“I knew that the students I worked with and loved at Boston University would be fine without me. I was not so sure that was true of the African-American young people on the east side of Buffalo.” That was how Julian Cook, the director of Houghton College’s East Side program, introduced himself in a gathering last week of the four directors of Houghton’s four extension programs. He made the difficult choice to relocate to Buffalo, because he wanted his life and his choices to make the difference for good for other people besides himself.
Julian is a 2013 Houghton graduate. He received his Master of Divinity degree from Boston University—where Dr. Martin Luther King also went to graduate school—and is an ordained minister in the Baptist church. Now, he is nearly finished recruiting this fall’s first-ever entering class of Houghton College’s East Side program. Not only does he have the responsibility of recruiting the new students, but of locating and preparing the facilities, hiring the professors, and introducing this new program to potential partners on the East Side of Buffalo.
Julian is not alone. He is part of a team of four recent college graduates, three from Houghton and one from Gordon, who are translating Houghton’s mission into four separate contexts outside the traditional residential campus in Allegany County. Each program seeks to provide an affordable, high quality, Christian education in the form of a non-residential two-year Associate of Arts degree.
Serving and Empowering Students in Buffalo and Utica
Houghton’s extension programs are intended to serve students who would not otherwise be able to access a Christian liberal arts education, and who would be highly unlikely to come to Houghton’s residential campus. The focus on tutoring, language development, mentoring, community support and accountability has resulted in impressively high completion rates (over 80% in both Symphony Circle and Houghton College Utica).
Pierre Michel, a member of the Class of 2011, recently assumed the leadership of the oldest of Houghton’s extension sites—Houghton College Buffalo: Symphony Circle. The son of Haitian immigrants, Pierre brings his own life experience to the Symphony Circle site, along with his previous work in leadership roles at two other educational institutions. Thus far, the program has primarily served refugees on the west side of Buffalo.
Pierre reflected on his work at Symphony Circle with awe and gratitude at God’s work in the program: “I perceive the refugee and New American community as a mosaic of talent, skills and abilities that God has entrusted me to assist in achieving their highest potential. And what better place to begin the academic journey but through Houghton College.”
Hope House and Houghton College Utica
Rebekah Kimble, a Class of 2015 graduate, leads the Houghton College Hope House program, also in Buffalo. This program, made possible through a partnership with Peace Prints, aims to provide a Houghton College A.A. degree for those seeking to make a successful transition from a term of incarceration into the job market and the larger culture. This spring, the first two graduates from this program joined the several hundred Houghton graduates on the morning of May 11, to receive their diplomas in Wesley Chapel at Houghton’s main campus. As one of them said, “I had to show my family that I could do this.”
Jane Willis, a graduate of Gordon College, has recently assumed responsibility for Houghton College Utica. A long-time Utica resident, she has been involved in program tutoring since it began in the fall of 2017. She looks forward to expanding the opportunities at Houghton College Utica, which so far have served primarily refugees, to other populations who need the gift and empowerment afforded by a high-quality affordable Christian education.
Hard Work and Imagination
I have been thinking all week about my conversations with Julian, Pierre, Rebekah, and Jane. Their dedication, creativity, commitment, and enthusiasm for their students and the potential for their programs was contagious. This is a grand, pioneering adventure—seeking to make an impact on the world that only each of them, with their particular set of gifts, can make. This is what a Christian liberal arts education is all about—taking one’s learning, and one’s creativity, and one’s critical thinking, and imagining what can be done to advance God’s redemptive purposes in this time.
It is hard work. Each of these directors is working with populations that have often not been well served by the traditional American evangelical church, or by residential Christian colleges. Their students and their families do not know the too-often-coded language that Christian insiders take for granted. In this polarized moment in our culture, the efforts of Houghton’s extension campuses are often misunderstood by both those in the more traditional evangelical world, and by those who share the vision for reaching out to underserved populations, but who see no evident connection between that and the Christian Gospel.
Living Out Houghton’s Mission in New Contexts
This work is also a test of the credibility and validity of Houghton’s mission. Are we truly able to prepare graduates “from diverse backgrounds” to “lead and labor in a changing world?” (as the mission says). Are we equipped to offer these students a transforming education shaped by the timeless truths of the Gospel, but offered in ways that speak to their particular context and moment in time? Can we prepare graduates who have the insight and self-awareness to separate out what is core to the Good News of Jesus Christ and what is simply the by-product of their own cultural context?
These are some of the questions that I am walking with this summer. For these are questions not just for Houghton’s extension campuses. These are questions for Houghton’s main campus—and, ultimately, for all those Houghton graduates who would seek to mediate the Gospel in ways that are surprising, winsome, and compelling in this complex moment in our world.
Peace to you today.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976