By Dr. Ben Sells
President, Ouachita Baptist University
Let me tell you a couple of stories that capture what made the 2019-20 academic year, defined by a pandemic, so challenging and yet so rewarding. Even as we navigate unprecedented challenges, our mission holds firm.
The first story involves Luke Roberson, a senior majoring in communications. He’s interested in sports and ministry and is active in campus life. During the fall, you’ll find him on Saturday afternoons helping support the broadcast of home Ouachita football games, and on Sunday mornings serving at First Baptist Hot Springs in their media ministry.
Luke and I connected his freshman year, and recently he sent me an unsolicited text expressing his admiration and appreciation of our faculty and staff at the conclusion of the semester.
I stayed in Hot Springs and worked at First Baptist 60-80 hours a week doing media and production. Balancing this and schoolwork was incredibly difficult, but professors were nothing but accepting and accommodating. They realized that job training is important. Through this time, I have been better able to discern God’s call on my life and ministry. A couple of Saturdays ago, I was on campus and noticed that campus was full with professors’ cars. They (faculty/staff) were working overtime so I could get a better experience than I deserve. I thank God for the eternal impact Ouachita has made on me.
Ouachita Baptist University’s vision statement uses these words: “to foster a love of God and a love of learning by creating for students dynamic growth opportunities both on campus and throughout the world.”
We want to see the vision further realized in the lives of our students. While we endeavor to measure progress in many ways, Luke’s own self-reflection may be the best indicator that our vision has taken root in his life.
The second story involves the father of Haylee Cannon, a junior English and secondary education major. After students returned home in March for remote learning, we had to make a range of decisions in a short amount of time for scenarios none of us could have anticipated.
For example, it seemed right to give students a refund for the seven weeks of their unused room and board. For a university where 97% of students live on campus, this credit totaled $1.1 million. With all the unknowns at the time, we knew this wouldn’t be helpful to our budget. The email from Haylee’s dad, Kevin, confirmed we made the right decision.
As a parent, I want to thank you for so many things. First of all, Haylee loves Ouachita! We firmly believe she is exactly where God would have her during this season of life. Secondly, thank you for hiring Godly and student-centered staff! She loves her professors. They are simply tremendous. Additionally, thank you for creating a culture of Christian service on campus. Haylee loves what God is doing in her life. She loves serving in the children’s department at Second Baptist Church in Arkadelphia. Finally, as a parent helping to pay for college, I want to say thank you for the room and board credit. In these uncertain times, this was no small gesture.
There is more evidence of the Lord’s blessings in the midst of extraordinary challenges. While making the decision to give refunds, we made another decision: we stopped asking for gifts out of respect for larger issues and concerns that Ouachita alumni and friends had to suddenly confront.
Gifts from the Arkansas Baptist Cooperative Program and gifts from other donors to Ouachita’s Cornerstone Fund are essential to support student scholarships and our faculty and staff. In March, we believed the pandemic’s effect on giving might result in a shortfall of almost a half million dollars. But, when we closed the fiscal year on May 31, the shortfall in giving was less than $50,000. It was a providential outcome resulting from the faithfulness of those who love Ouachita and its Christian mission, who chose to give even when not asked.
Thank you, Arkansas Baptists, for providing vital support that sustains Ouachita’s mission. As the stories of Luke and Haylee illustrate, your generosity is life changing.