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Christine Abrell Teaches Traditional Dance in Birthright Armenia

Christine Abrell leading a group of dancers.
Christine Abrell (20) is seeking to help people reconnect with their heritage in meaningful ways.

In 2022–23, she volunteered for Birthright Armenia, a program that seeks to connect young diasporan Armenians, those who are living far from their traditional homeland, back to Armenia and its culture. In addition to discovering more about her family’s history, she was able to serve as a translator, cultural educator, and teacher of traditional Armenian dance for youth organizations. 

Now, Abrell is studying through the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program to earn her International Master in Museums & Heritage. She began her studies at the University of Glasgow in Fall 2023, continued at the University of Tartu in Estonia in Spring 2024, and will continue learning in a new European country each semester. She’s pursuing work in the heritage preservation field in Europe.

Armenian Heritage

Many people are raised with a deep familiarity with their heritage. For Abrell, her Armenian heritage was something that she was able to discover for herself.

“Growing up, I was never really connected to my Armenian heritage,” Abrell said. “I was always curious about what it would be like if I had had that opportunity, and I’ve always wanted to explore that.”

One of the first things that piqued Abrell’s interest in PLNU was a video about LoveWorks. It gave her assurance that PLNU would be a place that prioritized things that were important to her.

“When I was thinking of coming to Point Loma, I was looking at their YouTube videos they had about their LoveWorks trips to Armenia, and I took that as a sign,” she explained. “It’s not a place that a lot of people tend to go.”

PLNU and LoveWorks

At PLNU, she majored in History with a Music minor. She was part of the honors program, participated in PLNU’s choral groups, and took a special interest in historical preservation.

During one chapel, PLNU announced they were having another LoveWorks trip to Armenia. Abrell was immediately on board.

“I [thought], ‘I absolutely have to go, I have to do this,’” she said. “Because for me, I had always been interested in traveling there, and I saw it as the only way to gain a real understanding of the culture and heritage.”

A group of students standing by Armenian statues.

Abrell found the trip an interesting experience because she was the only Armenian person on the trip.

“For me, that was the beginning of understanding what the country was like, what the people are like, and actually feeling this connection,” she said. 

Abrell described that despite its location, Armenia is not a western country, and understanding the historical context of Armenia can help diasporan Armenians and other visitors to adjust their mindset more effectively. 

“Armenia is located in the Transcaucasia area, but it’s not a European country, it’s not strictly middle eastern, it’s not a Slavic country either,” she said. “It’s kind of a mix over the centuries of lots of different Empires and cultures.”

When she was there, they served in several cities, including Yerevan, the country’s capital. At one town, there was a brand new Nazarene church forming, with VBS, a young adult group, and a group for young mothers. The LoveWorks trip connected with each of those groups for spiritual support.

One of the women who hosted the LoveWorks at the church told Abrell about the Birthright Armenia program.

“She was a diasporan Armenian from the U.S. who had moved back to Armenia and was building a house there in the city,” she said. “She took a special interest in me because I was an Armenian on the trip, and she told me about Birthright, [especially since] she saw that I was happy to be there but didn’t have much knowledge and couldn’t speak the language.”

Birthright Armenia

After she traveled back to the U.S., Abrell decided to participate in Birthright Armenia. However, as she graduated in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed that trip. 

She ended up working in development and fundraising in Balboa Park in San Diego, but soon realized she wanted to shift back into historical work and preservation. She decided it was time to participate in Birthright Armenia.

Birthright Armenia was started in 2003 by Edele Hovnanian, a diasporan Armenian who noticed that there were a lot of young people who grew up disconnected from their heritage. The program sought to instill that sense of pride as well as connecting people directly to their homeland, as well as to provide volunteering opportunities to help people invest in the country. 

Armenian Dance

Early in the program, Abrell took classes in traditional Armenian dancing. It resonated with her so much that later in the program, she ended up teaching it to students. Although she had experience in music and contemporary dance, this style of dance was out of her comfort zone. 

“For me it was kind of perfect because it combined the things I cared about — history, heritage preservation, trying to revive traditions that have recently been lost.

 “I was a little intimidated, because it was very different from anything I had done. Western dance is very different from indigenous dance around the world.”

Six women in a line holding hands while dancing.

She described that most of what people commonly view as Armenian dance has in fact been very influenced and westernized, especially by Russia. There is currently a movement in dance groups through the diaspora and Armenia to revive true traditional Armenian dance, something Birthright Armenia volunteers have the opportunity to participate in.

“For me it was kind of perfect because it combined the things I cared about — history, heritage preservation, trying to revive traditions that have recently been lost. It was a learning curve but I would go twice a week for two hours, and over time I wanted to become more involved.”

Abrell ended up teaching dance at several youth organizations. She said it was a large part of her experience there.

Discovering Her Family History

Abrell explained that there’s shared experience a lot of Armenians have about their family history — especially history that has been lost. Exploring personal and national heritage is a central part of Birthright Armenia. 

“It was very meaningful for me, because every Armenian in the diaspora wants to do research on their family, but it’s very difficult to do,” she said. “A lot of our families lived in Turkey, and… they purposefully don’t allow access to archives, or a lot of things were destroyed 100 years ago.”

She reflected on the tragedy that caused so many Armenians to leave their home country.

“For me, I think being [Armenian] is really amazing, and is something really important to me, especially because the only reason I live here is because of the Armenian Genocide that forced all of us to leave,” she said. “If that had not happened, our whole family would be so different—we’d be more in touch with our culture and traditions.” 

“In a lot of ways, it felt like a place where God had been leading me to all along.”

Despite the challenges, Abrell researched to discover whatever she could about her family. She found out that one branch of her mother’s side of the family lived outside of the Ottoman Empire, which meant it was more likely for family records to be intact. She was able to conduct research in Gyumri, the city where she was staying.

She described a bit about Gyumri, which was one of the hardest-hit cities in the 1988 Armenian earthquake and is still redeveloping structurally.

“There are old parts of the city that still exist,” Abrell said. “The earthquake destroyed a lot of things, but mainly it destroyed the soviet parts of the city that were built poorly, but the older part of the city that was built in the late 18th and 19th centuries were built with ancient Armenian building methods, and those were designed to withstand earthquakes.”

Christine Abrell sitting with a view of an Armenian city behind her.

During her research, she was able to make a special discovery about her family.

“They don’t have a lot digitized, so a lot of the [Armenian] archives are written by hand,” she said. “But through the research, [we were] able to find that they were from the city I was living in while I was there, Alexandrapol, which is now called Gyumri.” 

“I just had this weird feeling that led me to guess that [they lived there]. But I didn’t find that out until March or April, so I’d been living there 6 or 7 months before I found out this place that I loved so much that had become a home for me and felt so connected to, my family really was from there.

“In a lot of ways, it felt like a place where God had been leading me to all along.”

Now as she earns her International Master in Museums & Heritage, Abrell is preparing to ensure that heritage, on both individual and larger scales, is preserved.

“[I’m] looking to help people connect to the past that is within and all around them,” Abrell said. “Whether through their own roots or the heritage that surrounds them.”

Kyle Descher: Echoes of Healing

Kyle Descher headshot
An unspeakable act of hate leads a PLNU Integrative Wellness M.S. graduate to a career helping others find self-love, healing, and purpose. 

In the sea of time, your life experiences are like waves that crash onto the coast — sometimes gently, and other times vehemently. The echoes of these waves reverberate all over and often shape how you live and who you become, for better or for worse. 

One of these waves crashed violently for Kyle Descher on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2008, completely altering life as he knew it. 

At the time, Descher was a 22-year-old Washington State University senior, ready to enjoy a night out at a local bar with his friends in Pullman, which is known as a college town, but not at all for its diversity. 

Descher was adopted from Seoul, South Korea as an infant and was raised by what he affectionately calls his hippie Irish Catholic parents in the small coastal town of Aberdeen, Washington. This upbringing gave him plenty of experience growing up in predominantly white spaces.

So when three men walking behind Descher and his friends before entering the bar hurled racial slurs at him, he just brushed them off.

However, these men weren’t done with Descher. They decided to follow him into the bar. Five minutes later with his first drink in hand, one of the men snuck up behind Descher and punched him … hard. 

“The impact shattered my lower right mandible, the force of it all shattered my lower left [jaw], and tore out all my teeth. I was rushed to emergency reconstructive surgery, had my jaw wired shut, and three titanium plates in my face,” said Descher.

Although he healed from this physically, Descher would admit he didn’t take the “mental health piece of it seriously.” He explained. “Mental health was not really part of the public discourse yet. So, I carried that trauma around with me for about 10 years.”

As an adoptee, some identity issues played into his story, but this brutal assault would be the inciting incident that ultimately led him on his journey to healing and helping others through becoming a board certified health and wellness coach, and earning his master’s in Integrative Wellness at PLNU. 

“As much as I’ve struggled with identity over the years, ultimately this decision was made to give me a better life,” he said.

Descher with his family in a group.
Descher’s family
Two young boys dressed up as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Descher (right) with his brother, sister, and parents.

Even in being given up for adoption by a birth mother he still doesn’t know, Descher recognizes how lucky he is to have been raised by his family. “I feel like I’m a needle plucked out of a haystack and just plopped into this beautiful opportunity of life,” Descher said. 

He continued, “I’ve been supported my entire life. Even from the moment my birth mother gave me up for adoption. There was love in that decision.”

Instead of focusing on his assault, Descher said he buckled down and strived to live the American dream.

“For the majority of my life — and this is where my adoption plays in a little bit — I had been conditioned to live the American dream. You go to school, you get good grades, you get a good job, you become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and you make all the money and you do all the things,” Descher said.

Descher followed that path to a tee. After graduating from Washington State University, he worked his way up the rungs of the corporate ladder and found success in a sales position at Google by his mid-twenties.

He would ultimately learn that money doesn’t buy happiness and it can’t heal deep wounds. Even though Google seems very shiny on the outside, he confessed the intrinsic reward and motivation was no longer there for him. “I got to the proverbial top and I was looking around and I was miserable,” Descher revealed. 

“The work stress, the workload, and the expectations were so heavy all of the time” and this wore on Descher. He was feeling unwell mentally, which caused him to also begin to feel physically unwell.

Then in 2018, the trauma from his assault resurfaced. “My body just remembered, and then started having these crazy flashbacks,” he said. This is what made him realize it was time to set in motion his mental health and healing journey. 

He began therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing), which he credits to saving his life. And then, he found his first wellness coach – a mentor at Google. 

“In combination with my therapist and my coach, I was given this new perspective to be able to pursue the things in my life that I want to pursue and to help people in the way that I want to help people,” Descher said.

His wellness coach from Google helped him tremendously. Descher explains, “He was able to reflect back to me where I was out of alignment, where I was out of integrity, and some of the things I was tolerating.” 

This shift in perspective gave him the epiphany that he wanted to become a wellness coach too–to bring people’s minds and bodies to a state of peace, strength, and happiness.

“Everything comes back to our thoughts, which create our emotions, which create our decisions. And breaking through fear and some of these beliefs that were limiting me changed my life. That was the first moment where I [realized coaching is the] direction I wanted to go,” Descher elaborated.

At the beginning of his health and wellness career, Descher worked alongside his coach on some internal programs at Google while still focusing on his personal journey. It was this coach who helped him process all that happened to him and see the actions of his perpetrator from a new perspective. 

“The thing I realized is that the person who did this to me, for them to take this act had to be in so much pain internally,” Descher said.

This solidified his mission to help others — Descher wanted anyone in as deep of pain as his perpetrator to be able to find healing and live a meaningful life. 

On a leap of faith, Descher left his stable job at Google and moved to Los Angeles to help open a yoga studio, serving as one of the primary investors and teachers. He thought this would be the direction of his life until a serendipitous meeting at his yoga studio Shefa Yoga in Venice would change everything. 

A group of people laying on the floor in a circle.
Descher (bottom center)
Descher and two other men doing a yoga pose.
Descher (left) at Shefa Yoga Venice

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Descher wasn’t expecting anyone to walk into his studio, but unexpectedly, a friend of a friend popped her head in to say hi. After exchanging some pleasantries, this woman in passing mentioned she had just completed her M.S. in Integrative Wellness at PLNU. 

“It was like one of those conversations that is just not a coincidence,” Descher said. “For whatever reason, we were meant to have that interaction. I searched for the program right away, and as soon as I looked it up, I [thought] this is it.” 

He quickly got in contact with Dr. Jessica Matthews DBH, the program director in the College of Health Sciences at PLNU, and decided to focus on his studies full-time in order to complete his Integrative Wellness, M.S.

“My education at Point Loma was a game changer for me. I feel like it really took my knowledge base of how to learn and research to the next level.”

“I was a full-time student, and I realize how privileged and fortunate a decision that is.” He continued, “Google supported me with that for sure. I would’ve never been able to do that without my time there. So I’m grateful for every step along the way.”

Descher is also glad that he ended up pursuing his master’s later in life, explaining that “one of the benefits of pursuing higher ed a little later in life was that it was very clear why I was there, what I wanted.”

As a motivated adult learner, Descher vowed to soak up and fully integrate the information from the integrative wellness program into his practice as a health and wellness coach. 

“The focus of the curriculum, specifically opening with lifestyle medicine, set the foundation for the rest of the program, and the rest of my life and my growth as a board certified health and wellness coach,” said Descher.

After graduating in May 2023, Descher reflected, “My education at Point Loma was a game changer for me. I feel like it really took my knowledge base of how to learn and research to the next level.”

He credits Dr. Jessica Matthews and Professor Lee Jordan, MS, NBC-HWC, for making his time at PLNU an experience that will continue to leave an indelible mark on his practice as a coach. 

“Dr. Jessica Matthews is like a little angel sent from above. She is just one of the most amazing genuinely authentic and kind human beings I’ve ever met,” said Descher. “It is just amazing what she has done in terms of dedicating her life to this mission of health and wellness.” 

About Professor Jordan, Descher said, “I’ve never met anyone with such a big heart and great sense of humor. The way he teaches, guides and leads is also second to none.”

Incorporating his Integrative Wellness M.S. knowledge into his practice is what Descher says sets him apart in an industry of health and wellness coaches, which can sometimes seem like the wild west.  He regularly uses the evidence-based science and extensive research of lifestyle medicine, along with behavioral science with his clients. 

“The way we live our lives is a form of medicine in and of itself, and there is hard data and research to back that up,” said Descher.

“What we learned from the program is that in order to change your behavior with new habits and new decisions, the motivation has to come from within.”

Tapping into the science behind behavior change and motivation really helps his clients come into deeper insights about themselves. “I love the science component to it. And my clients do as well, and that gives me —in an industry of health and wellness coaches — a leg up because [my practice] is rooted in hard science.”

He credits understanding the science of motivation to achieving many breakthroughs with his clients.  Descher often hears his clients saying they feel they need to do things differently. They feel pressured to change their lifestyle or fitness habits, and show telltale signs that their motivations are coming from outside of them.

“What we learned from the program is that in order to change your behavior with new habits and new decisions, the motivation has to come from within,” he said. 

One of Descher’s favorite parts of the job is helping his clients tie their behaviors and actions to their intrinsic motivators. Descher knows what it’s like to get to your deeper “why’s” from first-hand experience. 

“I’ve been on the other end of being well,” said Descher. “It’s through my own personal experiences working with my own coach to help me emerge from those darker places that I’ve experienced the power of coaching to now be able to understand what real transformation looks like, feels like, and smells like.”

Descher healed from his 2008 assault with the help of his therapist and coach, but the criminal justice system was never able to hold his perpetrator accountable. About six years after the attack, Descher got an unexpected call from the Washington Police Department asking if he was the kid who had his jaw broken in the bar years ago. 

Through another case in litigation, the police discovered evidence that Descher’s perpetrator had confessed to an ex-girlfriend about the incident, and she was the one who brought this information out in the court system. 

He was finally able to put a face and a name to the horrendous act done to him, but due to a statute of limitations in Washington, the perpetrator could not be charged. Filing a lawsuit was also not a viable option, because the man who harmed him had almost no money to his name. 

Despite being unable to hold his perpetrator accountable criminally or civilly, Descher does not harbor bitterness for his perpetrator. In fact, he hopes to perhaps sit down 1-on-1 with him someday and “turn it into a story of redemption, forgiveness, taking responsibility for your actions, and changing the narrative around racism,” he revealed.

Descher’s work as a health coach echoes his own life experience finding healing and purpose through his pain. Knowing how much the path to wellness impacted his life for the better, he wants to join others on this journey as well to help them lead an enriching life. 

“It was after twelve years of healing that it all came into focus: I deserve to live a happy, healthy, and deeply meaningful life. And you know what? So does my perpetrator. And you know what else? So do you.”

Descher on a dock by water doing a yoga pose.

Previewing the 29th Annual Writer’s Symposium By the Sea

Dean Nelson stands on stage at the Writers Symposium by the Sea
Most of us have heard of, listened to, watched videos of, or, if they were lucky, saw the musician Prince in concert. I never saw him live in concert, but I did grow up in the same town and listen to his music. And even though he produced hundreds (thousands?) of songs in his short lifetime, there are so many more in the vault in Paisley Park studios in Minneapolis that his music will continue to be released for decades.

And no, we never had him at the Writer’s Symposium By The Sea. My bad.

Similarly, most of us have heard of, read, been moved by the writings of Charles Dickens, whose books and movie adaptations continue to be released more than 150 years after his death.

And no, we didn’t have Dickens at the Symposium either – we’ve only been doing this for 29 years.

But do you know who has drawn amazing parallels between Prince and Dickens? Nick Hornby, that amazing British author and screenwriter (About a Boy, High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, among others), did exactly that in his book Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius.

And… wait for it… we ARE having Hornby at our Writer’s Symposium on Feb. 23 in Brown Chapel. So, if you use your imagination, that’s kind of like having Prince and Dickens here.

But wait – that’s not all. Hornby will be appearing with one of my favorite journalists, Susan Orlean. She writes for the New Yorker, and she has also written nonfiction books that you’d swear were novels – books such as The Orchid Thief, The Library Book, Rin Tin Tin, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, and others.

The cool thing about having them together is that Hornby is adapting Orlean’s book Rin Tin Tin into a movie.

And the other cool thing is that they’ve never before met in person. Until now, on the Brown Chapel stage, at the 29th annual Writer’s Symposium By The Sea.

Other cool things are going on during the Symposium week as well. Elizabeth Gilbert, who started out in journalism, got famous for her memoir Eat Pray Love, and now writes books and gives Ted Talks about creativity, perseverance and spirituality, will be with us on Feb. 22. She’ll be doing a seminar on campus for our MA in Writing students in the morning. That evening she’ll give a talk at the Balboa Theater downtown and I’ll interview her after her talk on that stage.

On Feb. 20 we’re hosting the writer Paulette Jiles, whose novel News of the World was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. She writes about indigenous people in the South, and her time is sponsored by the PLNU Honors Program.

And on Feb. 19 we’re hosting the annual Driftwood Film Festival, where student films will be screened and analyzed by Jon Lowenstein.

You saw what I did there, right? I worked backwards, starting with Friday and moving back to Monday. That’s something Dickens or Prince might have done.

The reason we do this Writer’s Symposium is to celebrate great writing and encourage our audience to be moved to do their own great writing – for themselves, their families, and maybe the public. We’re hoping to model writing that says to our audience, “aspire to this.”

But it’s more than that. As David Brooks recently wrote in an essay titled, “How to Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society,” being exposed to great literature has an eternal value.

“We know from studies by the psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley that reading literature is associated with heightened empathy skills. Deep reading, immersing yourself in novels with complex characters, engaging with stories that explore the complexity of this character’s motivations or that character’s wounds, is a training ground for understanding human variety. It empowers us to see the real people in our lives more accurately and more generously, to better understand their intentions, fears and needs, the hidden kingdom of their unconscious drives. The resulting knowledge is not factual knowledge but emotional knowledge.”

The theme for this year’s Writer’s Symposium is “Writing That Inspires.” Inspires us to do what, though? To write better, we hope. But even more important, to live better.

It would make Dickens and Prince proud.

Dean Nelson is the founder and host of the Writer’s Symposium By The Sea. He is also the founder and director of the Journalism Program at PLNU. His most recent book is Talk To Me: How to Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers, and Interview Like a Pro, published by HarperCollins.

Robin Seyfert: Handmade Hope

Robin Seyfert smiling and talking with trafficking victim from Bangladash.
­Robin Seyfert (’89) knows beauty can be found in people and places that are overlooked or even steeped in darkness. As the founder and managing director of Basha Enterprises Ltd., she sees women who have been trafficked or who are vulnerable to exploitation find hope and healing through dignified work in a safe environment.

Basha Boutique sells jewelry, kantha blankets, accessories, and Christmas items, all handmade by women who are rebuilding their lives. The kantha is a profound symbol of Basha Boutique’s work and mission.

“A kantha is a quilt made of old saris stitched into straight, even rows,” Seyfert explained. “They are all sewn freehand. We take old discarded saris and stitch them into a blanket that is really beautiful. As each artisan transforms the worn cloth, she is also rebuilding her life.”

‘Basha’ means house in Bengali, and ‘asha’ means hope. Basha’s products are sold wholesale to retailers around the world, including in Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Europe. Most Basha products come embroidered with the name of the artisans who made them, and the company’s website shares their individual stories.

“Our goal is that people love the products, and the story makes them love it even more,” Seyfert said.

Seyfert couldn’t have imagined where she is now when she was a college student.

“For me, I just had a really strong desire to do what God wanted me to do,” she explained. “Every step had a strong sense of God calling me … What I’ve learned from education is that you can learn anything.”

“I started the businesses out of passion instead of a skill set. As a person of passion, you are willing to put 150% into it.”

Seyfert’s own experiences are a testament to that belief. After graduating with a degree in child development, she started out in inner city ministry. She worked with Tony Campolo’s ministries in Pennsylvania and World Impact in Los Angeles. Then, after spending four years in the UK, Seyfert returned to work in child protection for the state of Oregon. She also completed two stints of service with the Peace Corps in South Africa and Zambia and earned a Master’s in Public Health from Oregon State University.

In 2006, Seyfert moved to Bangladesh to work with the nonprofit Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). With her public health background, Seyfert was working with MCC on HIV awareness, which is when she learned about women aging out of prostitution in need of support, training, and work.

“We found so many women desperate for the opportunity,” she said.

To help meet their needs, Seyfert and her team began a training program. Not only did they fill their class, but they had 500 more people on the waitlist. When women completed the training program, they were able to work for a handicraft group that supplied to Ten Thousand Villages. They saw that safe employment was an essential part of women building new lives. A similar training program in Dhaka was unable to find employment for their trainees, which inspired Seyfert to start a company where they could work. Recognizing the layers of need the women and children had in addition to employment, a nonprofit organization, Friends of Basha, which was created in 2017.

When it comes to running a social enterprise and nonprofit, Seyfert is self-taught.

“I read every business book I could find,” she said. “I started the businesses out of passion instead of a skill set. As a person of passion, you are willing to put 150% into it. The most important thing you can do is try to stay up to date and seek advisors.”

Today, Basha Boutique employs around 120 Bengali women. Meanwhile, at any given time, they also have 135 children in their daycare and about 30 women in their training and rehabilitation program.

“Early on, we realized that we also have to serve the children,” she said. “The daycare is very important and a lot of work and a lot of money. We have our own training program and holistic wraparound services, a children’s home, and a women’s transition home, and we have sites in five  different cities.”

The rewards of Seyfert’s work include seeing women regain a sense of self-worth and purpose and seeing their children have opportunities their mothers never had to attend school and to grow up in a safe environment.  

In 2018, she received a note from one of the women about her son’s growth in the Basha daycare program and how it was carrying forward in their lives. The woman wrote: “Before Shimanto came to daycare at Basha, he couldn’t read or write. Now he is in class four. I am feeling proud that now my son is growing. I am thankful to our daycare apas [sisters] for their help. I want my son to be a doctor.”

Then, last year, as Basha was celebrating its 12th anniversary, Shimanto took it upon himself to write to Seyfert. He said: “I went to Basha day care when I was only 5 years of my age. I didn’t know the Bangla alphabet or anything that related to academic education. My mother was working there. But I got love and care from day care. From day care, I started my pre-school education and now I read in class 9. All of my school teachers and my friends love me. I am doing good in my school. All the teachers know me very well although there are a lot of students in our government high school. They said I am good, I am kind, honest, decent and I know how to behave with others. Sometimes they asked me where I learnt this then my answer was I learnt this from Basha day care. Now I am 15 years old and I don’t stay at day care because of my school and study, but sometimes I visit the day care where I grew up very carefully. When I see the post of Basha 12 Anniversary, then I feel very proud because my mother and I were part of Basha. We love Basha. Basha means a lot to us. I am really thankful to Basha and also to the founder, Robin Apa [big sister].”

“Shimanto sent me this message and photos out of the blue on his own initiative,” Seyfert said. “This is the fruit: Seeing the next generation flourishing because they had some support when they needed it.”

Many of the women who come to Basha have pasts that are difficult to overcome. One woman who was in their second group of artisans struggled with overwhelming anger. When she would lose her temper, she would often be violent and later feel sorry about it. She had three children, and the Basha staff were able to get them into a boarding school where they could have a safe, stable environment but still be with their mother on holidays. The staff at Basha struggled to work with the woman, but since they helped her receive psychiatric treatment and tried different solutions, including sometimes allowing her to work from home, she’s doing really well as are her children. Seyfert said that the woman was “a street kid” who never went to school and experienced the horrors of drugs, prostitution, abuse, and rape. She called the woman’s improvement “a miracle over 12 years.”

Of course, working with a vulnerable and often traumatized population is often very challenging as this woman’s story attests.

“[It can be difficult knowing] when to have compassion versus when you say you have to get this done and have this level of quality,” Seyfert explained.

Basha also has to balance its purpose with its viability.

“We are running a company based on trauma history, not on work history,” she said. “Both bottom lines are essential to us. We are a legitimate business. Also, it is equally important that we serve the women that we exist for.”

When Seyfert isn’t working, she’s is often at home, which is by a botanical garden. She enjoys the peaceful setting and is kept company by her cats.

“I have a little side project of cat rescuing,” she said. “I have rescued a lot, especially babies. I have probably rescued around 30, and I have four permanent residents.”

Although Friends of Basha and Basha Boutique operate in a country that is predominantly Muslim, Seyfert and many of her staff are inspired by their Christian faith.

“We are inspired by Jesus’ life to share his love and compassion,” she said. “Every person is an image-bearer.”

Dear PLNU: Katrina Cloyes

Recent grad Katrina Cloyes (23) shares about her life-changing undergrad experience in an inspiring letter to PLNU.

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Frank Marshall: From Corporate Heights to Academic Excellence

Frank Marshall headshot
Frank Marshall, associate dean and Professor of Management at Point Loma Nazarene University’s (PLNU) Fermanian School of Business, exudes a blend of wisdom, pragmatism and a genuine appreciation for the power of networks and working with people.

Born and raised in Western Massachusetts in a Catholic household, Marshall grew up with his parents and his two older sisters. As a child, he played sports and attended both public and preparatory schools. In high school, he drifted away from his faith, coming back to it later through his marriage to his wife who grew up in a strong Christian family. 

Marshall first entered into the world of finance as a high school freshman, when he took a bookkeeping class. He found the subject to be quite easy at first. 

“I thought, ‘Do people actually get paid for this’?,” he said. “My instructor at the time said ‘It’s not as easy as you think, and yes, people get paid for this.’ From that point on I made my entire senior year about that.”

Marshall’s interest in finance led him to decide early on that he wanted to be a controller for a company. A controller trains, hires and supervises accounting teams and defines the department’s operational strategies and priorities. 

Marshall enrolled at Bentley College in Massachusetts, later moving to California for his accounting degree at California State University in Long Beach.

A few years after graduating college, Marshall fulfilled his dream of becoming a controller and went on to work as one for Hughes Aircraft Company in Tijuana, Mexico, an experience that was very formative for him both professionally and personally. 

In addition to learning a new language, Marshall had to learn how to communicate cross-culturally and with employees with different socio-economic and educational backgrounds.

His tenure in Mexico unveiled a broader world, stripping away prejudices, and kindling an appreciation for diverse cultures. Marshall candidly explained that this was a significant shift from the area where he grew up, which was less tolerant of people from other cultures. “I learned quite a bit about me being there, but I also learned about the people I worked with,” he said. “ My time in Mexico really helped me understand people and really learn.”

Over the next few years, Marshall fulfilled several managerial and executive roles such as Vice President and COO in various corporations. His time at Sciteq Electronics, Inc. underpinned lessons in servant leadership and the art of communication.

Frank Marshall stands in his PLNU classroom after teaching a class.

He learned some pivotal lessons from one of the founders of the company, not just about accounting and finance but also about how to manage and communicate with people.

“I learned about servant leadership and being attentive,” he said. “One of his principles was, if you ask somebody to do something for you, say please. And then when they give it to you, say thank you. Even if it’s wrong, say thank you and then come back and figure out what you did not ask correctly.”

His years at Sciteq once again solidified in Marshall the importance of people skills. He took those lessons to subsequent job positions.

“Things I took from there, I took to other places I went to,” he said. “For me, it all comes back to the people and treating them fairly, treating them well, and then getting them to the stated objectives that we could accomplish.”

Beyond accolades and corporate roles, Marshall’s academic journey started with an executive leadership program at the University of San Diego (USD), led by best-selling author and business consultant Ken Blanchard. Following this program, Marshall earned his master’s degree from USD. 

Soon after completing his master’s degree, Marshall began to feel a sense of restlessness regarding his career. 

“I got tired of trying to make payroll and work with sales and push vendors out,” he said. “I started thinking about working full-time as a professor.”

His journey towards academia culminated in a Doctorate in Business Administration from George Fox University, an academic feat achieved while juggling full-time work and adjunct teaching roles. 

For Marshall, success isn’t a solitary pursuit; it’s a collaborative journey that thrives on a robust network. He encourages students to become advocates for themselves, to use their connections, and to not give up when confronted with obstacles.

The experience of getting his doctorate came with certain challenges due to the heavy focus on academics. 

“It was way more academic than anything I’d done,” Marshall said. “But it was also something that I knew that I had to do in order to get to where I wanted to go, so it was a matter of just powering through.”

Marshall’s journey to Point Loma Nazarene University began with him working as an adjunct professor for a few years in the school’s MBA program. 

Years later, he was invited to apply to the position in which he now serves — Associate Dean overseeing the adult undergraduate Bachelor of Business Administration program. Since then, the program has expanded to several more community colleges in San Diego.

“We’ve grown the program from one community to five community colleges and are working hard to keep it viable and alive,” he said. 

Yet, Marshall’s realm isn’t confined to academia; it extends to aiding and propelling student success. His teaching philosophy emphasizes learning by doing, pushing students to surpass limits, encouraging tenacity, and fostering a robust network.

“My philosophy of teaching is really getting the students out doing a lot of experiential learning,” Marshall said. 

Marshall and PLNU students stand in front of one of their micro-pantries they helped establish in San Diego.
Marshall (far left) and PLNU students stand in front of one of the micro-pantries they helped establish in San Diego.

Marshall has taught several courses including ones in entrepreneurship, innovation, and human resources. 

His engagement in the Enactus Club, where social entrepreneurship intersects with real-world impact, exemplifies Marshall’s commitment to societal change. Marshall helped found the club six years ago. Since then, the club has put together micro-pantries for food banks and placed them in several locations around San Diego where people could get access to food 24 hours a day instead of having to depend on food pantries schedules. 

The club has also worked with immigrant entrepreneurs who did not have access to the internet. 

“We helped a few of them get on Shopify, create their own website, and sell their wares outside of the local San Diego community that they were trying to physically sell from,” he said. 

Initiatives like these underscore Marshall’s belief in empowering communities and shaping futures.

At Point Loma Nazarene University’s Fermanian School of Business, Marshall’s vision crystallizes around democratizing education. Marshall see’s the accelerated undergraduate Bachelor of Business Administration program as a beacon for students daunted by the high cost of private universities. The program fosters inclusivity and helps students consider possibilities they otherwise would not have been able to.

“Really for us, we’re really serving a need for students who think that Point Loma is out of reach for them,” he said. “For them, it’s like, ‘hey, you can go to your community college, get your associates, stay there and get your bachelor’s from PLNU and it’s the exact same classes, the exact same teachers that would be on the main campus. You don’t get the beautiful view, you don’t get the ocean. However, you get a quality education and being in a cohort allows them to really bond together.”

Learn more about PLNU’s Bachelor of Business Administration program from Frank Marshall

For Marshall, success isn’t a solitary pursuit; it’s a collaborative journey that thrives on a robust network. He encourages students to become advocates for themselves, to use their connections, and to not give up when confronted with obstacles.

“Networking is important,” Marshall said. “It’s more important sometimes than what I know is who I know and who knows me. We don’t know who knows somebody, and so we have to be able to build our network as wide as we can so we can help people. That’s what I would like students to learn is to really push and be advocates for themselves. When the world says no, figure out how to get the yes.”

In the world of academia and business, Marshall stands out as a professional who merges together the worlds of theory and practice, advocating for equity in education, and instilling a profound belief in people and in their ability to transform the world. 

His journey shows that beyond financial acumen and academic prowess, one can leverage one’s networks and empower others, effect change and shape a world where potential is boundless and opportunities are available for all. 

Nathan Gibbs: Nurturing Minds, Weaving Stories, and Cultivating Faith in Media Education

Nathan Gibbs in his office at PLNU.
Nathan Gibbs, a standout figure in media education at PLNU, is evidence of how vibrant cultural tapestries, steadfast faith, and an insatiable passion for multimedia storytelling, can lead one to a vibrant and successful professional and academic career. 

Early years in Southern California

Gibbs grew up in Escondido in a Mexican-American Christian home. He and his family were very involved with church life. Growing up, Nathan participated in many of the youth group activities at his church as well as attending retreats and camps. 

“My parents took us to church every time there was an activity,” he said. 

Inheritances from the Chicano era of California shaped a distinct cultural narrative in Gibbs’ multicultural family — one that is common among Mexican-American families who have lived in the U.S. for multiple generations. 

His grandparents on his mother’s side grew up in the 40s and 50s, an era where speaking Spanish in school sadly often bore severe consequences like physical punishment. 

“When they were younger, my grandfather had always mentioned that they would hit you as part of the punishment for speaking Spanish in school,” he said. “So he decided to switch [to English].”

As a result, Gibbs’ mother’s Spanish was not as strong when he was growing up. Despite this, Gibbs was still exposed to the language through his family, particularly his abuelita or grandmother. His church growing up also had Spanish-speaking services. 

The desire to connect with his family’s mother tongue led him to minor in Spanish in college. There he met Rosario, the woman who would later become his wife. Rosario is Mexican and when she and Gibbs first met, she’d only speak Spanish with him, forcing him to develop his language skills further.

Gibbs family.
Nathan Gibbs and his family.

“When I ended up meeting who would become my wife, my Spanish wasn’t great,” he said. “I had a lot of book Spanish in my head, but I didn’t really practice it all that much.”

Gibbs said that for the longest time he did not know that Rosario even spoke English. 

“Then I heard her interact with somebody else, and her English is perfect,” he said. “She was fully bilingual and could speak English but she just was, I guess the way she would say it, she was making me work for it.” 

Today Gibbs and Rosario have established a bilingual household for them and their five children. 

“We alternate between English and Spanish,” he said.

The genesis of a passion for storytelling

Gibbs traces the origins of his multimedia journey back to his high school years in the 90s. The high school he attended had a strong arts emphasis and afforded him the opportunity to take several photography classes. 

“At the time, digital cameras weren’t really a thing yet,” he said. “So it was all black and white, hand-developed stuff. I really like doing it. I really liked taking pictures.”

Photography in high school led Gibbs down a path of exploring cameras, images, and film. 

College further ignited Gibbs’ appetite for exploration. Gibbs enrolled in Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas, where he majored in Electronic Media. 

A journey through radio, video production, photography, and HTML coding laid the groundwork for his omnivorous approach to multimedia. 

He was especially drawn to self-study and exploration. 

“I think I thrive in places where people leave me alone and just let me explore and experiment,” he said. “I have regular classes, but I could spend hours and hours in the dark by myself digging in on something.”

It was during these years that he discovered his love for audio storytelling. 

“There was a point where I guess I just knew I loved it,” he said. “I just loved making stuff. Once you start mixing things together, being able to edit and control it and tell a story, it’s like a light bulb goes off. It’s more meaningful. It does something to you when you listen to it.”

“I just loved making stuff. Once you start mixing things together, being able to edit and control it and tell a story, it’s like a light bulb goes off. It’s more meaningful. It does something to you when you listen to it.”

Upon graduating college in 2000, Gibbs decided to pursue his graduate education.

He attended Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York where he got his Master of Fine Arts in Electronic Arts. It was there that his undergraduate experience unveiled a breadth of knowledge unparalleled among his peers. 

Graduate school became an arena for honing his skills further as well as guide fellow students who did not know as much as he did. 

“All of a sudden, I was in the same place where I knew more than some others and had room to explore and experiment with a lot of new things myself, which I really appreciated,” he said.

Balancing teaching and practice

After graduate school, Gibbs would go on to spend the next decade working as a media professional in areas like photography, video, radio and other media forms. He worked for 9 years at KPBS in San Diego. 

He taught classes at organizations like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and then began to teach as an adjunct at PLNU.

He became an Associate Professor at his alma mater in 2013, where he taught undergraduate classes covering video production, digital media, and broadcast news tailored for Convergence Journalism and Multimedia majors at ACU. 

As the faculty advisor and director of KACU, Abilene’s NPR station headquartered at ACU, Gibbs offered guidance and direction,  supervising a team of five full-time staff members and providing mentorship to student announcers, news anchors, reporters, and producers. 

Nathan Gibbs speaking on a microphone.

Gibbs also directed operational, staffing, programming, corporate development, and fundraising initiatives, implementing strategic changes as needed.

Gibbs worked extensively with the university’s TV station, introducing live ESPN+ streaming. He also created podcast studios and helped implement significant curriculum revisions. Gibbs’ time at ACU presented him with the perfect balance between his passion for academia and multimedia storytelling.

“I would have a half teaching load and half a professional load, which has always been the dream scenario for me,” he said. “I enjoyed having the opportunity to teach, but also the professional output of serving the community and creating a media environment was great.”

At ACU, Gibbs gained the opportunity to transform much of the multimedia landscape in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

Tasked with revitalizing a dilapidated TV studio, Gibbs embarked on a renovation project that spanned several years. 

“We wrote grants, did fundraising, managed to partner with others on campus when they had renovations, where we were able to create this concept of a centralized video hub,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs and his team were able to amplify the studio’s capabilities to include feeds from sports venues and other campus locations. 

“We could bring all those feeds in from there into one place and produce the shows there,” he said. “We really saw just a tremendous change over the course of about 3–5 years.”

The change was incredible — the space transformed from a dysfunctional studio patched up with duct tape to a hub driving ESPN+ broadcasts for campus sports events. 

Under Gibbs’ guidance, students seamlessly maneuvered the productions. They developed skills like shooting and control room operations as they earned ESPN+ credits for their resumes.

“It was really intense, a lot of activity,” he said. “It’s incredible that students are running so many events in a given week.” 

The Gibbs family on a hike in San Diego.

Amidst these achievements, Gibbs transitioned to Point Loma Nazarene University in 2022 where he now works as an Associate Professor of Media Communication. 

This transition to a new role reflects a blend of Gibbs’ personal and professional aspirations. He was driven by a desire to reunite with family in California while preserving his commitment to Christian academia. 

Acknowledging the nurturing environment at PLNU, which is similar to his previous institution, the alignment of faith and teaching ethos resonates profoundly with Gibbs.

“One thing that I really enjoyed (at ACU) was the Christian atmosphere,” he said. “I think comparing the two universities, they are very similar in expectations for faith in the classroom, in teaching and faith for their faculty. I just found that to be a really sweet thing.”

The move posed some challenges, however. Navigating the complexities of uprooting a family with five young children was not easy, but in the end Gibbs and his family knew they could make it work. 

“I know if I was going to come back, this is the only place I wanted to come to,” he said. 

Nurturing future storytellers

Now positioned within the Department of Communication Studies, Nathan’s diverse teaching repertoire encompasses multimedia journalism and an array of broadcast and media courses. Transitioning departments in his second year presented fresh challenges but also opened new avenues for innovation and educational growth. 

Some of the classes that Gibbs most enjoys teaching are the multimedia journalism classes. 

“That’s a class where I think you’re seeing the diversity of multimedia options,” he said. “I’m able to speak into that and help the students to web stuff and put it all together.”

This year he’s been able to teach Broadcast News and Introduction to Film and Television Production among other courses.

For Gibbs, teaching is not just about imparting knowledge but about fostering creativity and ensuring that every student arrives at the same destination, regardless of their starting point. 

“You have students who spent years in high school learning and running the TV station or something at their well-funded schools and they’re ready to go,” he said. “Then you have students who have never done anything and they’re sitting in the same classroom next to each other. The question always is, ‘how do I make sure that we get them all to the same destination?’”

“I think college is a bigger picture development of you as a person, for you to work with other people and to explore your voice in a different way. In the end you’re becoming a deeper thinker, someone who can analyze things, who can plan things, who can develop things and produce things.”

More than just traditional “book learning”, Gibbs emphasizes a crucial facet: technology often evolves faster than academia can adapt. This means students will continue to encounter new technology and new software throughout their careers. For this reason, Gibbs considers it important to inculcate in each student an appetite for perpetual learning. 

“You have to know how to learn because you will always have to keep learning new things,” he said. “It’s important to come at a challenge with eagerness and excited nature. I know how things should look. I don’t know where the buttons are, but let’s go find them. That’s always my approach with that.”

Gibbs also acknowledges that the role of university education expands far beyond skill acquisition. 

“I think college is a bigger picture development of you as a person, for you to work with other people and to explore your voice in a different way,” he said. “In the end you’re becoming a deeper thinker, someone who can analyze things, who can plan things, who can develop things and produce things.”

For Gibbs, it’s important for students to learn how to work together as they will often have to do so in their profession. In addition, the faith element in the classroom is also a very important factor to consider. “I think from our role, from the faith side, we want to impress upon them that they’re going to do good in the world and their stories are going to help make things better in some way,” he said. 

Drawing parallels between his professional and personal life, Nathan delves into his role as a parent to five adopted children. Despite the challenges, he acknowledges the invaluable ministry found in both mentorship and parenthood. 

“We do have a lot of challenges, like many families with kids that are special in different ways that keep us on our toes,” he said. “I think I’m blessed to be able to have a ministry in my job. That is part of my role as a mentor with students, [it’s] a ministry. At home as a parent, [that’s] very much my primary ministry with my kids. We have a lot of fun.”

In his free time, Gibbs enjoys physical activity. In October, he completed an IRONMAN triathlon. 

Nathan Gibbs runs in an Ironman triathlon.

“I’ve been active this last year practicing and working on running, cycling, and swimming,” he said. “That’s been a fun outlet.”

As a committed educator at PLNU, Nathan envisions a long-term journey, intending to retire there. He sees the university not just as a workplace but a nurturing ground — a place where mentorship, challenges, and growth converge, creating an enduring impact.

In Nathan Gibbs, the realm of media education finds a strong advocate, someone dedicated not only to shaping skilled professionals but also nurturing empathetic, socially conscious individuals — a legacy that transcends conventional academia.

Chad Van Soest Leads High School Seniors to Their Apex

Chad Von Soest selfie
When you’re a budding senior in high school, college admissions can seem like a gray cloud hovering over you. For many, it’s the first big, adult decision you make regarding your future: Where do I want to go to college? 

There are an abundance of factors that loom: Do I want to move far away from home? Do I want to follow in my parent’s footsteps? Do they have my major? How can I afford it? 

With all these questions swirling in a student’s mind, that’s where PLNU alumni Chad Van Soest (B.A. 03, M.Ed 10) steps in. Van Soest is an independent educational consultant with a mission to ease the minds of students as they plot college admissions whilst still trying to tackle things like prom and AP tests. It’s a lot.  

“I have compassion for the student in transition,” Van Soest says. “I think when you are a senior in high school, that’s one of the toughest transition periods in your life.” 

“They associate their identity [with] whether they get in or not. I’m trying to be a healthy advisor or mentor in that whole process. My passion is knowing that not only are these students trying to find the place they’re going to get their education and profession out of, but the place that’s going to really send them on this trajectory in life.”

It’s much more than checking a box on an application or doing a simple Google search. There are layers to finding the right school for the right student. Van Soest can empathize — the transition from high school senior to college freshman wasn’t easy for him. 

“I was the wandering soul in high school and college where I wasn’t really sure what my direction was,” Van Soest, who was a third-generation PLNU student, said. “I landed on a major out of fear because I didn’t want to go in undeclared. Now I can lend a healthy perspective that it’s okay to go in undeclared. You’ll be fine. It’s okay to take your time to figure it out.”

“I have compassion for the student in transition. I think when you are a senior in high school, that’s one of the toughest transition periods in your life.” 

PLNU was the only college he applied to. He was insistent on continuing the family legacy that his grandfather, parents, and brother started — he absolutely loved his time in Lomaland and continues to serve on the alumni board. But today, he doesn’t advise his students to only apply to one school. They have options, and he encourages them to dig deeper.

“Point Loma to me was the prototypical example of making wonderful friends, having wonderful mentors, and doing all those things that not every high schooler thinks about, Van Soest explained. “They think, ‘Is the major going to be good? Am I going to be ready to make money when I graduate?’ Of course, PLNU does that, but it [also] set me on a good trajectory in life to not just have a profession but to be a good individual and find my calling.”

Using his personal college experience, Van Soest embarked on a mission to make sure future college students can make the most of their college decision. He was an undergraduate admission counselor for PLNU while also earning his Master’s in education on campus. Then, he went on to spend 10 years as a high school counselor at Valor Christian High School in Colorado. 

Chad with his wife Brittany and their two dogs on the beach

Now, he runs his educational consultant business, Apex College Services. A nod to his love for mountain climbing and the outdoors, Van Soest’s business created the quintessential college tour guide that he never had. 

“I understand there’s many pathways people can take,” he said. “If we envision the road or the path to college as a mountain… I’m a guide to help you figure out a path, because there’s not necessarily one right way to go.”

Van Soest wanted to ensure his recommendations were well-researched and had  a personal flare. So in 2022, he and his wife, Brittany, their two dogs, and two cats hit the road in a camper for a year-long road trip to tour college campuses around the U.S. Now living in Florida, they jetted up to Maine as a starting point and worked their way back down as the months grew colder, ending in Georgia in December. 

“I understand there’s many pathways people can take. If we envision the road or the path to college as a mountain… I’m a guide to help you figure out a path, because there’s not necessarily one right way to go.”

“It took a lot of planning. It took a lot of spreadsheets, it took a lot of me looking at maps, figuring out where I want to go,” he said. “You don’t want to move your camper every day, so I would have to find a place where we can set up camp for two weeks and where I was within two hours of colleges.”

He talked shop with admission counselors, scoped out the vibe of the campuses, and even jotted down the local cuisine scene.

“I’m in my industry, it’s important to be keen on all the college options that are out there. Helping students build a college list is a part of what I do,” Van Soest explains. “If a student is interested in Cornell University, what’s the area like? What do they have to offer? What is the feel [of the] campus? How close is the airport? Are there restaurants nearby?” 

In total, Van Soest traveled over 35,000 miles, visited 160 colleges, camped at 60 sites, and traveled to 33 states in one year in order to add more out-of-book substance to college recommendations for his students. 

“To be able to tell them, ‘I remember walking through and seeing this building’ or ‘Oh man, you should definitely check out their engineering program, they have a brand new facility.’ I do have notes, lots,” he adds, emphatically. “The whole intent was to educate myself on all those college options out there.”

Not every family of students applying to colleges has the luxury of touring hundreds of campuses to pick the best fit, but that shouldn’t hinder their decision on their student’s future. Van Soest also volunteers for the Matchlighters Scholar Program, which pairs high-achieving students from low-income households with experienced counselors for free. 

Recently, one of his students from the program who lives in Las Vegas received some great news: His QuestBridge college application — an eight-page essay, rigorous application for 50 of the country’s elite colleges — was a finalist. This means that he’s going to be matched with one of the top four or five schools that he chose. His dreams were coming true, and one of the first things he did was pick up the phone and call Van Soest. 

Chad in front of a monument on a college campus

“It’s a good example of why I do what I do,” he said proudly. “It’s a reminder that [this] is a calling, it’s not all about the money.” 

As Van Soest continues to help students navigate to the top of their personal apex mountain, he always takes a moment to revel in their resiliency. 

“It’s humbling. I don’t know that I could do half the things that they’re doing,” he remarked. “Students are so involved, they’re juggling so much, and to add on top of that, the complexities of what colleges demand of you now. I’m amazed at what students are capable of.” 

San Diego County’s first class of physician assistants graduates, seen as key to easing staffing shortages

Melissa Thang and Danica Anderson hug during a white coat ceremony Friday for the first class of physician assistants from Point Loma Nazarene University .
Melissa Thang and Danica Anderson hug during a white coat ceremony Friday for the first class of physician assistants from Point Loma Nazarene University . (Sandy Huffaker/for The SD Union-Tribune)
They came to the stage one at a time, trailing parents, siblings, spouses and significant others who took white coats from a rack, holding them up as the graduates shrugged into them, getting a feel for a new level of responsibility in the medical world.

And just like that, Point Loma Nazarene University minted its first 28 physician assistants Friday, injecting a fresh set of trained troops into an ongoing battle to keep up with the increased demands for health care caused by an aging population and an exodus of burnt-out medical providers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was the first graduating class of the university’s new physician assistant program and the first crop of locally trained PAs for any institution in San Diego County. But that will not be the case for long. UC San Diego has its own PA program underway and, in a few years, will be graduating its own groups of specialists in addition to the doctors its medical school has been producing annually since the 1960s.

PLNU's PA graduating class gathers together for a group photo.
Graduates, including Amber Cargill, facing, and Melissa Thang, right, prepare to have a class photo taken during a commencement ceremony for Point Loma Nazarene University’s Physician Assistants class at the Liberty Station Convention Center on Friday, December 15, 2023 in Point Loma. (Sandy Huffaker/for The SD Union-Tribune)

The title physician assistant does not accurately describe the role they play in modern medicine. Though they’re called assistants, and work under the oversight of medical doctors, PAs wield a massive amount of medical authority. They can perform physicals, take health histories, order tests and even make diagnoses.

But educating a physician assistant takes only about two and a half years compared to about eight for a medical doctor. Physician assistants, along with nurse practitioners, are seen as a key way to address the increasing demand for health care that has recently led to long waits for care and overflow into emergency departments.

In its most recent estimate, the American Association of Medical Colleges projects increasing physician shortages nationwide. A 2020 assessment predicts a shortage of between 21,400 and 55,200 primary care doctors by 2033. The shortfall is expected to be even more among specialists — 33,700 to 86,700 in the same timeframe.

Physician assistants are already helping take up a lot of that slack and are expected to become even more crucial in the coming decades.

Janet Coffman, co-associate director for policy programs at UC San Francisco’s Institute for Health Policy Studies, said these workers are like the Swiss Army knives of medicine, possessing enough training to fit many needs.

“Physician assistants help to alleviate the shortage of primary care physicians because they are trained to provide many primary care services and to practice collaboratively with physicians,” she said.

This is not a field that is open to anyone who went to college.

Members of PLNU's inaugural PA class gather together for a group photo at Point Loma's 2023 Winter Commencement.
Members of PLNU’s inaugural PA class gather together for a group photo at Point Loma’s 2023 Winter Commencement. (Marcus Emerson/for PLNU)

Applicants are required to have a bachelor’s degree with a minimum grade point average of 3.0 and a minimum of 1,000 hours of paid, hands-on experience caring for patients. And applicants must already have a very solid background in the sciences, including anatomy, physiology, chemistry, microbiology and statistics.

Fresh from receiving his white coat, Evan Moore, 26, said he earned those health care experience hours as an emergency medical technician in San Diego.

Moore, who lives in Escondido, said he has already found a job as a physician assistant, and it’s not anywhere near where he grew up. He has signed on, he said, to see patients at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley.

It’s a destination that has a massive need for trained medical professionals of all types, and Moore said he was intrigued by the idea of going somewhere he knows he will be needed.

“It’s more of a rural ER out there, and I like that because everybody’s tight-knit and eager to teach, so it seemed like a good opportunity,” Moore said.

Amber Cargill said she worked as a medical assistant for a year for a local OBGYN clinic doing fetal monitoring and other medical tasks before staring PLNU’s inaugural physician assistant class. While she said that work was fulfilling, she found herself wanting to go deeper.

“I wanted the ability to take the next step with patients and be a bigger part of their health care,” she said, adding that she already has a job offer to do just that for a medical provider in the San Diego market.

Janet Coffman, the UCSF expert, said that while increasing the numbers of physician assistants clearly extends the reach of physicians, their impact is not infinite.

“There impact is limited for two major reasons,” Coffman said. “First, their numbers are small relative to physicians, although they are growing substantially.”

And, she added, PAs don’t tend to distribute themselves evenly throughout health care, tending to cluster in “medical and surgical specialties” that tend to be better paid.

Graduate Serena Liu, middle, has her picture taken Friday with her sister Michelle, Liu, right, and Kelly Lynn after a commencement ceremony for the first physician assistant class from Point Loma Nazarene University.
Graduate Serena Liu, middle, has her picture taken Friday with her sister Michelle, Liu, right, and Kelly Lynn after a commencement ceremony for the first physician assistant class from Point Loma Nazarene University. (Sandy Huffaker/for The SD Union-Tribune)

While building a new PLNU program requires the work of many, two in particular have been at the core of the university’s efforts to educate this first class, and those that come after it. Dr. Lac T. Vu and his wife, Amy Vu, a physician assistant and the program’s director of clinical education, were key in helping the new program find its footing. The couple helped build alliances with local health care organizations finding places for students to work alongside doctors to gain the clinical experience necessary to earn a PA degree.

To see 28 students pass across the stage Friday, Amy Vu said, was particularly amazing given that the result started with a conversation over coffee six years ago.

She and her husband, who both still work in the emergency department at Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, have enjoyed the experience of not just providing health care, but also helping to expand its reach.

“In the classroom, if you’re teaching 30 students who some day are going to each have 30 patients a day, that’s amazing,” Vu said. “I think we all get to a point in our career where we have done a thing for a while, and now it’s time to lean back in and teach more, get it out there further into the community.”

This story was originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune. It has been adapted for our platform and can be read in its entirety here.

Cover photo by Sandy Huffaker/for The SD Union-Tribune

PLNU Women’s Soccer Brings 1st NCAA National Championship to PLNU

PLNU Women's Soccer team has won the NCAA DII championship
NCAA Division II Women’s Soccer Championship - Point Loma vs. Washburn
The NCAA Division II Women’s Soccer national championship trophy is coming home to the Point!

PLNU Women’s Soccer defeated Washburn on Saturday in the national title game, 1-0, to win the university’s first NCAA national title in any sport. Emma Thrapp’s header in the 53rd minute off a Grace Nelson corner kick proved to be the difference, as the Sea Lions kept their fifth-straight shutout in the postseason on their way to a first-ever national championship.

Julia Pinnell made three saves in goal to keep Washburn scoreless, as the sophomore goalkeeper did not allow a goal in her last 915 minutes and 35 seconds played in 2023.
 
The Sea Lions outshot the Ichabods 10-3 in the first half and nearly broke the deadlock on multiple occasions, with Nicki Friedman forcing a diving save and Bethany Arabe nearly beating the goalkeeper at the near post after slithering past a couple defenders.

Pinnell, just as she did in Thursday’s semifinal victory over Florida Tech, made a huge one-v-one save in the first half to keep the game scoreless.

Then in the second half, it didn’t take long for PLNU to take the lead, as Thrapp stepped up to put the Sea Lions in front.
 
Thrapp, often the team’s corner kick taker, this time left the honors to Nelson, who lofted an inch-perfect cross to the back post for the Second Team All-American to score what proved to be the game-winner.
 
Her fifth game-winning goal of the season was more than enough, as PLNU lowered its goals against average to 0.52 with a 13th shutout on the year, holding Washburn to just eight shots over 90 minutes.

Thrapp was named the NCAA Championships Most Valuable Player. She was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Pinnell, Arabe and Alana Diaz.

Point Loma (17-3-1 overall) sets a new program record for most wins in a single season in its NCAA era, while finishing the year on an 11-game winning streak, tied for the longest in program history.

Upon their return back to San Diego, the team was greeted with a surprise welcome home celebration from a crowd of PLNU fans, eager to celebrate their success.

Embracing the Journey: Bree Burris’ Tale of Adversity, Work, Calling, and Balance

Bree Burris giving a speech
It’s often said that resilience is built from adversity. That certainly is true of Bree Burris (‘15). Raised by a single mother after the tragic deaths of her sister and father, Burris learned from an early age that hard work is one of the most valuable assets to a good life. 

It can be easy for any professional to allow the fruits of their own merit to define who they are, but Burris has kept this type of existence at bay. 

Her story exemplifies how one can reach a beautiful balance of hard work and professional success while also truly caring and loving people, all while standing up for what one believes is right. 

Tragic losses that built resilience

Burris was born in Southern California, most specifically in Orange county. 

One could say that in many ways she was born out of tragedy. A few years before her birth, her older sister had tragically died of SIDS (infant death syndrome), an event that left an indelible mark on her family. 

Sadly, more pain was to come as years later, as her father passed away by suicide when she was only three or four years old. 

Suddenly, it was  just Burris and her mom. 

“It was just me and her against the world, quite literally,” Burris said. 

Burris and her mom moved around quite a bit until eventually settling in Rancho Cucamonga when Burris was ten years old.

To this day, Burris considers Rancho Cucamonga to be home. 

“It’s really dear to us. We were in a special place that probably, for the first time, provided a lot of peace and stability in what was otherwise a very challenging season for my mom.”

Burris’ mother was a very successful real estate professional. However, with the profession comes a lot of ups and downs depending on the market. 

When the 2008 financial crisis hit, her mother’s professional life was sorely impacted. 

“I’ll never, ever forget the day she came home with a box in her hand,” she said. “She had been laid off. That was a really scary time in our life, especially as a single mom.”

“Against the context of what was a deep hardship in my family, I was very happy and fortunate. I was encouraged by my mom to do it all, and that rang true even at Point Loma.”

Despite this difficult season, Burris and her mom remained very close. The difficulties did not keep her from having a happy and healthy childhood. 

“Against the context of what was a deep hardship in my family, I was very happy and fortunate,” she said. “I was encouraged by my mom to do it all, and that rang true even at Point Loma.”

Burris’ mother encouraged her to get involved in all types of activities. In middle school and high school she participated in dance, cheerleading, and her school’s associated student body. 

When it came time to prepare for life after high school, Burris felt like she needed to succeed, as she would be the first person in her family to go to college.

In light of that pressure, Burris worked hard to do well in school. 

A place to live out her passion

Her journey to PLNU may seem like an odd one given her background. 

Burris says that she did not grow up in a religious household, a context one would think does not lead to attending a Christian university. 

“At home, there was always an understanding of spirituality in the way that my dad and sister were our ‘angels’ and that prayer was possible,” she said. “But that prayer was not directed to God, to Jesus, to any god.”

“There was just something magical about it and it went beyond the superficiality and the obvious beauty. There was something that felt right.”

When it came to choosing PLNU, however, there was another element that caught her attention: the location, San Diego. Burris had always had a positive relationship with the city. Her mom would often take her there to visit famous spots like Legoland and SeaWorld. 

What really drove Burris to apply to PLNU, aside from the lovely location, was that one of her friends from high school had also applied. 

At one point, Burris visited the campus along with her friend and was blown away. 

“There was just something magical about it and it went beyond the superficiality and the obvious beauty,” she said. “There was something that felt right.”

Eventually Burris decided to apply, was accepted, and earned a pretty sizable scholarship that covered many of her expenses. 

She started off at PLNU as a political science major with a minor in Women’s Studies. 

“I declared political science because I thought I would go to law school,” she said. “I grew up in the era of Legally Blonde and Elle Woods, and around media ideals about what it meant to practice law so my eyes were on that prize.”

Burris really poured her heart and soul into the goal of becoming a lawyer. 

She had her eyes set on going into humanitarian advocacy and human rights law. She was a pre-law club member and went to many pre-law events.

 The political science department would often host events with professional attorneys which she would attend. Burris also tried to work at a law firm in town. 

As she dove deep into political science and law, however,  she quickly realized that perhaps becoming a lawyer wasn’t the right fit for her career. 

“We talk a lot at PLNU about vocation and calling and what God has called us to do. What I have found is I can exercise my calling in and out of my workplace.”

Early on in her college journey, she had an interaction with an attorney that changed the course of her professional life.

At one event on campus, an attorney frankly explained to students that the market had become difficult, and even recommended they find a different career path. Although Burris ended up changing her mindset about a law career, she kept the political science major.  

Activities like being an RA, participating in student government, and being part of the Office Activities board helped her explore her passion for causes like feminism and women’s rights. 

“I think my time (at PLNU) from an academic perspective involved learning the rhetoric and the theory behind some of my passions, some of what I knew to be true but didn’t have language for,” she said. 

From poli-sci to communications

Burris’ involvement in the Women’s Studies department resulted in a referral for her first full-time job at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC) as a Communications Coordinator after her graduation. 

The transition from political science to communications ended up being a natural one. 

“As a political science student I did a ton of writing,” Burris said. “We were writing long academic papers and I was a strong writer.” 

Her experience working as a waitress at Humphreys helped sharpen her people skills, something that is very important for communication work. 

Bree at her MBA graduation

“I’m quick on my feet,” she said. “I’m good with people. I can talk to anybody, I have thick skin, I can manage money and am committed to the grind. It was those sorts of interpersonal and hard skills that I think maybe convinced them that I could do what was a pretty traditional marketing communication strategy.”

Burris first worked at EDC for nearly four years, receiving a promotion to Communications Manager in that span of time. 

During that time, she enrolled at UC San Diego where she earned her MBA.  

After a brief tenure as Global Marketing Senior Account Manager for a medical devices company she returned to EDC where she now works as Director of Marketing and Communications. 

EDC is a non-profit business that seeks to support economic development for San Diego at large. 

“Corporations, healthcare institutes, universities and other companies invest in EDC under the understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Burris said. “They want to be a part of an ecosystem where talent, investors, other businesses, customers and service providers are benefited.” 

EDC has about 200 investors and members who put in funds to support their work. They have a relatively small staff between 20 and 25 employees, but manage a large budget (about $4 million). 

“Eighty percent of our funding is made up of all those private corporations,” Burris said.

PLNU is an investor in EDC alongside companies like Scripps and Sharp Healthcare. 

The rest of the funding comes from public funds. 

“There’s so much beauty that comes from working in an environment like this (a nonprofit) where you have to be really scrappy but you also have the opportunity to learn so much about so much.”

EDC uses these funds to invest in efforts designed to stimulate San Diego’s economy including business expansion, attraction, retention and more. They also focus on economic inclusion efforts, investing in and assisting companies led by or founded by minority communities in San Diego. 

Burris’ work now involves elements of external affairs, marketing, government relations, public relations and investor relations. 

Bree with colleagues at a San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation Event

She said that when she first started as a director, she often struggled with imposter syndrome.

“I had never led a team and I never led a strategy and a budget,” Burris said. “It was a big and daunting thing. But what better place to do it than in a place where I felt really comfortable and really supported?”

Burris’s days include fostering relationships with investors as well as traditional marketing communications work. 

Burris says that in other larger companies there typically is an employee assigned to each of these individual roles. At EDC, in addition to their areas of expertise, team members also work across other tasks and roles, like social media and marketing. 

“There’s so much beauty that comes from working in an environment like this (a nonprofit) where you have to be really scrappy but you also have the opportunity to learn so much about so much,” she said. 

A calling to people 

One of the important lessons Burris has learned throughout her journey is that hard work pays off and can contribute to a beautiful life. 

“There is beauty in the grind,” she said. “There was a season in my life right out of PLNU where after having worked hard, graduated with honors and done all the resume builder things, I found myself in a cubicle making little money. Yet looking back, there was such beauty in that grind.”

However, Burris also acknowledges that work doesn’t necessarily have to be everything for everyone and that sometimes it’s just a means of sustenance. 

“Frankly, you may never have your dream job because at the end of the day a job is a job,” she said. “We’re going to work to provide for ourselves. Work is about provision. It’s about providing for your family, feeding yourself, keeping a roof over your head. That can be okay, truly.”

Burris understands the importance of calling and vocation but she also understands that a meaningful life can be lived outside of one’s professional life.

Bree at a panel discussion at the California Economic Summit

“We talk a lot at PLNU about vocation and calling and what God has called us to do,” she said. “What I have found is I can exercise my calling in and out of my workplace.”

One of the ways that Burris’ lives out her calling is by working with people and making a positive impact on their lives.  

“I love that my job is people.” she said. “I think my calling is people.”

Through it all Burris feels extremely grateful for her job and the work that she gets to do. 

“I feel so lucky,” she said. “Not many people can say they sat in rooms with executives of the region’s biggest companies and brands. That’s bonkers. And I still, to this day, pinch myself that I don’t feel deserving of it.”

Still connected to PLNU

Burris has continued her connection with PLNU over the years. This past summer she worked as an adjunct professor teaching a semester-long course on Integrated Marketing and Sales Communication. 

Bree and her husband at their wedding officiated by Linda Beail, PhD.

When she got married last May, several of her former professors were present including Linda Beail, PhD., tenured political science professor and the former head of the Women’s Studies Department and Lindsey Lupo, Ph.D., the professor who referred her to her job at EDC. Beail even officiated the wedding. 

Burris says that throughout the years she’s learned about the importance of boundaries both in her personal and professional life. She encourages young professionals to let that discernment guide them and to realize that one’s job does not have to define one’s identity. 

“Above all, my advice is that they’d stay open and true to themselves,” she said. “If it feels wrong, it is. If it feels right, trust it. And again there is so much more outside of your professional life.”

Fall 2023: In Pictures

A group of friends sit on a curb and strike a pose as they watch the sunset over the ocean.

Fall at Point Loma is a tapestry of milestones and meaningful moments. It signifies both the beginning of new academic endeavors and an opportunity for reconnection, deep dives, and building upon a strong foundation. From the inaugural days of school to the festive holiday season, every moment in fall at PLNU is uniquely special, weaving a narrative of growth, connection, and academic exploration.

Check out a compilation of some of the top fall 2023 images from staff photographer, Marcus Emerson, and photography intern, Anessa Chirgwin.

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