women's studies program," says Gallagher, "will be toward helping women students grapple with the question of vocation. Women often get conflicting messages on this subject from the culture and the church."

For those who want to explore the possibility of pastoral ministry, SPU will offer a new post-baccalaureate program that allows students to intern at a church after graduation and before enrolling in seminary. "They can try it out for a while and see if they continue to feel called to be pastors," says History Department Chair Mike Hamilton, who wrote the grant proposal that Seattle Pacific submitted to the Endowment.

Among the other SERVE program features are increased internship opportunities for students, a summer leadership academy for high school youth, and faculty development seminars. Most of the programs will begin in the fall of 2002.

According to Vice President for Academic Affairs Les Steele, the Lilly Endowment grant could instigate a culture change throughout the campus in the next few years. "I hope to see among students a more intentional decision-making process about their vocation, with God in the picture. I also hope we can see among faculty a renewed energy and a renewed sense of their own calling."

For that to happen, she needs to see herself as a part of the SPU community. It is critical for any freshman like Cardenas to feel valued and supported from the outset if she is to emerge after four years a confident graduate.

But in the case of a student of color, "fitting in" can be especially daunting in a place like SPU. It isn't easy to get your bearings when nine out of 10 of those around you are white. In her residence hall of 435, only a very few others, like Cardenas, are African American. "We hope to build a house that is hospitable and welcoming to all of God's children," says SPU President Philip Eaton. "And we hope to invest new resources to help assure them a successful outcome."

Construction of the house that Eaton envisions began with the University's Comprehensive Plan for the 21st Century, which included strategies to strengthen ethnic and cultural diversity on campus. It continued in earnest this year with a $1 million pledge from Gary and Barbara Ames to fund the Ames Initiative: Equipping Ethnic Minority Students for the 21st Century.

The former president and CEO of US West Communications, Gary Ames says that nurturing a diverse community is consistent with Christian beliefs. "God created an incredibly rich and diverse world. It's the environment of the city of Seattle in which SPU exists. If SPU is to be a factor in the Seattle community, it is important for its leadership to nurture a variety of perspectives through a more diverse student body and faculty."

To do so, says Eaton, is a moral and a biblical imperative. To do any less, says Vice President for Academic Affairs Les Steele, is to rob the Seattle Pacific classroom of the intellectual diversity that comes from many cultures and life experiences.

Discussion about these issues gained momentum this spring in several campus settings: a Presidential Symposium that brought together teams from 13 member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU); a two-day visit from civil rights leader and champion of racial reconciliation John Perkins; a forum for church leaders from white and ethnic communities on the topic of race and the Church; a luncheon at which President Eaton asked a group of alumni, faculty, staff and students for their advice on the diversity initiative; and a formal check-signing ceremony with the Ameses.

The Ames Initiative includes developing intentional relationships with racially and ethnically diverse churches in the city; hiring and retaining ethnic minority faculty and staff members; and recruiting, mentoring and providing scholarships for ethnic minority students. Steele points to a number of practical ways in which the Initiative has been implemented this year:

  • A scholarship program is in place that by 2003-04 will support 10 new students of color.
  • A faculty mentoring program has been established that pairs faculty members and minority students to provide academic, advising and emotional support for the students.
  • Discussion is underway to have SPU students provide free tutoring for students from ethnic communities in preparation for taking the SATs.
  • Residence Life staff members are planning a "mosaic" hall floor that will be racially and ethnically mixed.
  • Ways are being sought to help minority students move on to graduate school and seminary. It is hoped that some will want to return to serve on the SPU faculty and in the churches of the city.
Harvey Drake, pastor and founder of Emerald City Outreach Ministries, is a member of the Ames Advisory Council, which guides the priorities for the Ames Initiative at Seattle Pacific. "What we have to overcome is the mistrust factor. Some people might wonder if SPU has a hidden agenda. Others will say this kind of thing has been talked about before and nothing ever seems to come of it. Our job is to move beyond these perceptions. "We have to position SPU as a viable option for students of color," Drake continues, "and the bottom line is that SPU is rather spendy for most working class families. Families will sacrifice the spiritual component because of cost."

Deborah Wilds, another member of the Ames Advisory Council, is helping to increase minority access to Christian colleges. She is the education program officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and oversees the billion-dollar Gates Millennium Scholars Program for high-achieving minority students. She also serves on the CCCU board. Because of her personal faith, Wilds feels called to the work, as sensitive as it can sometimes be.

"The world is changing, and we need to change with it. The Ames Initiative must be part of a broader strategic plan supported by SPU's trustees and alumni," she says. "It sends a strong signal to the community of color that here is a campus that is really interested in attracting students of color. It also sends that signal internally, and in that way helps ensure that these students are supported in an environment that affirms them."

Mara Cardenas hopes to graduate from Seattle Pacific. As Ames Scholars, she and four other SPU students of color this year are sharing thousands of dollars of renewable scholarship assistance earmarked for ethnic minority students. It is the beginning of what Gary and Barbara Ames hope will be a groundswell of support.

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