Seattle Pacific University President Philip Eaton takes great delight in talking about his students' creative ideas. One group distributed neon-orange...

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Seattle Pacific University President Philip Eaton takes great delight in talking about his students’ creative ideas.

One group distributed neon-orange T-shirts imprinted with the word ORPHAN to be worn on campus by one of every 20 students — a bold visual statement about the rate of children orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another student hopes to manufacture affordable prosthetic limbs for people in impoverished countries.

“This generation of students — they come with an eagerness to engage what’s going on in the world,” Eaton says.

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The excitement about his students’ global awareness illustrates how Seattle Pacific University — and perceptions of it — are changing.

The small, evangelical Christian college nestled on the northern slope of Queen Anne Hill has been perceived in the past as somewhat insular, its reputation eclipsed by those of other nearby universities.

Over the past several years, though, its academic reputation and number of applicants have risen. And many students, faculty and administrators are taking seriously the spirit of Eaton’s motto — “engaging the culture, changing the world” — even if the ubiquitous slogan sometimes engenders good-natured eye-rolling.

Seattle Pacific University

Founded: 1891

Religious affiliation: Free Methodist Church of North America

Enrollment: 3,830, including 2,979 undergraduates, 57 post-baccalaureate students and 794 graduate students. More than two-thirds are female.

Tuition and fees: $23,391 a year

Student religious affiliations: Students and faculty represent more than 50 Christian denominations and a few other faiths. The top five student affiliations: nondenominational Christian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Catholic. Free Methodist is No. 9 on the list.

Faculty: 355, including 182 full time, 21 part time, 135 adjunct and others

Academic offerings: 56 undergraduate majors; 42 undergraduate minors; 11 master’s and post-master’s degrees; three doctoral programs

Top undergraduate programs: Business administration, psychology, nursing, biology, communication

Source: Seattle Pacific University

Historically, SPU sometimes has been closed off, Eaton says. “But we are called to reach out, be engaged. That’s huge to me.”

The changes are emblematic of how some Christian colleges are faring nationwide and how the next generation is exploring what it means to be Christian. Some say students now entering college tend to be more globally aware than previous generations. At the same time, applications and enrollment at evangelical colleges have soared.

“I think it’s a different generation,” said Bethany Krumm, SPU student-body president, who is majoring in international business. While topics deemed important to religious conservatives — such as abortion, alcohol use and homosexuality — are “still prevalent in discussions, I think the important factor has been pulled more to homelessness and AIDS and environmental issues.”

At the same time, students are looking for a place that nurtures and develops their faith. SPU requires students to adhere to a code of conduct — including abstaining from alcohol, drugs and premarital sex. While students’ social views span the very liberal to the very conservative, many say most probably are in the moderate-to-conservative range.

“I wanted the values and morals of a Christian school,” Krumm said. “I knew I wanted somewhere where I could explore different things, but where I would also be in a safe and grace-filled community.”

A clear Christian mission

Seattle Pacific University was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America, primarily to train students for missionary service.

The 3,800 students include hundreds of nondenominational Christians, members of dozens of Christian denominations, and a few from other faiths.

Since about 10 years ago, when Eaton became president, the number of applications has risen more than 50 percent and enrollment is up 16 percent.

Eaton notes a number of factors — including a larger donor base, more than $100 million invested in facilities, including a new $26 million science building, and increasing academic rigor.

More than that, he says, is the ability to connect those achievements with a clear Christian mission.

Other evangelical colleges have seen similar rises in enrollment. The 102 evangelical schools that belong to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities have seen enrollment increase 70 percent since 1990, according to Religion News Service. That’s compared with a 13 percent increase at public colleges and 28 percent at private colleges.

Other Washington state schools that belong to the council also have seen enrollment increases since 1990. Enrollment is up 115 percent at Whitworth College in Spokane, and 88 percent at Northwest University in Kirkland.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America,” attributes the increase in part to students wanting to attend colleges where their faith is welcomed and explored.

At the same time, Christian colleges have become more intellectually rigorous, so students now see them as viable alternatives, Riley said.

Breaking the “bubble”

While Riley said she thinks evangelical students now are probably more concerned than before about social-justice issues, “I’m reluctant to say that it’s really been a sea change.”

Rather, she thinks, there have always been students concerned about both personal morality and about making the world a better place. “And there are a ton of kids who are completely apolitical.”

Some SPU students also say there’s truth to the perception that they are sheltered or keep mainly to themselves. They talk of an “SPU bubble.”

“It exists,” freshman Danny Rorabaugh said. “But there is the opportunity to go out of it.”

On a recent night, for instance, Rorabaugh and several other SPU students took part in the school’s annual Urban Plunge, in which they live for a few days as homeless people might.

Miriam Adeney, SPU associate professor of global and urban ministries, said she thinks there’s been a quiet stream all along of evangelical Christians and students concerned with issues such as AIDS, health care and the environment. More recently, people such as U2’s Bono have given students a voice and someone to connect with on the issues.

She sees more interest from students in how to do business ethically and use business to do good.

For example, Jason “Spud” Tomsett, an SPU student majoring in engineering and applied sciences, wants to figure out how to mass-manufacture prosthetics inexpensively to help people in other countries.

He said he thinks his generation is more aware of global issues because of mass media and the Internet. “Most of my friends have friends they meet in chat rooms all over the Earth.”

Administration’s support

Krumm, the student-body president, said the administration’s support of student leadership is also important.

For instance, Eaton splits the cost with the student-body association of having 400 copies of newspapers delivered to campus each day — Krumm’s idea.

Eaton also supported the idea to distribute T-shirts to draw attention to children orphaned by AIDS. The student-body association paid for half. World Vision, an evangelical Christian relief and development organization with headquarters in Federal Way, paid the other half.

“I think SPU has a very high respect and value for student leadership,” said James Pedrick, one of the students involved in that effort who now works for World Vision’s Acting on AIDS, which encourages student activism on the issue.

“Acting on AIDS was created because there was the freedom to create that,” said Pedrick, who says the effort has spread to more than 60 evangelical campuses nationwide. “As we’re working with other Christian campuses, I’m finding there isn’t necessarily that same amount of freedom.”

Jeffrey Keuss, SPU associate professor of Christian ministry, says people a few years ago would have thought the idea of evangelical colleges being involved in AIDS issues was crazy.

Now, he said, SPU is attracting students who see “social activism as a way of understanding what it means to have a belief.”

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or

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