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OVU steps up recruiting efforts in Northeast

CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY in West Virginia can be ‘vital tool for the Lord’s Work’ on the East Coast, its president says.

VIENNA, W.Va. – When the time came to pick a college, Steve Camberis searched the Internet for “Church of Christ universities” and chose the closest one: Ohio Valley University, about 550 miles from his Long Island, N.Y., home.
While a 10-hour drive might not fit most definitions of close, it beat his other options: 950 miles to Lipscomb University in Tennessee, 1,800 miles to Abilene Christian University in Texas and 2,900 miles to Pepperdine University in California, just to name a few.
“I do wish it were a little farther east,” said Camberis, 22, a senior education major and basketball player. But he said OVU met all his expectations — spiritual, academic and personal.
“Honestly, coming from the Northeast, you kind of felt like you were the only Christians around,” he said. “When I came here, it was like, ‘Wow, all these people are Christians.’”

Like Camberis, Karen Rondeau, 22, from Dudley, Mass., came a long way — 650 miles — to attend the university. The senior business administration major learned about OVU through a student group that sang at Gander Brook Christian Camp in Maine.
“I didn’t grow up surrounded by very many Christians,” Rondeau said. “I mean, we never drove less than 45 minutes to go to church. … I’ve had an amazing experience.”
A two-year college until the 1990s, Ohio Valley merged with Northeastern Christian Junior College when its Villanova, Pa., campus closed 15 years ago.
The consolidation accelerated then-Ohio Valley College’s move to four-year status.
At the time, leaders said they hoped to encourage students to stay in the Northeast to obtain a degree and then seek employment and help the church in that part of the country.
That remains a goal of students such as David Ray, 20, a sophomore Bible major from Alliance, Ohio, and the newly elected Student Government Association president.
“I have a heart for northern ministry, and when I started looking into schools, I found that the tendency is, if you go south for school, then you stay south for ministry,” Ray said.
The Ohio Valley region itself — which includes Parkersburg, W.Va., and Marietta, Ohio, just across the Ohio River — is a hotbed of Churches of Christ.
“But drive an hour in any direction from here, and suddenly, this real thick concentration of churches disappears,” said Danny Cooper, an assistant professor of information technology. “So, the need is enormous. Every time we have a student that goes out and stays in the Northeast, that’s going to have some shockwave and impact.”
OVU enrolled a record head count of 643 students last fall — in part because of increased East Coast marketing efforts, President James Johnson said. While a majority of students come from a 200-mile radius, OVU leaders believe it can be “a very vital tool for the Lord’s work” from the Capital Beltway to the upper Northeast, Johnson said.
Besides recruiting in places such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, OVU is making “a very overt attempt to increase our diversity numbers,” he said.
“That is paying huge dividends overnight,” Johnson said.
Minority enrollment, which totaled less than 4 percent three years ago, has topped 10 percent, the president said.
Varner Webb is senior minister of the predominantly black Beltway church in Camp Springs, Md., just outside Washington. He said Johnson invited him to “partner with him and try to recruit students — particularly black students.”
“They reached out to me, and that was exciting to me,” Webb said of OVU.
A graduate of Southwestern Christian College in Texas, he said he accepted the invitation because he believes in Christian education.
Webb said he makes students aware of the wide variety of majors offered at OVU — from elementary education to sports management.
“Students tend to think that when you go to a Christian school, it’s all Bible and churchy,” Webb said. “But you can get an education here in business or nursing just like you can at any other university.”
Harry Ogletree, an OVU alumnus hired last year as assistant to the president for minority relations, said: “A lot of the kids are going to state schools, and it’s important for them to know that this is a viable option for them to go to a Christian university. When I talk to some of the black brethren, they did not know that there was a Church of Christ college that was this close, where all the faculty members and staff are members of the church.”
While focusing more on the Northeast, OVU also has made an aggressive effort to reconnect with Ohio Valley churches.
In a region where churches tend to be conservative, a number of area ministers had become disillusioned with OVU, Johnson and others said.
The university turned to a respected area minister, Tom Butterfield, hiring him as church relations director after he retired as longtime minister of the 36th Street church in Vienna.
“I don’t know that you could put your finger on any one particular thing,” Butterfield said. “There was never a big war or anything like that. It was just the fact that we didn’t stay in touch and didn’t communicate.”
As Johnson sees it, all universities associated with Churches of Christ deal with “rumors floating around about where they stand on various things.” But rather than speak out, OVU let misconceptions fester, he said.
He has tried to present the truth, he said. Last year, he preached at 41 different congregations.
“As a result, I think we’ve rebuilt a lot of bridges and relationships,” Johnson said. “You’ll notice a lot of speakers on our lectureship program who in years past would not be on our campus.”
Dan Kessinger, minister of the Dewey Avenue church in St. Marys, W.Va., has been one of the critics. But he said “the leadership is moving in the right direction.” Still, progress takes time, said Kessinger, who teaches at the West Virginia School of Preaching in Moundsville, 80 miles northeast of OVU.
“I believe that we are currently seeing a renewed interest in actually producing preachers,” Kessinger said of OVU. “I believe that we need this school producing faithful preachers. And I say that as a teacher at a preaching school.”
Likewise, Johnson spoke highly of the preaching school, started in 1994: “They do a good work. I’m glad they’re there.”
OVU’s changing demographics may help explain a certain level of stress among church leaders.
OVU, like most Christian colleges, increasingly draws students from outside Churches of Christ. In a recent school year, for example, 44 percent of OVU students reported other religious affiliations.
“There are still people in the Valley who think you should not admit anyone but members of the church,” said Steve Eckman, executive vice president. “But financially, that’s not possible.”
OVU basketball coach Bill McGee was baptized in 1980 after being recruited to play basketball at Lubbock Christian University in Texas. He describes OVU as a mission field.
“Hopefully, with the environment we have here, we lead them to Christ,” he said of non-Christian students.
A psychology and business major from Orlando, Fla., Caleb Canton, 23, was recruited to play basketball at OVU.
Like his coach, he was baptized as a result of ending up on a Christian college campus.
“The biggest thing, you get the opportunity to meet a lot of people — people who actually care, who show love, and you get to show love back and stuff like that,” Canton said. “I think that’s the biggest impact the school has on me.”
Ohio Valley University
WEB SITE: www.ovu.edu
CAMPUS: 266 wooded acres split between Vienna and Parkersburg at one of the highest points of Wood County, W.Va.
FACILITIES: The main administration and classroom building is a four-story former Catholic high school seminary bought by the university in 1994.
BY THE NUMBERS: 643 students last fall, representing a 5 percent jump over the previous year. That included 170 new students, a 26 percent increase. Students came from 29 states and 14 nations.
TUITION AND FEES: About $12,000 a year for 12 credit hours per semester.
SPORTS: Competes in NCAA Division II.
BOARD CHAIRMAN: Gail Hopkins is a medical doctor, a Ph.D. and a former major league baseball player. He also serves on Pepperdine University’s board.

This story is the third in an occasional series called “The Scene,” focusing on people, issues and trends on campus.

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