This week on the Sounds of GU podcast, we have President Suzanne Davis sharing her GU Story. This segment of the show, My GU Story, is all about the people that make up the community at Greenville University about how their life's journey somehow includes GU. Each person involved with our campus is unique, and we want to showcase that uniqueness. It's our goal to inform you of all the things that make GU, and the personal stories that shape it, special. President Davis is an alum of GU, has a heart on fire for the Lord, and this campus, and her story is compelling.
Q: Hello, President Davis! Welcome to the Podcast! How are you?
A: Hello, Sid! It's great to be here with you. I am just settling into the new role and enjoying having a few more employees back on campus but really missing the students and the full staff.
Q: Do you want to give listeners some more details about who you are and what you do?
A: I've been at Greenville University for seven years. I worked closely with President Filby during that time and most recently served as executive vice president. A lot of students maybe didn't see what I was doing behind the scenes with admissions, finance, international affairs, and athletics, a lot of the operational side of the campus. Before that, I was in the classroom at the School of Business. I taught business law and other management courses, so I've gotten to meet some of the students. That's kind of what I've been up to the last several years here on campus.
Q: What about your family?
A: Yes! I have a wonderful husband who makes things possible for me. His name is Phil. Maybe some of the students know him from the volleyball court. He's kind of encouraging support staff for the women's volleyball team. He also coached men's volleyball here for a little while. My two daughters, Brittany and Tiffany, were on-campus. Brittany just graduated last year in social work, and Tiffany was here for a few years but has recently raised her son, my grandson, Corbin.
Q: Do you know your enneagram type or strengths from the strengths finder test?
A: So, my strengths are kind of interesting, especially for a female. I find I am first and foremost analytical, and then command and focus. Then finally, learner is my top five strength. So, I am very driven, very results-oriented, but also just like thinking about how things could be different and analyzing different data points. And then learning at a rapid pace is something I enjoy. On the enneagram, I am an 8, and I definitely think it describes something about the way I relate to others. It's really fun with our family to think about the different types. My husband is a 9, a peacemaker. It's really interesting to see how it plays out in our family. I have my wing as a 7, so I'm kind of an adventurous adrenaline junkie.
Q: Can you talk about why you chose to come to GU for college?
A: So, I actually came here for all the wrong reasons. I had a division I track scholarship fall through at the last minute. The coach there backed off a scholarship because he thought I would end up having some injuries. I did, in fact, end up having some injuries, so it was a little prophetic. At the eleventh hour in May, I was trying to decide what to do. My parents, who were stronger Christians (I wasn't at the time. I was pretty rebellious, and I was doing a lot of other things) said that they would only pay for a Christian college. I was smart enough to not go into a lot of debt. Some other schools were looking at me to run track and play volleyball. They were private schools, but they weren't Christian schools. Brian Patton had been calling me incessantly since I was a junior, and I just decided to give it a shot and came here. I didn't think that my life would be changed at all. I was very resolute at the time. We had Bible and Culture my freshman year, and I thought that if there was a God, he wasn't a good God because of all of the struggles. Both my brothers had severe genetic disorders, and my dad was fighting cancer. I was struggling with all of that, and little did I know my life would be changed here. One of my brothers has died, and I had to deal with that. It was transformative. I started to change my sophomore and junior year. There are still some faculty here that knew me as a freshman and wondered how I could come back to Greenville in an administrative role. It didn't look like I was going to be a great fit for Greenville University in the future.
Q: What was your experience like as a student?
A: I was a philosophy and political science major, so I had Craig Boyd, Rick McPeak, and Richard Houston for some of my history political science classes. Some of the greats are still here. I don't think it was a whole lot different. Obviously, the 90s were different. Looking back, you can tell. But the experience that I hear students describe is similar, in a way, because it's just really great relationships with each other, faculty members, and coaches. Coaches play a key role. Brian Patton still here and a lot of different volleyball coaches. My senior year, tom Ackerman has just graduated, so he was one of the coaches my senior year. A lot hasn't changed. There are some similarities to how it was on campus now.
Q: Can you talk about your journey after GU?
A: I went from here to the University of Illinois. I had planned to go to the University of Michigan, but that was when my dad had really bad cancer, so I decided to stay close to home. I got my law degree first and finished that, so I had that Juris doctorate three years after I graduated. I practiced law for a few years and really enjoyed it. I had lots of opportunities to do some things there but really felt called to both adoption and to do more with young adults. I recognized how much my life has been shaped here at Greenville and during that early twenties time frame. So, I decided to teach an Eastern Illinois University as a part-time role, and they asked if I would do a full-time role. I didn't plan on going into education. Still, I did get my MBA because it was needed to be academically qualified to teach.
Q: How did you go from that to where you are now?
A: It doesn't make sense unless you believe in God's calling and leading you into the next step. Each step wasn't planned. I really had planned on practicing law and then becoming a judge in the circuit. Interestingly, my mentoring attorney at the law firm I was working at became the judge, so then I had a conflict of interest. I couldn't become a judge there. It was interesting that at that same time, the Eastern Illinois University job came up, and I really felt called to adoption. I really felt like that was a good step for me because the practice of law is all day every day, billable hours. I wouldn't have been able to go down the path of adoption responsibly without changing my lifestyle. Well, I was working with my husband in youth ministry, and we came to the Agape festival in Greenville with our youth group. Richard Houston happened to be there and asked if I'd ever been interested in coming back to my alma mater. Long story short, I go to my attorney that was going to appoint me judge and say I got this random request to go back to my alma mater, and I'm just trying to decide what to do. He said, "You know, Suzanne, a lot of things you can do in the court system to be salt and light, but you'll impact way more in transforming young lives during that process. So, I followed the path and took the teaching job here. I always knew that there was a call to the administrative piece because I also had the role of the chief legal officer when I started here. I was involved in the administration from the start. I always tell my daughters that you have to see how things unfold, and you have to be open to where the Lord leads.
Q: How does your faith play out in your life? What does faith mean to GU?
A: You know it means so much. I don't think we would do, or even the students engage like they do without just the presence of God in this place and courts and fields. I wouldn't have necessarily come back without the call of the Lord on my life to impact others. When we say we are transforming lives for character and service and empowering students, it's because of our christ-centered, Wesleyan background. We see others before ourselves and think about how we can serve. We don't look at the world the way everybody else does. They will say you've just got to get a career to get a job and get paid and survive. We actually challenge our students to think bigger than that and thrive. The reason they thrive is that they are living holistically with the power of God in them. It's a deeper meaning for life. That's what happened to me as a student. I found a deeper meaning for life, and even amidst some death and experiencing fear, there was just a deep-rooted sense of purpose, and nothing else can explain it.
Q: What would you say to students coming in that are Christian and then also to students coming in that are not Christian?
A: I think this is a place where we're not afraid to ask the tough questions and let students grapple with why they exist, who they say they are, to think twice about what they do, and what they hope is said about them when they die. That's deep, but it's true. We tend to avoid those questions. That's why it works for people who are Christians and who are not Christians. We're not saying you have to believe this way. We're just asking what you believe about life in a bigger picture. I think this will happen over and over and over again in culture, especially with COVID-19 right now. Eventually, people have to think about what matters, why they do what they do, who they engage with, and what seems to bring meaning in life and what doesn't. I think that's the unique approach that we take. We don't set out like you have to believe this or that to come here, but we are going to challenge you to think about it, in every class and in everything we do. You don't have to believe it, but you do have to think on a deeper level.
Q: What has your transition into the presidency been like?
A: I'm still the random girl who rides at the end of the homecoming parade or at All college Hike on a horse. It's important to celebrate people's accomplishments, but I don't see my role as pomp and circumstance. What I hope to bring to the environment is a collaborative environment both at the faculty and staff level but also with the students. I want them to feel comfortable to engage and speak into things. We exist because of you guys. That's why we all want to be here. To bring a very student-centric model to the presidency is what I hope to accomplish.
Q: What do the next 2 years look like for you? Where will GU be in 10 years?
A: It's such a different environment. The good news is everyone kind of knows it now. We are doing things that will bring value to students. In the next two years, bringing a rebirth of what that means and how do we create a place where not only students are well cared for while they're here, but also that they're connected to the next phase of life and don't feel dropped after they graduate. I want them to feel that they are prepared to provide whatever service they are called to and go out and have meaningful experiences in work and connections. It sounds like a tall order, but we focus a lot on the experience here and not the translation to the next step. I hope that we get to that way in a clearer way in the next two years. In the next 10 years, I hope to expand off that. We want to make sure that everything you're paying into is an investment into your future and that it is so clearly articulated to our students in the next 10 years. One of the things I've found in this COVID crisis is that there are a lot of universities that don't put students and their needs first. We do that well, we care about people. That will continue to mean something in the next 10 years as we bring value to their careers in bridging the gap between high school and college or college to the next step or switching to a new career. The next two years is about the way we care about student holistically.
Q: What will the reopening in the fall look like? How is Greenville responding to the crisis?
A: That's a tough question to answer because things change a little bit every day. We should respond safely. We have a unique environment being rural that plays into our strengths in this situation. People's lives have been very disrupted in bigger cities. Up until just a couple weeks ago, we had a handful of documented cases, and now we're only at 12. We have an advantage there to be able to keep our students and community safe. We are planning to reopen and come back for the in-person experience this fall. What that will look like will depend on the rules and regulations in the fall. Is it groups of 50? Not having chapel in the same way? Maybe in smaller groups? Having an area for classes to be different or in larger classrooms? We are committed to finding a path whatever the situation brings for safety. We are trying to provide a safe environment but also provide and honor our value proposition. We are called to serve students, and the face-to-face experience is very important. We are going to deliver on our mission for students and put that first.
Q: In your opinion, what's the best thing that Greenville has to offer?
A: Clearly, it's the people. This place is unique because of the people that come together here. I know it's overstated, but if you're a part of the community and you engage with the people here, it's hard to not be impacted. Yeah, we have some cool spaces planned for the students yet this summer. We have some cool things going on and places, but more than the physical places, it's the people that occupy those places.