The Journal: News of the Churches of God at

Former WCG youths seek alternatives
to Ambassador University degree

By Linda Moll Smith

Sweeping doctrinal transformations made in the past year by the Worldwide Church of God cast widening ripples of change in the body of the church as well as in the student body of the church-sponsored school, Ambassador University. As students there began to examine their own beliefs and re-examine their reasons for attending AU, one result was that expected enrollment for the fall semester 1995 at Ambassador declined, dropping to 816 from last year's fall enrollment of 1,100.

This article profiles three students who decided not to pursue a degree at Ambassador University. Where have they ended up, and why? Here are their stories:

It was the summer of 1995, and 20-year-old Sharon Treybig was back home with her parents David and Teddi Treybig in Spokane, Wash. after completing her freshman and sophomore years at Ambassador University, Big Sandy, Texas.

Sharon's parents are both graduates of Ambassador and her grandfather was a regent for many years.

It was summer break, but Sharon was anything but relaxed. In fact, she was in a quandary. "I had decided only the week before AU graduation in May that I could not return to Ambassador," she recalls. "I had come home and was working, and every night after work for about two weeks, I sat down and read college catalogs like crazy.

"While I was researching what college I might want to go to besides AU, I went back to my high school counselor for advice. He was very helpful. I had outlined my thoughts on the type of school I wanted: small, private, liberal arts, conservative in outlook, and not far-flung geographically. He quickly put together a list of colleges that matched that description and we went from there.

"I decided Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich., was the place for me because of its staunch conservatism.

"It is built on Judeo-Christian principles, recognizes God as creator and sustainer of the universe (which makes my biology course much easier), believes the Ten Commandments apply to Christians today, is very independent in that it has never taken government funding of any sort and is not affiliated with any single church denomination.

"This semester I am taking a Western Religion class from a Calvinist professor who's teaching about the Ten Commandments, the law, God, and Paul--all from a point of view that contradicts what I read and was told my last month at AU."

It was during her last month at Ambassador last spring that Sharon decided not to return to AU, a decision that she did not reach easily.

Wanted to stay at AU

"I really wanted to stay at AU," she explains. "I kept thinking I could work it out. Coming to the conclusion I needed to leave was a gradual process. I'd read the scriptures in question and I couldn't integrate what I saw as inconsistencies.

"When I read the AU student honor code that requires students to uphold the doctrines of the church as they stand and as they are amended, I couldn't see how I could do that. Especially if I was traveling around with AU sports teams, and, I was supposed to be a women's club president. Then too, I felt dishonest because the Worldwide Church of God was subsidizing my education to the tune of around $8,000 a year. I began to see I just couldn't be hypocritical about it.

"As the semester went on, I sat down with my friends and we went through scripture after scripture. Some of my closest friends came to totally different conclusions than I did. They were sincere and so was I. I don't think God condemns sincerity of belief, but I lost something when I could see that we no longer agreed. I feel I've lost members of my second family."

Does she have any regrets about attending Ambassador?

"Absolutely not," says Sharon. "It was fantastic. Those two years, from 1993 to 1995, were the best two years of my life. I had very close friendships with people, some of whom I'd known from summer camp. Some of us counseled for baptism at the same time. I felt like God had drawn us together.

"I miss my friends, and I still have friends--on both sides of the [doctrinal] fence. We try to stay in touch and E-mail helps a lot in that."

Discovering blessings

Missing her AU friends was a major adjustment for Sharon, but she's managing. She says, "I can see how God has blessed me in many ways since [my decision] last spring.

"I was accepted to Hillsdale on short notice; they took all my credits; I will be able to graduate in two years; I got a single room; the basketball coach has no problems with my not playing on the Sabbath; and all my professors have been completely cooperative about helping me make up exams and material I miss for the Holy Days."

While at Ambassador, Sharon received partial scholarships for playing on the volleyball and basketball teams there. At Hillsdale, Sharon was awarded a Velma E. Knight scholarship for her commitment to high Christian values, a scholarship ordinarily awarded to Christian studies students, even though Sharon is a marketing major.

She says, "I don't know how much my references, from several AU faculty and my high school counselor, who was fully aware of the situation about why I was transferring, impacted my acceptance and being awarded the scholarship. Whatever the case, I'm thankful--it's more than I received for playing a year of volleyball at AU."

Sharon says that Hillsdale's strong tradition of Judeo-Christian values fosters an environment of religious acceptance on campus. "People here are very interested and involved with religion. The largest student group on campus is an interdenominational Christian fellowship that meets on Thursday nights and features speakers and music. There's Catholics, Protestants, Messianic Jews and me.

"So far, everyone has been as respectful of my beliefs as they are convicted of their own. A good number keep Sunday much as we do the Sabbath. Personal evangelism has taken on a whole new meaning.

"There is even a girl on my floor whose past year has been similar to mine. She is part of a church that patterns itself after the earliest American settlers from Europe. That church recently changed a number of its traditional beliefs, and her family, including her father who is a minister, is now part of a new group that formed to hold onto the traditional beliefs. We were both so shocked to find someone else who had gone through similar emotional and spiritual experiences."

During her initial adjustment period at Hillsdale, Sharon had doubts. "The first few weeks, I asked myself, `Why am I here?' During the Feast, a lot of people quizzed me on why and how I left Ambassador University. One answer I've found is that I can be fully involved in everything I do at Hillsdale without anyone questioning whose ideas I support.

"And what's really helped," she says, "is that different families in the local church I attend [UCG, Toledo, Ohio] have really taken me in. Every week it seems like someone else comes up and asks me over. The warmth of the church has been vital."

During the week Sharon is kept busy with the demands of upper division courses and participation in sports. "Academically I'm working harder than ever before, and playing in the NCAA is very intense. At first I felt out of my league and tired every night."

"But, I'm happy now," she says. "Hillsdale is the place I need to be."

Brian Merritt, 19, the son of Dr. John and Marcie Merritt of Laguna Hills, Calif., grew up knowing he wanted to attend Ambassador University.

He's now enrolled at Andrews University, a Seventh-day Adventist-sponsored university in Berrien Springs, Mich.

"We all grew up in the [Worldwide] Church [of God]," says Brian. "I always wanted to go to Ambassador. I applied other places, but I pretty much knew I would end up there, especially when they became accredited."

Brian followed in the footsteps of older brother Lawrence (a 1994 AU graduate who is now in medical school), enrolling in 1994-95 for his freshman year at Ambassador. It was love at first site: Brian was immediately enamored with the ambience and academics offered at Big Sandy.

"The place was great," he enthuses. I liked it a lot. I made some great friends, friends I think will be lifelong, and I got used to college life right away.

"I felt too, that they had a decent science program, which I needed as the basis for pre-med studies. I liked it so much I was even beginning to think I wanted to participate in one of the [outreach] projects in Thailand or Jordan and go with a five-year program at Ambassador."

That was before doctrinal changes were announced by the leadership of the WCG.

"Actually," notes Brian, "things didn't get shaken up right away. We started hearing changes being announced in December of 1994, but it wasn't until March or April [1995] that we started saying to each other, `Hey, we need to talk about this.'"

And talk they did. Brian says most of the students he knew at the time related to the changes as they were occurring in their home areas.

"It was really hard. Most of my friends went along with their families in opting to stay within the WCG."

Pressured to choose

The pressure intensified when church-wide attention was focused on Brian's father, then a member of Ambassador University's board of regents, who made public his disagreement with some of AU's policies and administrative actions by filing a lawsuit against the university.

"When my friends found out about it, and how I supported my family's viewpoint, they told me to stand up for myself and make up my own mind; your parents could be wrong. I told them that could go both ways."

By the end of his freshman year in May, Brian had decided to return to Ambassador for one more year. But then he received a letter from then-interim AU president Russell Duke stating that students could not attend churches deemed "dissident."

"The summer was a key for me and a lot of other people," explains Brian. "After the letter was sent out, and it was announced that there would be an accreditation review of the university in the fall, I began to wonder if the future of AU wasn't a bit shaky.

"I, and other students I know, were afraid we might be wasting our time and money if the university closed. I had to ask myself, do I want to risk losing a year when I'm going to be in medical school for years after I leave AU.

"In the end analysis, it was less a religion thing and more a practical matter, that I decided to forgo Ambassador and attend Andrews University."

How did Brian come to choose Andrews?

"I had met Dr. Sam [Samuele Bacchiocchi, a Sabbatarian scholar and Andrews University professor] at Jubilee `95 [see In Transition, June 23]. We talked, and he told me about the university. "

Brian was offered a music scholarship if he chose to return to Ambassador, but possible scholarships were not the main issue.

"There were just so many factors I had to take into consideration," says Brian. "Finally, I decided I needed to study and prove things on my own, and Andrews offered me a wide open door."

Has he been homesick?

"Actually," says Brian, "being in Michigan is a good change from California. We had previously lived in Minnesota, and Michigan is a similar environment. And even though Berrien Springs is small--it has a population of 14,000--we're only 20 minutes from South Bend, Ind., and about two hours from Chicago."

Brian lives on campus and says that the social life at Andrews is not as emphasized as it was at Ambassador even though the university produces a "dating book," somewhat like AU's student pictorial, with photos of each student, their major, phone number and marital status.

Brian's main emphasis this semester is on academic achievement. "Andrews has a well-developed science department and the classes are tough. I spend a lot of late nights studying and I always have homework. I have to remain focused on that."

But even a single-minded approach to learning doesn't stop Brian from maintaining relationships with his former AU buddies.

"We stay in touch by E-mail, phone and letters. I am also planning to spend Thanksgiving with some AU friends in Texas. Missing my Ambassador friends has been the hardest part of my decision to leave AU and attend Andrews."

Becky Blanchard, 18, of Michigan grew up dreaming of going to Ambassador College.

"From the time I was young, Ambassador was all I heard about. I wanted to go and be a part of the Young Ambassadors [AU's select musical performance ensemble]," she says.

But, the freshman college student didn't end up there.

"In my sophomore year of high school, I decided that Hillsdale [College, Hillsdale, Mich.] was the educational institution for me."

Becky, who attends Global Church of God services in Ft. Wayne, Ind., says one of the main appeals of Hillsdale is that, "they teach the morals and values of our nation's founding fathers and they've never taken any government money. They are independent thinkers in that sense.

"Also, my parents approved of my upholding those values, and because we have a close family, that's important."

Researched her choices carefully

Becky researched her choices in colleges carefully and visited Hillsdale three times, each time coming away impressed.

"Not only was it recommended to us by people we respected, the first time my family and I visited, U.S. Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas spoke. It was very stirring."

Becky said she also valued the strong liberal arts tradition of Hillsdale since she is planning to major in English or biology.

"Classes are difficult, a real challenge academically. We write papers and take tests all the time. I'm always studying. Of course, it's also very fun, especially when you can study in groups."

Becky admits to suffering from homesickness and looks forward to occasional visits from her parents who live about eight hours away. "Being this close to home is great.,"

Does she still think about Ambassador?

"Of course," she says. "Some of my friends went to AU, and I will always care about the future of Ambassador University.

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