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Jason Hawkins, a youth minister at Odessa Church of Christ in Missouri, leads a Soul Quest class on Peter in the York University library.
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From the field house to the house of God

In Nebraska, York University recruits — and converts — athletes from around the world through relationships with faculty and coaches.

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YORK, Neb. — During softball season, Bailey Hardey wakes before sunrise on Tuesdays and Thursdays for team workouts. 

It’s a familiar commitment. The junior general studies major has played softball since third grade. 

What’s new is her expressing her faith after practice at York University’s chapel.

Bailey Hardey

Bailey Hardey

Gathering every day with her teammates and the rest of the York student body at 10 a.m., Hardey sings, prays and listens intently to the chapel speaker.

“Chapel is my favorite time of the day,” said Hardey, 19. “Because chapel, it gives you a lot of inspiration — a lot of inspiring talks from the faculty, the staff, the student body.”

But religion didn’t always play a large role in Hardey’s life. 

Culturally Catholic, she attended Sunday morning Mass occasionally with her grandmother while growing up in San Bruno, Calif., but had no specific individual faith. 

Then one of her professors, Sarah Van Gomple, invited her to the East Hill Church of Christ in York during her freshman year. 

Van Gomple’s husband, Ken, baptized Hardey at the East Hill church the following semester.

“All of a sudden, I got this itch,” Hardey recalled. “I loved going to church. I love having faith, being a Christian and just learning.

“It changed my life forever.”

Coming to play, not pray

Faith is an intentional element of York University, which is associated with Churches of Christ.

Besides the daily mandatory chapel for students, the university offers a Wednesday night worship service and encourages students to attend church on Sunday morning. 

But the average student doesn’t attend York for religious reasons. Many, like Hardey, are recruited for college athletics — not faith. 


Related: Team devotional leads 37 Faulkner University athletes to baptism


“A lot of our incoming students are first-generation college students and looking for ways to feel plugged in and be affordable,” said Shannon Leinen, York’s provost. “Athletics provides a natural fit for that.”

About 80 percent of the York student body is involved in one of 18 athletic programs offered on campus, including esports and dance as well as most traditional sports. 

Those programs give the university leverage to recruit outside of its own state. Only about 30 percent of the student body, on average, is from Nebraska.

This year York recruited students from 35 states and 24 countries largely due to the athletic programs, according to David Odom, York’s vice president for enrollment. 

Potential students wait under the York University archway on the York, Neb., campus.

Potential students wait under the York University archway on the Nebraska campus.

But the university’s concentration in athletics makes leadership more sensitive to its Christian mission.

“When you have a lot of athletes and they’re here for athletics … then you could lose sight of trying to show that this is a Christian institution,” Odom said. “That’s why I think President (Sam) Smith has made it one of his vision statements to say, ‘We really must look that way, whether it’s aesthetically or just when people notice our behavior, how we respond or what programs we have — those have to show that we’re a Christian institution.’”

That’s where the coaches come in. 

Softball head coach Roni Miller is as focused on her players’ spiritual well-being as she is with how they perform on the field. 

She, like Hardey, chose to leave her life in California to play softball for York in 1997. 

“I believe that our faculty and staff are relentlessly intentional about what we do every day. … We are intentional with who we want them to become so that when they go into the world, they’re ready.”

Her time as a student is when her faith became her own, Miller said. Now she hopes her involvement with her athletes will have a similar influence. 

“I believe that our faculty and staff are relentlessly intentional about what we do every day,” Miller said. “We are intentional with how we interact with each other. We are intentional with how we communicate. We are intentional with who we want them to become so that when they go into the world, they’re ready.”

It’s an influence that doesn’t go unnoticed. Miller was one of the people who encouraged Hardey’s baptism. 

“She wants us to build our faith,” Hardey said. “Even if you’re Catholic, she wants you to build your faith as much as possible. And she’s not judgmental at all.”

Breaking records

Despite decreasing enrollment trends across the country, York University recently reported breaking the threshold of 700 students for the first time. 

York recorded a 5 percent increase among undergraduate students, with 446 on campus this semester. 

The stable population of graduate students — both online and in-person — as well as growth in York’s dual enrollment program raised the overall enrollment to 711. 

While the majority of undergraduate students attend due to athletics, partnerships with several organizations have aided the university in bolstering its graduate and dual enrollment programs over the past two years. 

“It is always our intention to continue to grow other aspects of campus,” Leinen said. “Our business program is our largest program on campus and thriving.

Jason Hawkins, a youth minister at Odessa Church of Christ in Missouri, leads a Soul Quest class on Peter in the York University library.

Jason Hawkins, youth minister for the Odessa Church of Christ in Missouri, leads a Soul Quest class on Peter in the York University library.

“Because we’re smaller, we work well together across campus, which I think you don’t always find in higher education,” she added.

The total tuition cost including room and board for the 2023-24 academic year ranged from $30,500 to $31,200. 

The average York student receives between $13,000 and $15,000 in scholarships each year, according to Odom. Students may stack up to three scholarships, which are capped at full-tuition coverage.  

The university reported that 98 percent of all students receive financial aid. The athletic program offers many of those scholarship opportunities for prospective students. 

While the majority of undergraduate students are athletes, Leinen expects other programs will grow in the future.

“But I feel like in the meantime, I don’t believe it’s a hindrance to our culture or our academics,” Leinen said. 


Related: Oklahoma Christian to offer Church of Christ Heritage Scholarship


Training students physically and spiritually 

The university also reported growth in Bible majors, Church of Christ-affiliated students and children of alumni. 

Among those Bible majors are several who came to York University to play ball — not study the Bible. 

“Some of our Bible majors now came because they got recruited to play a sport,” said Garrett Best, chair of the Bible department and associate professor of Bible. “They didn’t come because they saw that we’re a premier Bible training institution.”

Garrett Best, chair of the Bible department and associate professor of Bible at York University, teaches a class on Biblical history.

Garrett Best, chair of the Bible department and associate professor of Bible at York University, teaches a class on biblical history.

While Best’s long-term goals are to recruit students who attend York for the Bible program, he hopes all students find their spiritual calling.

“We’re here to train students for the church, and we’re here to serve the church,” Best said. “That is why we exist, and that is the majority of what we do.”

Three students — all athletes — were baptized at the beginning of the semester. New social club Chi Rho, sponsored by Best, hopes to aid the spiritual development of young Christians on campus.  

“We’re here to train students for the church, and we’re here to serve the church. That is why we exist, and that is the majority of what we do.”

Hardey joined the ranks as an officer this semester, a year and a half after her baptism.

“The club is basically to help students that don’t know God as well, who have no church background or don’t know Christ,” Hardey said. “For me, going to church, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. It’s honestly a life-changing club.”

Filed under: baptisms Church of Christ university college enrollment Evangelism National News Partners Student athletes Top Stories York University

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