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William Jessup University's first frosh class to graduate Saturday

Del Oro grad was one of original undergraduate freshmen
By: Nathan Donato-Weinstein, Gold Country News Service
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Erin O’Sullivan doesn’t get the question as much as she used to when she tells people where she goes to college. “Where’s that?” they used to – and, sometimes, still – ask. That would be William Jessup University, the Rocklin-based Christian university that moved there four years ago. But if its prominence in the area’s higher education scene is more pronounced now, it is largely due to seniors like O’Sullivan, one of about 30 original undergraduate freshmen who started at the school and will graduate on Saturday. A total of about 200 will walk the stage. Spurred by what many of them called “their leap of faith” to attend the university – a rehabilitated Herman Miller furniture facility – the group has left its mark in all sorts of ways, establishing traditions of service, worship and extracurricular activities, including an active (and, according to students, intense) intramural dodge ball league. “They’ve demonstrated a pretty high level of adventurous spirit to come to this warehouse that had been converted to a university,” said Joe Womack, Jessup’s vice president for university advancement. Not that the university itself has lacked that characteristic. It started in the Bay Area in 1939 as San Jose Bible College, with William Jessup as its first president. In 1989, with Jessup’s son, Bryce Jessup, as president, and academic offerings increasing, the name changed to San Jose Christian College. With eyes on a dramatic expansion, the college, by then boxed in, began searching for a new home. Officials found the Herman Miller facility in Rocklin and spent $25 million in renovating the Frank Gehry-designed office and warehouses. The move, which made WJU the only accredited four-year private university in Placer County, wasn’t a hard sell for the college. “It is so night and day the reaction to promoting the university in the community,” Womack said. “Sometimes I have to get used to being welcomed.” Senior Tim Steele admits to having to use some imagination when he first saw the school. “When I first came here to tour it, the whole campus was under construction,” the Roseville High School graduate said. “It was just gigantic warehouses.” But Steele, an enthusiastic double major in Bible studies and pastoral ministry, was excited at the opportunity to be a part of the university’s latest chapter. “There was a strong sense of community,” he said. “We played games together, got to know each other. When you come here, people want to know not just part of you but all of you.” Chris Holtz, another senior who started there in 2004, agreed. A graduate of Valley Christian Academy in Roseville, he was planning to attend San Jose Christian College before he knew the school was moving close by. Over the last four years, he has witnessed many changes as the university settled in. More prayer groups, film series, and a social group for students who live off campus have helped him feel at home, said Holtz, who is double majoring in business administration and Bible and theology. Of course, being a small campus – about 515 undergraduates were enrolled this year – can have its drawbacks. For O’Sullivan, she admits to always thinking she would have a “college-town experience.” But she has adjusted, with trips to Davis and San Francisco breaking the monotony of Rocklin. Still, the university is visibly changing. “Physically, there’s more bodies on the campus,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a small growth rate but a steady small growth. And culturally we’re seeing lots more other races come onto campus. I think it’s necessary because if you just stay in a bubble and your ways of thinking you’re not going to be challenged and grow.” Not all of the changes have been greeted warmly. As the university has expanded its offerings – its business administration, teacher education and psychology programs are now more popular than traditional ministry – and reduced some Bible requirements for undergraduates, some have questioned the university’s mission. But officials say the morphing into more of a liberal arts college is necessary to creating a larger Christian impact though increased enrollment. And they have big plans. A major expansion project is in the works that would add classroom space, a new dining hall, dorm rooms with nearly 200 more beds and sports facilities. The goal is for 1,000 students to attend by the end of the decade. “What makes a Christian college Christian is integration of faith with learning,” said Paul Blezien, dean of students. “Our faculty is very committed in their faith. To me, your faculty and staff and vibrancy of their faith, their ability to have that influence, is more important than if you have chapel five days a week and the strictest lifestyle requirements.” Indeed, for students, Christian teachings are integrated into all classes – whether it’s a simple prayer request before a lecture, or the tie-in of Biblical teachings into the curriculum. And it is reflected out of the classroom, too. While Steele’s dormitory is nothing out of the ordinary for a college campus – bagel remnants on a recliner, a refrigerator stocked with the basics (pie, chocolate cake, popsicles) – there are also signs that this is a different kind of school. Most notably, a quote from John 17:17 on the wall: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” For O’Sullivan, the impending graduation has yet to hit her. “I definitely am going to miss the professors,” said O’Sullivan, a Del Oro High School graduate and psychology major who will enroll in a master’s degree program in marriage and family counseling next year. “I love my professors to pieces and so that’ll be kind of a shock. But it’ll be nice to branch out.”