WAXAHACHIE — Through humble beginnings and enduring a revolving door of change, Southwestern Assemblies of God University is celebrating 90 years of academia and 74 years of calling Waxahachie "home."
“Our first president coined a phrase to describe the essential vision of what Southwestern was all about ‘The whole gospel for the whole world,’” explained Kermit Bridges, President of Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU).
“Southwestern has been and must always be about preparing men and women to be ‘salt and light’ wherever they go and through whatever profession they feel called to pursue,” he added.
PLANTING THE SEED
Founded in 1927 in Enid, Oklahoma, by Peter Christopher (P.C.) Nelson as Southwestern Bible School, SAGU primarily began as a ministerial training institution with a heavy emphasis on pulpit ministry and global missions.
“I think it’s important to know that from the beginning Nelson had this vision for individuals no matter what they thought their vocational calling was,” began Devin Ferguson, Director of Alumni Relations.
“You’d see him writing that whether individuals were in the office, on the farm, or in the pulpit, there was a call and responsibility to missions, and that Southwestern is here to fulfill the training for that,” he added.
Fashioning three schools into one entity, which included a Bible school, a grade school, and a high school, Southwestern Bible Institute was created and moved from Oklahoma to Fort Worth, Texas in 1941.
Though the new location had brought about academic success, another school by the name of Trinity University was experiencing the prolonged plunge of the Stock Market Crash since 1929.
During the economic depression, Trinity University faced a decision of financial survival and subsequently put the Sycamore Street property up for sale to relocate to San Antonio, Texas in 1942.
The next year in July 1943, the Southwestern Bible Institute bought the Waxahachie campus and grew its curriculum into a junior college by 1944.
“It’s [SAGU] been here for so long, and it’s an integral part of the city,” expressed Nancy Post, board member of Historic Waxahachie Inc. “The campus was built in 1902 and is considered a ‘national registered district’ that includes the whole campus.”
“They are an important part of our history and a center for education starting in the early 1990s. After Trinity University came to Waxahachie and left, SAGU continued that tradition of offering education,” she included.
Adapting to the academic change and the new ownership by certain districts of the Assemblies of God denomination, the Institute renamed the school to Southwestern Assemblies of God College in 1963.
Throughout the years, SAGU managed to keep enrollment steady through World War II and the Cold War, but almost financially collapsed in the late 1980’s due to a competing institution.
“The resulting downturn in enrollment produced a serious crisis that could have resulted in the institution closing,” Bridges expounded.
“Alumni and churches rallied in both financial, and prayer support […] and administration responded by becoming a pioneer in distance education through correspondence, which was ahead of the time in terms of innovation and expanding the reach of the school, both locally and internationally” he described.
According to the school’s history, distance education proved successful as enrollment rose in the 1990s, from obtaining 596 students in the fall of 1991 to 1,492 students in 1997.
Through this, the institution upgraded its academic status and title from a college to an accredited university.
“Today with our education, business, social work, and digital media arts degrees - the list continues to grow and young people are finding their call fulfilled outside of the traditional ministry environment,” Ferguson acknowledged.
“We have students working for Hitachi Consulting, Murphy Oil, marketing agencies; we have students that are teachers, authors, pastors, and we also have students that have gone on to Harvard, Baylor, and Princeton after their time here. It’s really amazing to see them make a goal and see it through,” he added.
Since the beginning of Bridges’ presidency in 2000, the university has flourished adding nearly 40 degrees, including masters and doctorate curriculums, distant online education, and state-of-the-art buildings to the campus.
“Over half of the university’s 700,000-under-roof-square feet has been constructed,” Bridges confirmed. “That’s a major construction project about every three to four years."
“And enrollment has increased nearly 25 percent with 50 percent of our students representing about 40 states on campus. It’s not hard to look good when you've got quality students coming through here, and they go out and make a difference,” he added with a chuckle.
With such accomplishments, an attribute that stands out amongst the rest is the school’s endearing reputation presented to its community.
BLOOMING IN THE COMMUNITY
“I’m reminded of one part of our history when the community came alongside the university in such a powerful way, and that’s when the original men’s dorm burned down in 1953,” Ferguson recalled the historical fire caused by a heating plant on the west wing of the dormitory.
Though there were no injuries recorded, students lost personal possessions and were facing a point of homelessness. That is until the community of Waxahachie stepped up.
“The community opened their homes for the remainder of the year, providing clothing and supplies for those young men,” Ferguson explained. “I think that shows the unique bond that is between the City of Waxahachie and the institution.”
And such a relationship has continued to this day.
“I’ve been here for 18 years, and ever since, personally and professionally, it’s been a very positive relationship working with them," expressed Paul Stevens, Waxahachie’s City Manager. "And I think that standard goes beyond the time I’ve been here.”
“We put together an economic development plan many years ago and when we were doing that we had the president and vice president of SAGU involved in that process,” he recounted the memory. “They were a pleasure to work with and are involved in the community - and that really makes for a strong working relationship.”
Partnering with organizations such as Common Ground Ministries, Waxahachie Symphony Association, Salvation Army’s Boys and Girls Club, Waxahachie ISD, The Waxahachie Project, and much more, SAGU has been counted as a loyal neighbor.
“From the perspective of the Waxahachie CVB, SAGU equals a fantastic community partner,” expressed Laurie Mosley, Waxahachie Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) Director.
“One week, we might be working with Susan Paschall in the Athletics Department on a basketball tournament that will bring teams from around the United States. Then we'll be working with Ronnie Blount, the Theatre Professor, the following week on promoting a special performance […] that will attract a completely different audience to the city,” she articulated.
“And then Terry Phipps, Vice President of Student Development, […] works with the CVB during the convention bidding and planning process to help brainstorm how SAGU can help the city meet the needs of an important group that we are trying to attract,” she added. “When you think about all of the things that make Waxahachie unique and special, SAGU is at the top of the list.”
“Since becoming a university from a college, SAGU’s grown enormously and remains an important part of this town,” Post added. “They’ve been here for more than 70 years and are still a great fixture in Waxahachie.”
THE NEXT 90 YEARS
As for the direction of the university’s impending plans, Bridges mentioned that the campus would continue to expand with the construction of three new buildings that include a residence hall, an academic building, and an administrative facility.
“In terms of academic programs on the graduate level, we hope to launch doctoral degrees in both counseling, psychology, and education in the near future,” Bridges noted. “On the undergrad level, engineering is a degree we’d also like to offer, as well as a path toward nursing."
And as the university celebrates what has already been, Bridges remains confident for the next 90 years.
“This institution was born in the Great Depression and has weathered economic recessions, a world war, a cold war, the enrollment crisis of the ‘80s, and more, but we’re still standing,” Bridges encouraged.
“That longevity speaks to the importance of our mission and values. SAGU is making a positive impact around the world through our students, and we plan to be here for another 90 years as a good neighbor in this community, growing with Waxahachie and doing our best to help make this a wonderful place to call home,” he finished.
To connect with Southwestern Assemblies of God University, visit sagu.edu or call (972)-937-4010.
Chelsea Groomer, @ChelseaGroomer