Students Welcomed to 90th School Year

Happy 90th birthday, EMU! Well, almost.

The college will officially turn 90 years old on Oct. 15, 2007. Eastern Mennonite School (as it was called then) began its first classes with six students enrolled on Oct. 15, 1917.

new EMU  students and staff
‘Shenandoah Welcome’ – Returning students, faculty and staff greeted new members of the EMU community in a recessional following the convocation. (Photo by Jim Bishop)

“As is true for most schools of that era, our beginnings were rather inauspicious,” EMU President Loren Swartzendruber noted in a convocation address on the opening day of fall semester classes Wednesday, Aug. 29. “Planning for a new school had begun more than a decade earlier, but it took many years and a lot of hard work to gather the money, personnel and facilities for the dream to become a reality,” he said.

Tuition for that first year, 1917-18, was “a whopping $30, $15 per term,” the president said. “Room and board was actually more expensive than tuition. Students paid $149 for tuition, room and board for the year.”

“To be sure, the EMU of 2007 is very different than the Eastern Mennonite School of 1917,” Swartzendruber told students, faculty and staff gathered in Lehman Auditorium. “We survived the Great Depression, two World Wars and many other challenges. There were no international students in 1917, and there certainly was no cross-cultural requirement. That first class of six students comprised four women and two men; the current gender ratio is 60:40, which mirrors the national averages.”

Swartzendruber told students that “searching out wisdom” should be a primary objective of their EMU experience.

Learning Outside the Classroom

“We know from national research that fully half of what students learn during the college years, and probably in graduate school, occurs outside the formal classroom,” the president said. “That doesn’t mean that faculty members aren’t important. In fact, a distinct advantage of a place like EMU is the multiple opportunities to interact with professors outside the classroom,” he added.

Swartzendruber noted that since 1917, this campus has been a place for millions of “sacred conversations.”

“In some ways, for me, that is the essence of a liberal arts education in the context of a faith-based university,” he said. “Sometimes it is conversations between generations — in which those with more life experience, typically faculty/staff, converse with the next generation, typically students.

But, conversations are two-way interactions, and meaningful conversations are based on mutual trust and respect, he said. Those conversations happen in the classroom, in the faculty member’s offices, with supervisors in work-study jobs and informally over coffee. They happen during late-night bull sessions in the residence halls or with roommates who share an apartment.

“Just like every year since 1917, again in 2007-08 we will have sacred conversations about many topics — the role of faith in our lives and vocations, what does it mean to be a university in the Christian tradition that also invites dialog with those of other faith traditions, how do we in the Christian tradition, as followers of Jesus, live in peacemakers in a violent world?”

Personal Dialog, Not Electronic Interaction

Swartzendruber cautioned against substituting electronic interaction, such as Facebook, MySpace or text messaging, for meaningful personal dialog, noting that “they simply can’t be the primary medium for conversation about important matters.”

“I invite all of us to sink our roots deep into this community at EMU for the months or years that we are here,” he said. “Give primary attention to your present environment – academic requirements, physical well-being, social interactions and sacred conversations.”

During the convocation, the assembly sang “What is This Place” (HWB No. 1), “Strong Son of God, Immortal Love” (HWB No. 488) and the university hymn, “Christ of the Mountain.”

Student Government Association co-presidents Lindsey Grosh and Sarah Roth gave a welcome to campus. Julie A. Haushalter of EMU’s campus ministries team led a blessing on the new academic year for all students, faculty and staff.

EMU’s fall semester runs through Dec. 14.