The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Community connections

ELCA colleges make life better for their neighbors

Having a college or university in your town can be a financial plus, and the ELCA's 26 colleges and universities are no exception.

Take Midland University, which injects $44.3 million (including $15 million in wages and salaries) into the Fremont, Neb.-area. Or California Lutheran University, which pumps $142 million into Ventura County. But even these numbers don't reveal what such communities know best: in often unquantifiable ways, ELCA schools make life better for their neighbors, especially those who might otherwise be forgotten.

"You got served" is slang for receiving a subpoena or a comeuppance. That phrase takes on new meaning during the "You Got Served" event at California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks. Each year, as part of orientation, some 700 first-year and transfer students help Ventura, Calif., remove trash that homeless residents have left behind in the Ventura River. In the last four years, they've collected more than 36 tons of trash, keeping pollutants out of the ocean and helping the city comply with state regulations.

'A suspension of disbelief'

"What does a liberal arts education mean today? Where does our college's money go? What's the economic impact? What [community] projects are our students taking on?" asks V. Scott Koerwer, president of Newberry [S.C.] College. Noting that colleges should ask these questions as they grow, he added, "We prepare students for citizenship and to be part of a community. Our students should be able to go to the mayor and say, 'Why can't we have a bowling alley?' or 'Why can't we do something with these empty storefronts?' "

That happened at Newberry, where students and staff helped the administration decide not to build a new dorm on campus. Instead, the college went out of its way, at no small expense, to work with the town of Newberry and local construction companies to renovate an abandoned mill property that had driven down housing prices. While they were at it, they put $1.5 million into repairing streets, lighting and a community's self-esteem.

Now the college wants to relocate its bookstore to the town's main street. It's also working with public schools to renovate an abandoned school for Newberry's teacher education program.

"It takes a suspension of disbelief," Koerwer said. "But all of this interaction adds up to a greater whole."

Belief is also behind several innovations at Finlandia University, Hancock, Mich. Communities of the Upper Peninsula knew hard times long before the rest of the nation experienced the 2008 economic downturn. Yet Finlandia's programs, students and staff have brought hope, business and even beauty to the region.

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