What is Seventh-day Adventist higher education? Or maybe a better question, what is it not?
It is not an inheritance. It is not a prize awarded to a student who transitions from one phase of learning to another. Nor should it be an occasion for shaming someone who does not attend a non-faith based institution. It is not simply an educational space in which students may freely invoke the name of Jesus, either.
Is it worth the time and money? Is it on the same playing field as Ivy League schools? Is it truly a Christian education? When I look back at my education, these are some of the big questions that come to mind.
All my years of schooling were spent in Adventist education. I attended a Seventh-day Adventist grade school, academy and university. But in retrospect, as someone who wanted to stay in the field of education as a career, my experience gave me only a vague definition of Christian education. There was always an expectation that I would enroll in this specific form of schooling – it was the obvious thing for an Adventist Christian to do. And yet, I’m not sure I ever fully understood what it meant to receive a Christian education.
Now, with a master’s degree in school counseling, I’ve thought a lot about how I might help someone transition to the next phase of their education – something I didn’t have when I was in high school. I remember listing my three academic areas of interest when preparing to visit the nearest Adventist university: theology, animation, and journalism. While I would later decide on theology, it was actually the first one I crossed off my list. Additionally, the decision to major in theology didn’t come until after I had already graduated. I felt underprepared for what to expect at college. Obviously, teachers would be professors and the classes would be more advanced, but I had no real understanding of the role this experience would have in my life.
College, for me, was a lot like going to get ice cream: You drove to the nearest eatery and picked from one of the many flavors offered. My dish was then handed to me without question. I was happy. My server was happy. But I met quite a few people who weren’t satisfied with the ice cream they chose, whose education left them with a bad aftertaste. Many went back to find the a better flavor. Cases like these have led me to wonder whether there shouldn't be more responsibility on the part of servers. Should they help customers select what ice cream might best suit them, or is their role simply to showcase the flavors they have available?
I think these questions highlight the issues students face when preparing for college. For starters, many students don’t have anyone tasked with helping them figure out what’s next. Adventist Education needs more school counselors. Without them, college becomes that thing people just do when they finish high school. But not everyone is cut out for college. Some students spend years trying to decide what they want to do with their life, wasting both money and time in the process. How might educators better help students avoid those pitfalls?
And what about life after college? When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2013, I expected to be hired as a pastor right away. When that didn’t happen I was given the impression that going on to grad school would count similarly to being placed in a church. It doesn’t. Flash forward two years and I again found myself graduating and struggling to find a job in my field.
At this point, one begins to encounter people working outside of their area of study, or employed in fields that require no degree at all. That reality can call into question the point of higher education. It led me to wonder just how much the education system--teachers and professors in particular--consider the long-term needs of their students.
Students' needs can be separated into professional, academic, and personal categories. Each one relates directly to who the individual is and what he or she will be. In all of these areas I have seen students failed by the system. Students struggling academically (and who might have no place even being in college) are put on academic probation, only to be allowed back in. For others, a college or university’s admissions requirements are set so low that getting in is deceptively easy. The low bar to entry challenges the purpose of higher education: is it simply a place designed to earn a degree by any means possible? Students can degrees almost anywhere, so why go to an Adventist university at all?
I took a number of classes in which prayer before the day’s lecture was the only thing distinguishing them as Christian. Is that worth the price of a Christian education – being able to start a class with prayer? If that is not what sets Christian education apart, what does?
In Mark 1:15, Jesus said, “The time promised by God has come at last. The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Those were his first words recorded in Mark’s gospel. From there Jesus selected twelve apostles to help him usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus established the criteria for entering the Kingdom: first repent and believe the Good News. The issue is matter of the soul, a choice between God and self. The stakes are high and the impact profound! Everything comes down to how they will respond to this question – and that, for me, is the heart of Adventist education.
Eternity can't be an afterthought. Education cannot neglect an individual’s personal needs, focusing solely on the academic. If the concern is only for a student’s academic future, is the education really invested in students' futures at all? I would argue that the point of Adventist education is service. How can we best serve our students? How can they best serve their community? Long-term thinking rooted in eternity differentiates Adventist education from non-faith based institutions.
To me, the unifying theme, and the place where Adventist education could improve the most, is in thinking about transitions. The transition from high school to college. The transition from college to workplace. The transition from this life to eternity. It’s not just an issue of academics, though that certainly matters. It’s a matter of the soul. Who are my students? What do they need? What are their strengths? Those questions should be asked in each area of students' lives: personal, academic, and professional. We’re not just serving ice cream here, hoping everyone goes home with a smile on their face. We’re serving the world and each other in anticipation of the Kingdom of God.
Bradford Goodridge is an Admissions Representative at Southern Adventist University. He holds a bachelor's degree in Theology and a master's degree in School Counseling. He writes at Head in the Clouds, where a version of this article first appeared. It is printed here by permission.
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