The Gift of Christian Community: APU’s Return to Campus

Duffle bags and dorm rooms, sporting events and bonfires, crisp new books and old favorite study nooks—college life conjures up different expectations for everyone. But no one expected the COVID-19 college experience. Like countless campuses across the country, Azusa Pacific University went from a bustling hub of activity to nearly empty overnight. Now, a year and a half later, the APU community is back on campus. Familiar faces and places restore a sense of comfort, but something has definitely changed, fueled by meaningful lessons learned from being apart.

In true Cougar fashion, APU students, faculty, staff, and administrators approached last year’s challenge of pivoting to online education with faith and fortitude. They tackled the technology needed to stay connected and take care of business, but they didn’t merely “get through” the pandemic; they chose to use it as part of their education experience. Nursing students tapped into their God-given gifts of compassion and healing to comfort and care for those struggling with the virus. Social workers devised a way to engage the elderly and stave off isolation. Theater students invented a new way to deliver their craft—drive-in style—and music students created a whole new genre of digital performance, where they leaned into the crisis and faced it with honesty and passion.

This fall, throughout the residence halls, classrooms, faculty offices, and social hangouts, there’s an underlying sense of gratitude—a honed and tangible appreciation for the privilege of being together that was not there before. During the 18 months away, APU students, faculty, and staff have come to understand that Christian fellowship is much more essential than they once realized. The fall 2021 return to campus illustrates how APU has integrated this profound insight in every way possible.

Unified Action

Unity, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Christian community, flourished at the first sign of the pandemic. “The day we found out social distancing mandates were being put into effect, our team brainstormed what that meant for students, chapel, and life on campus,” said Coba Canales, EdD, dean of spiritual life. “A few hours later, we stood in front of the chapel doors and broke the news that it was canceled. That was the beginning of it all. We went back to our offices and talked about what was next and prayed together as a team. One of the first ideas to spring up was to create a new chapel platform called Weekly Rhythms, and it allowed us to continue the chapel experience remotely. We offered engaging spiritual content so students could stay connected. More than 1,000 students leaned into this offering that spring.” 

This spirit of collaboration characterizes APU’s efforts from the moment the pandemic hit to the arrival back on campus this fall. Every department banded together to provide comprehensive support and uphold the shared responsibility of safety. One of the clearest examples of this can be seen in the way the Student Health Center rallied to ensure that the return to campus would be safe for all. “The Division of Advancement worked hard to fund our own testing facilities on campus in addition to offering ongoing vaccine clinics to students, faculty, and staff,” said Bill Fiala, PhD, dean of wellness. “Students submit proof of vaccination through the MyCougar Health electronic record-keeping system, and those who have not been vaccinated submit weekly self-test results, in addition to daily symptom tracking. All students, vaccinated or not, monitor their health daily and contact the health center if they notice any flu-like symptoms.” The university also employed additional temporary personnel to assist with testing, contact tracing, meal deliveries for students in quarantine/isolation, and the assembly of testing kits. Further, APU’s chief medical officer, Todd Emerson, DO, ABFP, serves as the point person for all communications with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and ensures that APU maintains compliance with county guidance and directives during the pandemic.

Sharpening One Another

The Christian life requires continuous conversion and constant growth, and Christians need one another to achieve that. As iron sharpens iron, so the teacher sharpens the student. For all the amazing accomplishments that occurred remotely, face-to-face learning facilitates much deeper understanding, inspires collaboration, and produces more immediate results. Students and faculty alike share stories about the huge benefits of being back on campus. The time away was particularly challenging for students whose courses included lab work and other types of hands-on learning.

Chemistry major Nayree Panossian ’22 earned a coveted fellowship at CalTech to study a rotary motor enzyme ATP synthase of a certain bacterial species called Thermophilic bacillus. “My particular research primarily focused on conducting data analysis at different temperatures for the rotational rates of a Thermophilic bacillus F1-ATPase and coming up with a kinetic model for the rotations,” said Panossian. But remote research proved a bit bumpy. “Research is not always straightforward; it’s a process that requires one to acquire new skills. COVID-19 restrictions placed a barrier in our research that made it difficult to communicate with one another rapidly.”

Panossian’s faculty mentor, Sándor Volkán-Kacsó, PhD, agreed: “Remote learning is okay for theorists, but the rate of communication and turnover of results is much slower.” Being back on campus has significantly accelerated their work together and has set the stage for a smoother, more productive process. “Because we’re face to face now, we can work together. It would have taken three to four Zoom meetings to accomplish what we do in one visit now. We aren’t just teaching about research—the students are participating in cutting-edge original research, and it takes more than a Zoom meeting to accomplish that.”

A Compassionate Community

The face-to-face learning that drives this type of research also makes it possible for other aspects of Christian community to thrive, such as accountability and compassion. The entire team of faculty and staff at APU has participated in trauma-informed workshops to learn how to engage with students dealing with stress and loss, sometimes directly related to the pandemic. “Our faculty and staff are not only concerned with students’ future careers, but also the whole person,” said Provost Rukshan Fernando, PhD. “Now that we’re back on campus, we can have conversations that lead to character growth and maturity. We can read the negative nonverbals in class, so there are more opportunities to notice anxiety, and our faculty can engage with students one on one.”

COVID-19 has impacted every member of the APU community, and each person has processed the experience differently. In addition to training faculty and staff to identify and respond to the signs of suffering, the University Counseling Center (UCC) has also stepped up its resources to care for anyone struggling with loss and grief. “We expected, and have noted, an increase in health-related anxiety with a number of students,” said Fiala. “UCC provided return-to-campus training for students before school started and continues to provide virtual workshops through the Cougars Care program to enhance student resilience.” Also, all students have access to a mental health training module provided online by a third-party vendor, Everfi. The UCC offers ongoing care for traditional undergraduate students, including urgent care/crisis management, as well as regular ongoing counseling services. Graduate and professional students can also access physical and mental health care through APU Telehealth, an app-based service provided in partnership with TimelyCare. All requests are assessed individually to determine whether and what adjustments are necessary to promote student success. 

Community at Every Level

Traditional undergraduate students are not the only ones who have gained a fresh perspective on Christian fellowship and what it can and should look like on campus. Professional and graduate students—including single parents, working parents, and children of elderly parents who may have been battling COVID-19—tapped into APU for strength and connection. “They are just as  hungry as undergraduate students for spiritual community,” said Shino Simons, PhD, vice president for student affairs. “Prior to the pandemic, we created spaces for graduate and professional students to meet and hang out. During COVID-19, we kept it going with virtual spaces, and they were well attended. We also facilitated a way for students to submit prayer requests. Some were heartbreaking and COVID-related, asking for prayers for parents’ health. Some asked for prayer for their cohort. They knew they needed others praying for them, and they prayed for one another.”

Faculty and staff also felt the void of Christian community during the time away. “Now that we’re back together, we keep experiencing these sweet moments with students and with one another, and we can share life spontaneously," Simmons said. "We can have unscheduled conversations. As a team, there’s something beautiful about bumping into each other on campus.”

Beyond Traditions

There’s a sense of strength that comes from facing difficulty, leaning deeply into one’s faith, and coming back to the gift of Christian community. It’s certainly not business as usual, but traditions still stand and provide the foundation for memories and a lifelong connection to APU. Students who missed out on some of those or had to participate virtually last year got the full treatment this fall. Transfer students and now-sophomores celebrated the beloved Gate Walk just days before Welcome Weekend. “Walking through the gate is a marker, a significant part of their journey,” said Simons. “They are starting a transformational, emotional, spiritual, intellectual journey together. It is right to pause and recognize that significant moment in time. It is important that students feel seen and valued. It is one of the most important parts of the APU community, and these events help us communicate that.”

Breathing new life into those time-honored traditions, there’s an enlightened mindset about what they mean. “There’s a phrase that characterizes this whole pandemic: ‘When this is over, I’m going to…,’” said Canales. “This mindset created a new kind of anticipation. It’s less about things we want to do, and more about human connection.”

Karla Consuelo Alejandro Meza ’22, Student Government Association president and a resident advisor, echoed Canales’ thoughts. “Students are talking about all the things they once took for granted,” she said. “I heard some students marvel at the fact that they took a quiz on paper—and passed! Coming back to campus is an adjustment.” But she also noted the poignancy of the opportunity to congregate once again: “Community is unity. We are all parts of the body of Christ, and we all have different functions. When any part of the whole is missing, we all feel it, and we can’t function collaboratively as God intended.” Those functions have changed since the pandemic hit. “For example, the best way to show your love and compassion toward someone may be with a big bear hug, or it may be the act of wearing a mask and not hugging them,” she said. “Regardless of our individual gifts and talents, we all have the responsibility to uphold and serve one another.”

Serving one another may look a bit different today, but APU is adapting to its current reality, working together in unity to establish fresh ways of living out God’s call to be light and salt to a hurting world.