A Blue Dot in a Red Sea

OLIVIA ZINN

Isn’t it refreshing to know that despite being the oldest and smallest private college in West Virginia, our values continue to withstand amidst The Great Depression, two World Wars, and now the COVID-19 pandemic? Not many colleges can say that, but Bethany certainly can.

Despite it being 182 years since Alexander Campbell stepped foot on the ole’ Bethany soil, certain values have withstood the test of time–and it is a miracle. The question is, will they continue? Will the values that Campbell distilled into the founding of his institution remain the same as we look to the years ahead?

Twenty-three years prior to the first land battle of the Civil War, Alexander Campbell saw something in this part of Virginia that no one else came to understand. 1840 was a year in which Americans were focused on finding gold, exploring the country via the fresh railroad, and more importantly, fighting for U.S. territory in the Mexican-American War–yet, Campbell had his mind set on establishing an alternative to higher education. He desired to have a place in which men, and eventually women, could study the liberal arts while also remembering their Creator and upholding conservative values.

Such values are what drove me to Bethany, right down West Virginia Route 88, and my Christian background. During my campus tour back in 2019, I immediately noticed the natural beauty that Bethany possessed, almost as if I had the same mindset as Campbell did coming in. That Bethany has so much potential to make an impact on my life. I thought that the Gothic-Revival architecture was stunning and it was enough to draw me in, let alone the idea that I could graduate debt-free. Now as I’m sitting here, composing my thoughts, I begin to paint a different picture on the sentiment that Bethany leaves me.

The resonation of student-to-faculty relationships is absolutely unreal. There are times when I feel closer to my professors and alumni than I do my own sorority sisters or classmates. I genuinely enjoy having conversations with my advisors in between classes and have even caught myself looking for that same connection in certain internships I’ve taken on. More importantly, the networking opportunities I’ve received from fellow Bethanians has been impeccable and helpful beyond comparison. There’s simply no greater feeling knowing that I can gladly give professionals a call whenever I deem necessary, especially for this article.

One Bethany graduate that I’m grateful to have met in my time here so far, is Nancy Lewis. A woman of pure professionalism with a side of spunk and grit, she too was a communications major once. On her graduation day in May of 1978, the values of Bethany began to run through her–so many that it’s hard to pinpoint just one, yet acceptance was always visible.

“I feel very grounded at Bethany. When you walk down Old Main, how do you feel? Don’t you feel a part of something that’s much bigger than you, and that’s been around a lot longer than you?,” Lewis asked. “I think we all feel that, despite the generational change, and yet Bethany has always moved on. Bethany has always served the student.”

Acceptance is clearly a quality that Bethany has possessed since its original founding date in 1840 and we should be proud of that. Although it was initially an all-male form of higher learning, it wasn’t long until women were admitted into the Christian-based Bethanian family. In 1877, “with little debate or opposition” (via Bethany: 150 Years), the College decided that transitioning to a co-education system would pose great opportunity for young women in the area. That decision easily became a tradition, as we can see nearly 185 years later, not only in our diverse student population but also with our former President of five years, Dr. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg.

Now an active alumna and PR Director for Ford Motors, Lewis has noticed a few changes since her graduation, as do others that either attend or work for Bethany College.

“Prior to the ‘60s, the girls used to eat in Phillips Hall and the guys would eat in Bethany House. Then, they’d all eat together on Sundays," said Lewis. "Then, there was a big change in the ‘60s and ‘70s, how things were done within the administration and the student body–a generational change.”

However, as I begin to reflect on the true history of Bethany, I am curious if we are able to sustain the original, conservative values that Campbell instilled, or has the campus chosen a different route for the future? As a young Christian myself, I am wondering what steps, if any, can be made to further this process in bringing such values back.

Newly appointed interim President Jamie Caridi has brought this exact conversation to the table. He has begun to devise a detailed, strategic plan, one that will help to re-engage the institution with the Bethany Memorial Church and the Disciples of Christ. Dr. Caridi, along with many other students and faculty members, anticipate that this “fresh” and “much-needed” approach will promote the original Christian values that Alexander Campbell so heavily worked toward.

“Bethany College is a very important institution in the life of the Disciples of Christ and the Christian Church. This is not just a college, not just a Christian-based college, but it is a sacred site in the life of the Disciples of Christ,” said Caridi. “People journey here; this is a pilgrimage for many members of the faith that come to the 1,100 acres of the campus. Yes, to visit the college, but also to see the sacred sites of Alexander Campbell’s original home, the historical museum, and its artifacts. This is a very substient and important part of Bethany’s history and the life of the Church.”

Whether the change is generational or merely a tradition we’ve forgotten, Bethany’s core Christian values are not out of reach (they’re in our DNA and we must not forget). We’ve worked hard to get where we are today, knowing that, as Lewis said, “the heart of Bethany is full of great love, a high quality education, and a quality profile of human beings.”

Again, I pose this question: Will the traditions and values of Bethany College live on through the challenges we’re faced with today, including the COVID-19 pandemic? If not, where do we turn? In the coming weeks, I will be interviewing more influential individuals to hopefully find a conclusive answer to this heavy-hearted question.