Adugnaw Worku, made the following presentation (abridged here) to the graduates ofSouthwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, United States, on December 17, 2009. —Editors.
What a difference education makes—especially Christian education!
Most college graduates begin their education in first grade when they are 6 or 7 years old. They complete elementary school at about 13 or 14, and high school by age 18. By about age 22 or 23 they graduate from college. My own experience during those early formative years, however, was much different.
Childhood in Ethiopia
At age 7 I became a shepherd. I roamed the vast meadows and rolling hills of rural northwest Ethiopia together with goats, sheep, cows, and a few donkeys. This was my daily chore from dawn to dusk until I was 12 years old. I then handed over the shepherding assignment to my younger brother and moved on to the family farm. There I learned to plow the field with a pair of oxen and to plant, weed, and harvest. I discovered the dignity of work very early in life and assumed progressively greater responsibilities with each passing year.
My family and I were subsistence farmers. We grew everything we needed to live on. The work was backbreaking, and we literally lived by the sweat of our brows. This was not a matter of choice, but rather of survival. My career as a country farmer lasted until I was 15 years old.
A Life-changing Event
At age 15 I had a devastating accident that left me blind and disfigured in my left eye. The best medicine men and women of my village tried to help me with traditional remedies, but nothing worked. So my family decided to send me to a modern hospital. I walked with a group of merchants to the nearest hospital, a journey that took two days. That hospital happened to be a Seventh-day Adventist mission hospital in the middle of “nowhere.” My family and I were not Adventists, but many of my mother’s relatives were. I therefore knew a little bit about that faith.
When I arrived at the mission compound, I found three things: a church, a school, and a hospital. The philosophy and practice of building a church, a school, and a health center have long been characteristic of Seventh-day Adventists worldwide. That is how the Adventist Church began its work in the 1860s and 1870s—it built a church, a sanitarium, and a college in Battle Creek, Michigan, United States. This practice is deeply rooted in the Adventist philosophy of achieving a harmonious development of the spiritual, physical, and mental powers. It wasn’t unusual, therefore, that I found these three facilities in that mission compound in northwest Ethiopia some 50 years ago.
While I was there seeking treatment, I closely observed the students at the school. I watched what they were doing, how they dressed, and how they conducted themselves. I sensed immediately that they had something special that I didn’t have. I knew instinctively that education is inherently useful. I noticed 7- and 8-year-olds reading and writing. And there I was at 15 years of age unable to even sign my name. I was an illiterate peasant, and I knew it.
The desire to go to school became overwhelming, and I decided to find a way to attend. But I had two big problems: I didn’t have permission from my parents, and I didn’t have any money at all. I had only the clothes on my back. In my rural culture, parental permission is very important. Parents in rural Ethiopia wield considerable power and influence over their children. They choose their children’s careers, their spouses, their religion, and their place of residence. But even though the idea of going against my parents’ wishes weighed heavily on me, my intense desire to attend school was greater.
God Answers a Young Man’s Prayer
The lack of parental permission and money seemed to be insurmountable problems, and in those days I didn’t know how to pray formally. But I do remember offering a very short prayer again and again: “God, please help me.” “Dear God, please help me.” The Lord heard that simple prayer and answered it miraculously. At age 15 I became a proud first grader in the middle of the school year. I was exceedingly happy and grateful, and I still consider that day to be the time of my second birth.
I was 20 when I came to know an ever-loving and ever-forgiving personal God and joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church through baptism. I learned in my Bible classes and in Sabbath school and church that this personal God has very high standards and expectations, but He never casts out a repentant sinner from His presence. He forgives and says, “Go, and sin no more,” but He never says, “Go away.” Never! That discovery has given my life direction, meaning, purpose, peace, and stability.
Help From Missionaries
At age 22 I graduated from the eighth grade—first in my class and in the state after taking the national examination. That wasn’t too bad for a peasant boy! That same year I met a wonderful American missionary family from southern California in that mission compound, and they took me into their home as one of their own. Dr. Harvey Heidinger was the medical doctor in the hospital. His sister-in-law, Carolyn Stuyvesant, was a nurse. Elizabeth Heidinger, Dr. Heidinger’s wife, was our “mama” at home.
This missionary family left the comforts and conveniences of southern California and traveled to that remote mission outpost in northwest Ethiopia where there were few modern amenities. I am so thankful that they did, because they changed my life. They financed my education, as well as that of my siblings, all the way through college. And what a difference education in general—and Christian education in particular—has made in our lives! Like most people, I measure my success in life by the heights to which I have climbed. But I have never forgotten the depths from which I have come. This dichotomy makes my gratitude to God and to godly people even deeper and greater.
Thanks to those generous missionaries, I attended an Adventist boarding academy for all four years, and graduated first in my class and as class president at age 25. After high school I enrolled at Avondale College in Australia. I graduated from there at age 30, and then went to Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States, for graduate school. So I’m a product of Adventist education through and through. And not only am I grateful for it, I’m also proud of it. It may appear that I was late for everything, but I got it all done eventually. I was married at 36 and became a father at 40. Well, what can I say? Call me a late bloomer.
The Benefits of Adventist Education
The Seventh-day Adventist Church commits enormous amounts of financial, human, and material resources to educate its youth. It provides young people with an opportunity to find a personal God in a safe and supportive environment, where they can ask about and explore the fundamental issues of life. The purpose of Christian education is to help young people discover a loving, forgiving, personal God and to develop an unshakable faith in Him. It’s also to help our youth develop their God-given talents in a distinctly Adventist Christian way, and then serve God and humanity.
In her book Education Ellen G. White clearly states the mission of Adventist schools. She writes: “True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study. It means more than a preparation for the life that now is. It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.”1 Just pages later she adds: “It is the work of true education … to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought.”2 Summarized in these statements are well-rounded thoughts and reflections on education, love to God and our fellow humans, and service to both. This is the reason Adventist schools exist and why the church expends a great deal of resources to run them.
Again in the book Education Ellen White describes another vital objective of Adventist schools: “The greatest want of the world is the want of [men and women] … who will not be bought or sold, [men and women] who in their inmost souls are true and honest, … [men and women] whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, [men and women] who will stand for the right though the heavens fall. But such a character is not the result of accident…. A noble character is the result of self-discipline … [and] the surrender of self for the service of love to God and [humanity].”3
Do you have uncompromising personal integrity? If you do, make sure you include it on your résumé. Potential employers and graduate school admission committees will take you seriously and will, in all likelihood, decide in your favor. The world desperately needs men and women with uncompromising personal integrity. The current economic crisis in the United States that has left millions of people jobless and homeless was caused by well-educated men and women who hold degrees from prestigious educational institutions but have little integrity.
Studies of retail business fraud in the United States reveal billions of dollars in losses every year through theft.4 And 60 percent of those thefts are committed by employees.5 More than 30 percent of new businesses fail because of employee dishonesty.6 Tragically, these are not isolated incidents.
All God’s Children
Adventist schools teach that we are all God’s children. If we accept God as our Father, we cannot pick and choose who our brothers and sisters are. You are my brother and my sister, and I am your brother, no matter who we are or where we come from. We don’t always live up to this lofty ideal, but it is our ideal. That’s why missionaries cross the ocean and help people on the other side of the world. I’m a living example of such brotherly and sisterly love.
Many scientists, as well as the Bible, tell us that there is only one human race, not many. We Adventists take that a step further and assert that we are all God’s children, and therefore brothers and sisters. And as such, we are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keeper. God will always ask us, “Where is your brother? Where is your sister?” Whatever we do to the “least” of His children, He will consider as done to Him.
I have translated 102 children’s songs from English into Ethiopian, and I have three favorites. They are “Jesus Loves Me,” “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” These personal and inclusive songs are not just for children; their message is for all time and for people of all ages and races. That is what we teach in our schools.
Learning Never Ends
Learning does not end at graduation from college, or even from graduate school. It’s a lifelong process. As Adventist Christians, we believe that this life is a rehearsal for the life to come, and common to both is learning. Throughout this life—and eternity—we learn about God, His vast and complex universe, and ourselves. Lifelong learners believe that gaining new knowledge and acquiring new skills are inherently worthwhile. Besides, this has practical value. Studies indicate that workers between the ages of 18 and 38 will change jobs an average of 10 times.7
So never stop learning. Lifelong learners will be well served in an ever-changing world.