The past year has been an exploration of how humans can remain connected despite a lack of physical proximity. On April 10, Southwestern Adventist University demonstrated this determination during Alumni Homecoming 2021—an entire virtual event which managed to create meaningful memories and bring together SWAU alumni from around the globe.
Shayla Friesen (‘05) remembers arriving at SWAU as a freshman, 16 years ago. And while the campus felt familiar, since her sisters and parents had all graduated from SWAU, hers was a different experience to theirs.
“I grew up in Central Texas, and my family were the only Adventists there,” Friesen says. “Going to SWAU was my first experience in an Adventist educational environment, and the atmosphere was very different from my past education experiences. It felt like a family, and it wasn’t a tough transition for me at all.”
Though she fit right into the SWAU culture, the spiritual atmosphere was a big shift for Friesen.
“I have fond memories of a lot of classes and professors, but I particularly enjoyed religion courses because I wasn’t used to having spiritual topics intermixed with academic learning,” she says. “Those classes challenged me to learn about God in different ways, and I really appreciated that.”
Laura Groessel (‘15), too, found herself immediately comfortable on the SWAU campus as a freshman. She had attended academy in Keene, and already had a relationship with some of the staff from her high school days.
“For me it was home,” Groessel says. “As soon as I arrived on campus, I knew I was loved and cared for.”
During her time at college, Groessel was deeply impacted by several of her professors–some of whom she refers to as her “adopted parents.” They held her accountable, challenged her, maintained high expectations, didn’t compromise and pulled Groessel out of her comfort zone.
“My professors and experiences at SWAU shaped me to be someone who cares about my community,” Groessel says. “Because of SWAU I’ve become the healthiest and most successful person I could possibly be, and I cherish my experience there.”
Both Friesen and Groessel made friends in college they are still connected to today, which makes events like last weekend’s Alumni Homecoming extra special for them–even though it was virtual. The weekend’s theme, Virtually uKnighted, was emphasized through every scheduled activity: church services, class gatherings, virtual tour, live Q&A, and the honoree awards ceremony–during which both Friesen and Groessel were honored.
Homecoming 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19, but the alumni board, which plans the event each year, didn’t want to miss out on celebrating the honor classes of 2020, so they created a combined event. The speaker for the 2020 uKnighted in Worship church service was Jim Gilley (‘60); the 2021 service speaker was Randy Roberts (‘81).
“We got to enjoy two of everything,” points out Mickey Johnson (‘78), alumni board president. “It was twice the fun, too!”
One new event this year was the virtual campus tour on Saturday afternoon, hosted by SWAU freshman communications student Jaleigh Garmon and Michael Gibson (‘16), young adult pastor at the Keene church who also teaches an adjunct course for the university’s religion department.
“We wanted to give the alumni a chance to ‘walk the halls’ they remember, but also connect those past memories to the present, with hope for the future and what’s to come for SWAU,” Gibson says.
Eric Michaelson (‘14) said after the tour, “Wow! Impressive changes have happened since I graduated, and I love it! It’s wonderful to see all the new and improved buildings on campus.”
At the end of the virtual tour, Gibson invited attendees to come visit the campus for Homecoming 2022–to “embrace the new and remember the old.”
“What was so wonderful about this unique Homecoming weekend was that it showcased the resilience of SWAU in the midst of a pandemic,” he adds. “God is still faithful and blessing our school.”
Johnson says it was wonderful to be able to connect people across various distances, despite the disappointment of not being able to meet in person for the second year in a row, and he would love to see a combination of virtual and in-person activities at future Homecomings.
“We want everyone who ever attended SWAU to have the opportunity to keep the memories of their experience here alive–no matter where they are now,” he says.
On Saturday evening, SWAU hosted its virtual ceremony for alumni honorees–six in total for both 2020 and 2021: Linda Becker (‘65), Dale Hainey (‘77, ‘19), Kenneth Jones (‘95), Eric Payne (‘00) and both Friesen and Groessel.
Groessel says she will never forget the moment her profile was read during the honoree ceremony.
“That will stick with me for the rest of my life,” she says. “It was incredibly humbling to be honored in such a way, and despite being virtual and hundreds of miles away in Colorado, I felt as though I was still very much connected to my beloved alma mater.”
Friesen comments: “Despite the diversity in background and experience among the honorees, there was a common thread in our fond memories of Southwestern: the relationships we forged there and the intangibles that strengthened our faith and commitments to service. President Shaw spoke of the unwavering loyalty of faculty and staff, God’s blessings through difficult times and SWAU’s pillars of knowledge, faith and service. This is indeed what makes SWAU more than just an institution. I’m grateful for the opportunity to obtain a Christian education in such a positive environment where I was inspired to be a ‘changemaker.’”