UNPACKING THE OLIVET MISSION
With more than 4,000 universities in America, does it really matter which one a student chooses to attend?
Dr. Kent Olney
With more than 4,000 universities in America, does it really matter which one a student chooses to attend? Preparation, development and pursuit of one’s life passion can occur regardless of where one earns his or her degree, right? These questions are worth careful consideration. At Olivet, an education flows from three pillars, or central ideas, that lie at the heart of our educational mission.
Pillar 1: Professional Readiness
Professional preparation at Olivet consists of (1) classroom and book learning; (2) practical application through real life experience; and (3) opportunities to encounter the God of all creation through knowing His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who embrace these three emphases leave Olivet professionally ready to enter the world.
Employers are looking for young people who have a first-rate education that has prepared them to adapt to a marketplace that is rapidly changing. Of course, all universities promise such an education.
What makes us unique at Olivet is that our professional readiness includes that third element wherein we prepare students to represent God in their world. Stated another way, our students are prepared to be “interpreters” for God. This is not new. Long ago, God used Joseph to interpret for the Pharaoh in Egypt. He used Daniel to interpret for King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. God still seeks qualified interpreters who are strategically placed and used for His purposes among world leaders. Today He finds many of those interpreters at Olivet — individuals professionally prepared to represent both their discipline and God. Having grown up between two deaf siblings, I worked for 20 years as a professionally certified sign language interpreter. In that role, I interpreted in classrooms, courtrooms, hospitals and churches. I have interpreted for Billy Graham, four state governors and even at the White House.
Those experiences taught me that the most fundamental principle to becoming an effective interpreter is to know two languages well. In a sense, that is our mission at Olivet: We strive to teach two languages. Our students leave us competent in the language of their chosen field of study and versed in the language of God. Professional readiness at Olivet means knowing both languages, or both worlds, well.
A fair question, then, is this: How are we doing? Are we having success in professionally preparing our students? The following alumni have returned to speak on campus in recent months. Each illustrates Olivet’s remarkable track record:
- Suzanne Bell ’98 is the lead researcher for NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance Laboratory.
- David Horton ’84 enjoyed a long career with the IRS, overseeing a $225 million budget and providing tax assistance to nations around the world.
- Teresa Woodruff ’85 was named interim president of Michigan State University this past November.
- Angel Colón ’90 is currently the senior director of diversity and multicultural development at Kroger, our nation’s largest chain of supermarkets.
- Jessica Swanson ’06 is a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab in Washington, D.C., exploring how finance decisions impact our nation’s schools.
All are professionally prepared interpreters, and there are many others like them. Jesus had this to say on the topic of interpreters in Luke 12:56: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky [i.e., you have mastered arts and sciences]. [But] how is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” Our mission stretches beyond mastering the arts and sciences. We point to the Creator of those arts and sciences and seek to interpret Him through every academic discipline, in every corner of the world. Corporate offices, educational institutions, performance stages, research laboratories, churches and mission fields, professional athletic teams, medical facilities, political offices and civic organizations have all welcomed professionals who received their foundational preparation while at Olivet. Individuals with an Olivet education serve as God’s interpreters in this world.
Pillar 2: Personal Development
Olivet’s second pillar is personal development. As a Christian university, we intentionally seek to foster deep piety along with strong scholarship.
Making such a statement begs the question: What is a Christian university? Extremes exist across the higher education landscape. An overemphasis in one direction — Christian — implies more interest in pursuing halos than academic excellence. That approach too often produces firm beliefs but minimal influence in the marketplace. Emphasis in the other direction — university — risks developing shallow Christians who are conversant in the latest educational buzzwords but who know little of God’s enduring Word.
Olivet seeks to avoid these extremes. When we speak of a Christian university, we value what each distinct word emphasizes. Consequently, we believe the following:
- We believe all truth is God’s truth; He is the Source of all knowledge.
- We believe we can pursue devotion to God and practice excellence in our academic disciplines.
- We believe a relationship with the Creator enhances rather than diminishes intellectual development. It is God who kindles inquisitive and creative minds.
- We believe with the Apostle Paul that Christ, not culture, is our Master. Therefore, “Whatever [we] do, [we] work at it with all [our] heart … working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23).
- We believe learning entails lifelong development with eternal consequences.
The best in higher education is always shaped by faith. That is how we define a Christian university.
Such a university is committed to personal development. Let me illustrate with an unusual phone call that came to Olivet this past August.
Jim (not his real name) called the University, said he was dying and asked to talk to a dean. The call was transferred to my office. I quickly learned four things: (1) Jim was in poor health with a bad medical prognosis; (2) over 40 years ago, he had been an Olivet student; (3) he had been kicked out of the college twice for his behavior — the last time permanently; and (4) he now wanted to apologize and set things right. His language was rough, and his emotions were raw as he wept into the phone; his voice was filled with regret. I prayed with Jim and assured him of our and, more importantly, God’s forgiveness. Jim expressed his thanks and then wistfully said, “I loved my professors at Olivet. They were so good to me, even though I was a rebel.”
That initial call has now become a weekly call between the “rebel” and the dean. If he doesn’t call me, I call him. Jim’s health has stabilized, and more of his story has unfolded. One poor decision after another resulted in years of heartache and misery. Yet Jim could never forget Olivet. Now that the end looms near, he is reaching out to her again. It may sound strange, but Jim and I — the rebel and the dean — continue to have mutually encouraging conversations. When life turned dark and the future looked bleak, Jim was drawn back to his alma mater, Olivet, to his professors who “were so good to [him], even though [he] was a rebel.”
What would cause a man to make such a phone call? Jim remembered the virtue that marked Olivet. He remembered Jesus was there, among his faculty and classmates. He remembered a place of love and forgiveness. Then he prayed that what he remembered had not changed over the years. Jim communicates two sentiments to me nearly every time we talk: first, how proud he is that Olivet continues to develop Godly students and, second, how amazed he is that a dean takes the time to talk to a rebel.
But that is who we are. Whether interacting with current students, distinguished alumni, outside constituents or a rebel from the past, our mission is the same. We are focused on professional readiness for a career and personal development for a life in this world and the next. As a Christian university, who we are and how we treat others matters.
Thomas Obadiah Chisholm, a Methodist hymnwriter from Kentucky, penned these well-known lyrics 100 years ago: “Great is Thy Faithfulness, Lord, unto me!” Chisholm went on to note that the same faithful Lord gives “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Our students — past, present and future — are counting on us to point them to the source of that strength and hope for their personal development. We dare not disappoint them.
Pillar 3: Lives of Service
The third and final pillar that distinguishes our work at Olivet is encouraging students to engage in lives of service. Our professionally prepared and personally developed students head out in search of more than just good jobs. They want to serve, knowing that is the ultimate measure of their success.
In some ways the task has never been more challenging. Our culture exhibits a curious mix of victimization, individual rights, fragile egos, anxiety, fear and depression. The CDC reports a sharp rise in “deaths of despair”: deaths due to suicide, drugs and alcohol. This trend is particularly seen among millennials and is contributing to the lowest U.S. life expectancy rates in the past 100 years.
What accounts for what we are witnessing? The late French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, in his 1897 classic, Suicide, pointed to the power of community life. Suicide rates, according to Durkheim, are elevated when social ties are weak. On the other hand, communities rich with vibrant social relationships tend to have lower suicide rates. Community life matters.
Ironically, social analysts tell us that today’s young adults are the most socially connected generation ever, with their iPhones and social media accounts creating stimulating, 24/7, online communities. We are discovering, however, that not just any community will do. Communities that make a difference are rooted in deep, meaningful, enduring and sacrificial relationships.
That elevates the value of a place like Olivet Nazarene University. Olivet provides more than geographical community on a campus, physical community in dorms, social community through organizations and athletic teams, and spiritual community via chapel and ministry programs. It also provides service opportunities that build and sustain another kind of community — that which is borne out of giving one’s life away for the benefit of others.
Jesus, the One Who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life” (Matthew 20:28), is our model here. We encourage students to follow His example. Nothing lifts one’s sights and spirits more — nothing combats despair and discouragement more — than service to others. Genuine community, built on sacrificial service, gets formed in the process; such community is a defining feature common to Olivet graduates. Durkheim was right all along.
Following are some alumni from the past two decades who illustrate well what we mean by lives of service:
- Nick Shelton ’02 and Anthony Deutsch ’17 both turned their dreams and hard work into careers with the U.S. Secret Service, where their lives of service protect the U.S. president, vice president and other dignitaries around the world.
- Simone Twibell ’06 came to Olivet from South America, graduated, married and prepared for the ministry. After walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” upon the loss of her husband due to brain cancer, she has embraced a life of service as an Olivet faculty member who influences students.
- Ben Kayser ’02 went from being a top baseball prospect to a military officer to a life of service with the Navigators. He now disciples soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, modeling what it means to follow Christ and leading them in battle against the enemy of their souls.
- Amanda Choi ’07 turned some dark days of pain and loss into a life of service in Jerusalem with Bridges for Peace, winsomely introducing Jews to their Messiah, Jesus.
- LaMorris Crawford ’06 left Chicago’s South Side housing projects, poverty and violence to attend Olivet. Upon graduation he embarked on a life of service that has included being an NFL chaplain, pastor and speaker.
- Grace Pelley ’18 has overcome physical challenges and entered a life of service that includes writing, editing and coaching others to do the same.
- Josh Adams ’04 went on to medical school after Olivet and then joined the military, all in preparation for a life of service as a family doctor in Idaho.
- Raechel Myers ’05 founded an organization known as She Reads Truth, adopting a life of service that encourages believers to open and read their Bibles in order to discover truth and relevancy.
All of these — some overcoming pain, adversity andAll of these obstacles — have pursued lives of service and represent scores of other alumni. The result is twofold: Recipients of the service benefit, and strong community ties are formed that sustain and spread goodwill.
Education With a Christian Purpose
Yes, Olivet seeks to send out graduates who are professionally prepared, personally developed and committed to lives of service. These three pillars make up our mission. The motto engraved in stone at the entrance to our campus reads, “Education With a Christian Purpose.” We contend that this noble mission, and nothing less, is what it means to engage in higher education. The decision of where to pursue a college education really does matter after all.
From Olivet The Magazine, Winter 2023. Read the full issue HERE.