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Q&A: William Washington

William Washington, vice president for student life

Vice President for Student Life William Washington, Ph.D., leads a diverse team that sets the tone on campus for doing life together, being better, dreaming bigger, and championing students every single day. Here’s what he had to say about the unique way he wound up in Minnesota, how the Bethel community rallied around his family during a tough time, and why he’s thrilled to call this place home.

You’ve been at Bethel for about two years now. How did you end up here?

I’ll be honest—I really wasn’t looking to leave my prior place of employment. I served there for 28 wonderful years, I was blessed to have an endowed chair named after me—the only one in the industry, in my line of work—and I loved the students and staff. But as we know, the Lord doesn’t want us to be comfortable—He desires for us to be compliant! My wife and I decided that when it was time to retire, we wanted to move to a warm destination: Florida and California were numbers one and two on our dream list. Visiting my daughter who was residing in Florida, I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to be open to moving. The institution that He was directing me to was Bethel. I said, “This can’t be real. This can’t be right…it’s not Florida or California!” But I began the process discerning God’s direction.

My three kids and I have had an agreement. They never wanted to attend an institution where I served, because they wanted to have their own identities and experiences. And I’ve been through challenging circumstances throughout my career, ranging from racial incidents that made the news as well as being physically threatened. My biggest fear was facing my daughter—a junior at Bethel—and there was sweat and perspiration rolling off of me as I approached her about transitioning to her turf. I’ll never forget her words or expressions. She looked at me and said, “Dad, sit down. I think Bethel would be good for you and you would be good for Bethel. You have my permission to go.”

A few weeks later, I was on the phone with President Jay Barnes, and I asked him about his expectations for the job. He stated, “I want you to bring your big, joyful, warm personality to Bethel.” As soon as he said the word “warm,” it brought me back to that conversation that I had with my wife. I had been looking for a warm geographical climate, but the Lord wanted to bring me to a place that could warm me up, and—vice versa—a place that I could warm up. Often God doesn’t give us what we ask for, but He always gives us what we need.

How does your team approach their work?

Service. We’re here to serve students. Even in the messy—and sometimes dark and difficult—spaces, we petition the Lord to use us to bring light and hope.

Excellence. I’m not talking about perfection, but these students deserve our A game, the very best we have. We’re not going to cut corners or half step.

Humility. We can’t do the work of transformation by ourselves. We need the faculty, we need financial aid, we need Sodexo, we need marketing, we need facilities management, and we need coaches to join efforts with us and find ways that we can assist these young men and women to accomplish their dreams, to be world-changers, Christ-followers, truth-seekers, learners, reconcilers, salt and light, character-builders.

Love. Some of our students don’t truly recognize the real meaning of God’s love. What they see in the media, culture, or in broken families…that’s not God’s definition of love. We have to be people who are not afraid to say, “I love you. I care for you, which sometimes means stepping into difficult places.”

What are some highlights from your time at Bethel so far?

The MIAC championship basketball game. Our student fans, spectators, and athletes conducted themselves with integrity, with class, character, and unity. The real win that night was to see how our students kept their heads up.

January of last year I got an email from a student. We met and he said to me, “I see the joy that comes out of your life. I’ve lost that. Can you help me come out of my sin and get it back?” We met throughout the semester. It’s been amazing to see his progress, and it’s a joy to walk alongside our students.

On Oct. 27, 2015, my family was in a serious car accident. I received a call from my wife that evening saying that she and my two children were in the hospital. I called our Executive Vice President and Provost Deb Harless to inform her that I wouldn’t be able to attend or present at the Board of Trustees meeting the next day. She encouraged me that my place was with my family. Over the next few days a parade of calls and emails from Bethel people started pouring in. People that I had just barely met were telling me, “We’re praying for you, praying for your family…we’ll do whatever we can do to help.” I knew that through this situation Bethel was exactly the community God wanted me to be a part of.

What are you most excited about, and where are we headed next as a university?

We’re striving to become the “university of choice for the 21st century.” So we have to prepare our students to think Christianly, holistically, strategically, and to be men and women of integrity and character. We want to provide students opportunities to flourish, do life in the way that God intended, and to bring excitement, joy, and enthusiasm around good, positive things. We’re developing a new leadership initiative, hiring an assistant dean for leadership development, and investing in our student leaders so they can be effective, strategic influencers in a rapidly changing world. We’re also introducing more discipleship opportunities—like Mighty Men and Rooted Women—and helping students make better decisions about wellbeing and being faithful to what God is calling them to do. We’re aligning all our systems and programs to support and serve students with excellence, humility, and love.

You’ve been a Bethel parent, and you also get to see the behind the scenes. What should parents know?

I want parents to know they can entrust their sons and daughters to us. We’re committed to doing our very best to ensure they become people who will contribute to society, follow the Lord, and own and appreciate their faith. The Bethel community is one that loves and cherishes students. We’re not perfect, so please pray for us. And when we err, please tell us! Know that our heart is to serve students and do it well. Visit campus. Take part in events. Come see your sons and daughters becoming the men and women they were created to be. Our goal here is life transformation, and we’re blessed to be a part of that. Thank you for your prayers and support.

The Office of Student Life—located on the second floor of Brushaber Commons (BC)—supports student clubs and activities, events, housing, and support services.

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