Catalyzing its Christ-centered, missional commitment to bring educational opportunity to diverse student populations, Warner Pacific University (WPU) is pleased to announce it has been selected by the U.S. Department of Education to receive a landmark, five-year, $3 million grant under the Title V Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program. The competitively awarded grant is awarded to colleges and universities serving Hispanic, low-income, and under-represented student populations, and aims to expand educational opportunity and success.
“As a Christian university this recognition affirms our core calling – to put our faith into action by ensuring academic opportunity is available to a diverse range of students and to empower those students to care for our world,” said WPU President Dr. Brian Johnson. “As we approach our 90th anniversary, we are proud of our Minority-Serving and Hispanic-Serving designations – and we are grateful this grant will allow us to grow in our ability to serve those who traditionally have been shut out from the credentials necessary to truly live out their calling.”
With 61% of WPU’s undergraduates identifying as students of color, and 32% who identify as Hispanic, WPU is just one of six institutions in the state – and the only university in Oregon – to be federally designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution, a distinction it has held since 2018. The grant, entitled “Project Avanzamos: Advancing Warner Pacific University from Hispanic-Enrolling to Hispanic-Serving”, furthers the university’s plans to improve student support, academic options, graduation rates and professional outcomes.
“Though we enroll a large number of Hispanic students, and are recognized as the most diverse university in Oregon in general, enrollment is not enough,” said Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success Dr. Darilis Garcia. “’Serving’ is about intentionality – it means understanding our students’ needs and strengths, and adapting our instruction and environment to ensure we create pathways to full success. And by working to better serve this large population, in reality, we will better serve other students as well.”
Project Avanzamos includes three primary goals:
- To strengthen academic programs. Over the next five years, the grant will support a campus-wide initiative that integrates career considerations and experiential learning into the WPU academic experience. Outcomes will include new approaches to curriculum that embed career-thinking and application throughout a major, and developing a new Spanish translation certificate program that will help students graduate with a credential that makes them even more marketable.
- To improve student support. WPU is focused on what happens outside of the classroom to support students as well. The grant improves ways to honor cultural wealth and foster a sense of belonging through an eco-system of “wrap-around” support. In particular, staff will work to create a new community-wide mentorship and coaching initiative connecting Hispanic students with peers, faculty, and community leaders that supports students while they are in school.
- To support institutional infrastructure and outcomes. The grant will also help WPU institute new, evidence-based advising that increases student outcomes, closes equity gaps and stabilizes tuition revenue. Particularly exciting is a plan to create a new Center for Academic Success and Achievement (or “CASA”) – a physical space on campus with designated staff to welcome students and lead programming that supports professional development for students and staff alike.
In addition to its federal Hispanic-Serving designation, earlier this year WPU qualified for the AANAPISI (Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution) as well. The news follows a trajectory of student enrollment that includes increasing numbers of Black / African American students, and a growing percentage of students who speak languages other than English. Today, WPU is the only Christian university in the Pacific Northwest, and just one of several dozen in the country, to be recognized as “Minority Serving” by the U.S. Department of Education.
“WPU is filling an important need,” said President Johnson, who is the university’s first African American president. “Though we began as a Bible college almost a century ago, and have a beautiful history of having led thousands of devoted men and women to serve their communities, today we are extending that gift of calling to so many who have traditionally been denied the same chance to learn in a community that emphasizes values of empathy and service, faith and love, as much as practical competency skills. The fact is we need diverse leaders of competence and character. This grant affirms our intention to empower people of color to access a quality, faith-based, inclusive education and to step out into the world prepared to live purpose-driven lives.”
In addition to improving services to students, the grant further supports a university that is seeking to turn around an enrollment decline post-pandemic, and rebuild its connections to community in general. Earlier this year, WPU successful overcame an accreditation warning issued several years prior and received commendation by its accrediting body, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), for having taken strong steps to redirect its institutional master plan.
“Like so many small, private universities, we have had to pivot post-COVID, while staying true to a mission that is about helping students become whom they were meant to become,” said Senior Vice President of University Relations Jennifer Boehmer. “The good news is, our civic and sacred communities are united in a vision that requires us to work together to advance, train, and cultivate more leadership opportunities for historically underrepresented and underserved communities. It’s about equity, but also, put in Biblical terms, we view this work as truly reflecting the full Kingdom of God.”
The vast majority (80%) of WPU’s traditional undergraduate students commute to campus. Many live with their families and desire to remain in the Portland area after they graduate. As the least expensive private university in Oregon, 98% of WPU students rely on financial aid to attend college and more than 42% speak languages other than English. Navigating these challenges contributed to U.S. News and World Report naming WPU a “Top Performer” in Social Mobility for 2023.
“I’m thrilled that this grant really creates opportunities for all of our students,” said President Johnson. “Our intention is to not only meet our students where they are at, but to walk alongside them as they work to achieve their dreams. By recognizing the work we need to do to better serve our Hispanic students, we create an infrastructure that catalyzes all students to overcome cycles of poverty for themselves, and create generational opportunities that fulfill vocational calling as well as earn credentials. I am tremendously proud of the hard work that has led to this moment. We stand on the shoulders of staff, faculty, alums, and friends who have prayerfully empowered us to serve our world in this way today.”
See press coverage of WPU’s historic accomplishment:
- Story in the Oregonian and Oregon Live
- Commendation from the Portland Business Journal
- Featured by the national Church of God