The Magazine of South Carolina

Making Students Whole

In the Rolling Hills of Central, SC, Is a University Where Quality Education Partners With a System of Strong Values


Entrance to Southern Wesleyan University

An SWU class in session

Dr. David Spittal, SWU president

The university's modern library

A student studies "at home" in one of SWU's new apartments

Article by Daniel E. Harmon/Photos by Patrick Wright

Spend half an hour in Prof. Don Schaupp’s office at Southern Wesleyan, and you’ll catch the enthusiasm of a small university on a big journey. He’s reviewing Web sites his students are building as part of their course work in the Internet computing program. The Internet major is a hot topic here, for good reason: It’s the first of its kind in America.

"Look at that!" Schaupp beams proudly—nay, jubilantly. "Can you believe a student did that?"

It’s impressive enough: a Web page that catches and holds your attention with a savvy symphony of color, graphics, movement and thoughtful design—yet simple and understated. But what Schaupp is looking for is what’s new on the page this week. "You can’t put a good site on the Web and forget about it," he drills his students. "You have to keep it fresh." He’s also checking readability. Writing/journalism is part of the Internet major requirements. "A lot of people creating Web sites don’t know how to spell or put a correct sentence together," laments Schaupp, a bearded IBM and Air Force long-time veteran who was involved with Arpanet, the military predecessor of the Internet.

Students constantly drop by to turn in work, ask questions and pick up material. Schaupp invariably stops what he’s doing to give them a moment of his time, with measured encouragement and prodding. He clearly cares about his students, and he clearly likes where this university—a small upstate school with about 500 traditional and 1,300 "working adult" students—is rooted and where it’s headed.

Visit any other faculty member at Southern Wesleyan and you’ll notice the same characteristics: concern for students and excitement for the future.

The first part—student nurturing—long has been a marked quality at Southern Wesleyan, founded in 1906. The second—the excitement—was simmering on a back burner during the late 1900s. In fact, some observers wondered whether the burner was turned on.

"I looked over here and I saw a stumbling little school," says James W. Hansen, vice president for development, who in the early 1990s was working in fund-raising at Clemson University, 15 minutes to the west. "Faculty had not had raises in years; finances were tough. I had an arrogant attitude. And then"—he smiles—"the Lord put me right here."

That burner surely is turned on now. Credit it largely to the vision of Dr. David J. Spittal, who became president in 1994. Since then, antiquated dorms have begun to be replaced with modern student apartments, an arts complex is in the works and the university is looking to double its enrollment by its centennial year. The university has 210 acres of campus available, and it’s planning to use it.

Meanwhile, its standard liberal arts academic fare has been augmented by programs like the Internet computing major, which is drawing electronics students from other colleges as well as tech-minded freshmen. Schaupp has 39 students in the Internet program now and more than 140 "seriously interested" in enrolling next fall. "I expect to see this as the largest major on campus by the time our first class graduates in ’04. Why no other university in the nation is doing this, I don’t understand."

Southern Wesleyan also is a national leader in adult education. Its Leadership Education for Adult Professionals (LEAP) program, founded in 1986, gives adults an opportunity to obtain standard and advanced degrees while working full time. Classes are held at different locales, chosen for convenience to the students, throughout the state.

Tom Griffin, vice president for adult and graduate studies, understands first-hand how difficult it can be for an individual to obtain further education after establishing a family and career. "I obtained all my degrees—bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral—in adult education. It was the only way I could. I was in industry as a corporate vice president, and I realized I needed a degree for a promotion."

While helping adults better themselves, LEAP is good for the workplace, Griffin says. "They walk out of class one night, go to work the next day and immediately apply what they’ve just learned."

The quality of the education provided here is exceptional, school officials note. "We have one of the best teacher certification programs in the state; ask almost any principal in the tri-county area," says Dr. Gloria Bell, academic vice president and dean. "More than 75 percent of our faculty have earned doctorates—an unusual statistic for a school like ours."

Joy Bryant, director of admissions and a 1992 graduate of the university, observes that students come here from across the country, as well as overseas, though most hail from the Southeast. A lot of them will tell you they were providentially led to Central—like Bryant. While a senior at Liberty High School, she was planning to attend college in Atlanta until the Southern Wesleyan softball coach attended one of her high school practices. "It was one of those miracle moments. I said a prayer when I recognized who he was, and I hit the ball over the scoreboard for the first and only time in my softball career."

The result was a scholarship offer. In retrospect, she wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. She got married while in college, and when she became pregnant a year later, the coach red-shirted her so she could keep her scholarship. "Teams and classes here are just like family. Professors and staff are like aunts and uncles to the students. I tell parents of incoming freshmen, ‘If you don’t have confidence that we will take care of your son or daughter, don’t leave them.’ We are a very safe place to learn and grow."

Since it’s a Christian-focused university, students can expect to receive abundant spiritual guidance. Chaplain Ken Dill, missions instructor Dave Tolan and other faculty always are available for counseling, and they open their homes to students. President Spittal knows his students by name. He knows their parents. He knows which students are having trouble keeping their grades up, which ones are having problems at home. In short, he knows who needs help, and he and the university faculty and staff stand ready to assist.

"We have a very strong sense of community here," Spittal says, "and it’s not part of a program. It comes naturally. This campus is a place where you come to be part of a family. . . . We’re interested in the whole student: their brains, hearts, passions."

Spittal likes to point out that "we don’t have a football stadium, but we do have a strong set of values." Students appreciate that, he’s found—as do their parents. "College students and their parents are very astute these days. They shop. And for many, they’re shopping for an intangible quality."

A former public school superintendent who’s by leisure an accomplished artist, model ship builder and sailor, Spittal came to the Central campus from Indiana. The whole premise of Southern Wesleyan, he says, is relationships. "First is our relationship with God. That’s why we’re here. We’re a faith-based, value-centered institution. Second is our relationship with one another. We are a body of people, faculty and staff, who believe in that philosophy."

Scholastically, he says, students find "a little more pressure" here because "God requires our best." At the end of their studies, he hopes the main thing they’ve learned is that they’re contributors to society. "We need to teach the next generation that everyone is a giver. If you want to receive something of value in this world, you have to give to it."

That may sound like vague idealism, but Southern Wesleyan students are putting it into practice. "I’ve had a lot of opportunities here," says Carla Davis, a senior music and psychology major from Morganton, NC. "Like, going to London twice to study, going to Anguilla. And with the ministry team, I’ve traveled from Alabama to Michigan. I think it’s really neat that a university this small is sending graduates all over the world, and we can make an impact."

"Individual attention" is the way Prof. Jane Palmer Dill, chair of the Fine Arts Division and wife of chaplain Ken Dill, describes the faculty-student relationship. A native of nearby Pendleton, Dill says students are secure in the Christian environment at Southern Wesleyan. "They find concern here for their total well-being. If your life is a wreck, it’s hard to play the piano. We care. Larger schools can do that, too—I had a great professor at the University of Georgia who took an interest in our personal problems—but you don’t find that as often."

Dill notes the growing diversity in the university’s fine arts offerings. When she came here to teach 14 years ago, emphasis was on the Big Two: piano and voice. Already the instrumental program has expanded. Although all the fine arts majors still are in music, courses in drama and other forms of art are offered, and majors are expected in those areas in the not-too-distant future. Completion of the $11-million fine arts complex, a five-year project, undoubtedly will speed that along.

While Southern Wesleyan was a fixture of the Central landscape throughout the 1900s, only during the last generation or two has a close bond been established. Don Wood, a graduate and long-time professor of religion at the university, recalls his student days in the early 1960s when a fire claimed the lives of two students. "One of the results of the tragedy was that the community really reached out to the college. After that, there was more of a sense of going together. We no longer were just the school out on the hill."

Like Wood, Prof. Dill cites the important link between the university and the Town of Central. "The citizens see Southern Wesleyan as a facility that wants to do something for the community." Examples of outreach projects are on-campus music camps in jazz and other genres for children. Some area schools stage their choral clinics here.

The school was founded by The Wesleyan Church, a denomination persecuted in the South during the mid-1800s for its opposition to slavery. (Wesleyans also were early champions of women’s suffrage.) Wood notes that Wesleyans in the 19th Century were called "Wesleyan Methodists" but fell out with mainline American Methodists at that time over the issue of abolition.

Today, Southern Wesleyan has students of virtually every Christian denomination in America, observes Dr. Jerrold R. Cade, vice president for student life. "As a group, our students have a Christian moral view," he says. "They’re attracted to a Christian university. They understand we don’t have wild parties on campus."

The New York native and former mental health counselor acknowledges occasional problems with students who "press the envelope." But they’re dealt with straightforwardly and are not particularly disruptive.

Spittal surmises, "We’re counter-cultural here. Americans live in a ‘consuming’ culture; there’s a lot of getting. It’s counter-cultural to say you’re responsible for every action you take. We’re trying to show the next generation some concepts of living that will have an effect.

"We don’t require that students be Christians when they come or when they leave. But the values they learn here, by themselves, are good values to live by."

"The real story here," says James Hansen, "is the students. Here’s a kid who came from an abusive family, and now he’s a responsible husband and father. That’s what’s important. They graduate with a good education and an understanding of who Christ is. They’re whole people."

The challenge for Southern Wesleyan in its second century will be to maintain its close individual attention to student needs while in the throes of physical expansion and numerical growth. As VP Cade puts it, with a faraway smile that might have just a twinge of wistful regret: "We’re blessed to be small. Everything is within walking distance. That will change."


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