Work continues on the new track-and-field complex at Eastern Mennonite University this month. The $6-million complex, one of the strategic initiatives of the university's $40-million Forward Together comprehensive campaign, is scheduled to open next year.

EMU celebrates successful start to Forward Together campaign

Eastern Mennonite University alumni are more generous than the nation’s average college graduates. 

That’s not just a gut feeling, either; it’s backed by data. According to EMU Advancement, the Harrisonburg, Virginia, school sports a 12-percent participation rate for grads who give back, compared to a national average rate of eight percent. 

That royal generosity was on full display when donors helped EMU shatter its $10.7 million fundraising goal set for the first phase of its Forward Together campaign. From July 2020 to June 2023, more than 4,000 donors provided 17,538 gifts to raise $11.6 million for EMU, about $900,000 above the funding target. In addition to those current gifts, donors also pledged about $11.4 million in new estate commitments, for a grand total of roughly $23 million raised in the past three years.

Those donors range in every age and demographic, as well as geographic region, said Braydon Hoover ’11, MA ’21 (organizational leadership), associate vice president for advancement at EMU. Nearly all of them have one major reason they give, though, and that’s to help make college more affordable and accessible for EMU students. Their contributions have already benefited thousands of students, Hoover said. 

“It’s donors and alumni and parents and businesses who stepped up and said, ‘We want students to come to EMU, and we don’t want them to leave with massive amounts of debt,’” Hoover said. “As soon as we crossed that $10.7-million threshold, we were cheering, we had a little party for our team, and we went to work sending out our thank you notes and our gratitude.”

A pandemic pivot 

EMU and its advancement team had been on the cusp of launching a major comprehensive campaign for several years. They were ready to move forward in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard and forced them to switch gears, Hoover said. 

“We needed to completely pivot, as so many organizations did, to what was the most important piece, and for us that was how to care for students both compassionately as well as financially,” he said. “And so we pivoted from a comprehensive campaign to Forward Together Phase I, which was completely student-centric.”

Forward Together Phase I prioritized three focus funds:

  • The University Fund for Resilience: In addition to unrestricted gift support, this fund included annual gifts for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and EMU Athletics. The fund helped provide student tuition support, student life services, collaborative faculty-student research, technology upgrades, intercultural programs, and infrastructures, among other operating expenses.
  • The Student Tuition Relief Initiative: This fund included direct tuition relief assistance for students in need, direct grant scholarship awards, and named endowed scholarship funds. Nearly 99 percent of students at EMU receive some form of financial aid, Hoover said.  
  • The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Fund: This fund invested in ways to increase the sense of belonging among all students. It supported special training events and efforts that enhance diversity and inclusion among EMU students, faculty and staff. “We had just hired Dr. Jackie Font-Guzman as our vice president for DEI and wanted to ensure she had the resources necessary to do that important work,” Hoover said.

In an address to alumni and donors at Homecoming and Family Weekend 2023 in mid-October, EMU President Susan Schultz Huxman celebrated the success of Forward Together Phase I. 

She said the campaign provided $6 million in endowed and immediate impact scholarships, $350,000 to support DEI and more than $5 million for the university fund. 

Part of the success of Forward Together has been the renewed enthusiasm in the annual LovEMU Giving Day. This past April, EMU raised a record-setting $300,915 in 24 hours from 844 gifts and 592 donors, over $5,000 more than the previous year’s total. 

“I think the pandemic had a lot to do with it,” Hoover said. “People felt helpless when we were all isolating, and giving was one of the ways they could continue to serve others.

“We cannot thank our donors enough for stepping up at one of the most vulnerable times for us as humans, but also for us as an organization, to come forward and help our students as much as possible.”

‘The worst-kept secret at EMU’

While celebrating the achievement of Phase I, EMU and the advancement team has been hard at work clearing a path for the continuation of Forward Together, the campaign for EMU. 

The largest comprehensive campaign in school history, its goal is to raise $40 million over the next five years. 

Kirk Shisler ’81, vice president for advancement, presents a rendering of the new track-and-field complex during a ceremony honoring longtime EMU coach Roland Landes at Homecoming and Family Weekend 2023 in October.

In addition to providing scholarships and tuition relief for students and continuing all the strategic initiatives from the first phase, funding will support compensation for faculty and staff and finance the new track-and-field complex being built. The $6-million complex, which is more than halfway funded, is scheduled to open next year. Donations are accepted online at:

Huxman, who summed up the $40-million campaign as one for “people, programs and facilities,” said the new complex is already paying dividends.

“We have 24 new track-and-field students who wouldn’t be here otherwise,” she said at a donor appreciation banquet last month. “They would not have come to EMU without the promise of a state-of-the-art track.”

Although the details of Forward Together were shared at a couple homecoming events, the team leading the campaign is waiting until they’re about midway to reaching their goal before they begin spreading the word. Hoover jokingly labeled it as “the worst-kept secret at EMU.”

“In any major campaign like this, there’s always two to three years of quiet phase,” he said. “The team is currently securing leadership gifts, and our goal is that by the time we go public in two or three years, we will have raised at least 60 percent of the goal. That then becomes an exciting time to invite everyone to join the campaign in support of the people that make this place special: our students, faculty, and staff.”

Forward Together is led by a team comprising Kirk Shisler ’81, vice president for advancement; Braydon Hoover ’11, MA ’21 (organizational leadership), associate vice president for advancement; Laura Daily, director of advancement services; Nicole Litwiller ’19, MA ’20 (conflict transformation), annual giving & donor communications specialist; Lindsay Martin ’05, CJP advancement director; Christopher Randolph, regional advancement director; Deanna Reed, regional advancement director and mayor of Harrisonburg; and Tim Swartzendruber ’95, senior regional advancement director; with special support by Cassandra Guerrero, gift receipting coordinator; Shea Jones-Mitchell, administrative assistant; Graham Stauffer ’19, data analytics coordinator; Jennifer North Bauman, director of alumni & parent engagement; and Monica Pangle, events & volunteer coordinator.

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