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From the West Coast to the Midwest: New Union President Shares Her Vision for the University

Dr. Yamileth Bazan (known as Yami), calls Union Adventist University “a  true gem of a place,” and she looks forward to being a “transformational servant-leader,” helping to educate, and getting an education herself along the way.  

Question: Congratulations on your appointment as president of the newly re-named Union Adventist University. You will take up your new role in Lincoln, Nebraska on the first of July. What makes you excited about your new job? 

Answer: There are many things I am excited about.  

First, I am excited for the opportunity to start life with the Union campus family and the mid-America constituency. This is a completely new community for my husband Daniel and me, and they have been so gracious thus far in welcoming us.  

Second, I am ready for the chance to practice leadership, education, and ministry in a new way with a new set of leaders in the division, and in the world church at large. 

Third, I am ready for the chance to co-labor with God during this time in earth’s history. It is very exciting. I know the Holy Spirit is at work awakening and preparing the ready “harvest” and I look forward to serving alongside such a wonderful, faith-filled higher education  community. 

And finally, this is a new beginning for them (the university) and for us (my husband Daniel and myself) and that is exciting! I look forward to writing this new chapter together. 

You are moving from Loma Linda University School of Medicine, where you are now serving as associate dean for Student Affairs. Previously, you were vice president of Student Life at La Sierra University. How have your previous jobs prepared you for your new role as university president? 

Every role I have served in has shaped me to be the transformational servant-leader that I am today. Beginning with my middle school students who taught me authenticity, love for Jesus, and courage; to my youth ministry days in the Southeastern California Conference that showed me the incredible dedication, sacrifice, and gifts found in our local churches. To the La Sierra  University campus family who entrusted me to creatively design and lead, combining my two loves of education and ministry. And finally the School of Medicine that embodies what a missional space with every-day healers and followers of Jesus looks like.  

Every human interaction — the difficult, the painful, the beautiful and the  good — have all blessed me with new learning, lots and lots of grace, and the wisdom to learn how to lead. 

Union is becoming a university this year, but it is small compared to Loma Linda, and mid-America will feel different than California. How are you feeling about the contrast? Will it be easier or more difficult? 

It will be all those things, I am sure. In some ways smaller is easier —  but not simpler. Because the human, the institution, and the local churches can be intertwined even tighter in a smaller community, this makes decisions more complex. However, the smaller size does provide more flexibility and agility in decision-making and leadership. 

And yes, California and mid-America are very different. But I am a pastor’s kid who by the age of 12 lived in three different countries, three different states in the U.S., and over 10 different church communities. My dad built the Spanish church in La Sierra, I have spent over 30 years now in this community and we raised our son here.  

Now, a new season awaits. I look forward to my education ahead with gratitude. It will allow me to enhance my lens and my love for this diverse Adventist church family that I call home.

What did you know about Union before you were offered the job? 

I knew very little. But everything I heard was really positive. I knew it was a small college with great people. I also knew they had handled crisis well by supporting one another. 

And when the announcement came that I was going to Union, a sweet new surprise emerged: so many of my previous mentors and important people in my life reached out to say that Union was their alma mater. They assured me that Union is a wonderful place.  

What are your goals for Union Adventist University? 

At the base level, my goals are to make sure that our enrollment increases and more students have the opportunity to be educated in a community that is well-prepared, caring, dedicated, and supportive with an alumni base that is incredibly loyal. Union is a true gem with faculty, staff, and students that are genuine, mission-led, and ever so bright!  

I want this gem to be accessible to more families in our area, and to more students outside of our union looking for a mission-centered, career focused university that still has its “calling” as its top priority. Many institutions prepare students for careers, but few do so with mission and calling front and center. Union had set this priority long before me and hopefully will continue to maintain this focus long after me. 

What do you feel might be your biggest challenges as president? 

Our current national, social, and church environment is one of polarization, loud voices, exclusion, hatred, and judgment from every side. This toxic environment can mean that leading becomes less about God’s vision for our lives, and more about putting out fires.  

The challenge for any leader in this moment in history is to remain attentive to the work of the Holy Spirit and make sure that every space, conversation, and decision has Jesus at the center. And that His will and His healing and transforming balm encompasses all that we do.  

If the body of Christ can remain attentive to the God it serves, there is so much we can do to enter this polarized and hurtful moment, transforming it into opportunities for His grace and goodness to bring about the healing He has promised. 

My personal challenge will be to not lose myself in the daily work of growing a campus, caring for its humans, and making sure that education is occurring. But rather, reminding myself of Proverbs 3:5, to enter into that work daily trusting the One who called us all into this moment, allowing His wisdom to patiently light our paths, and leaning not on our own  understanding, but in all things (and in all ways), acknowledging Him so that He can direct our path.  

This is much easier said than done — thus I consider this to be my biggest challenge as president. 

You are replacing Vinita Sauder, who is retiring after a decade as president. How will your leadership style be similar or different from hers? 

I must confess I have only recently met Vinita but what I know so far is wonderful, and I am honored to follow her and build upon what she has spent a decade constructing. She has taken Union and made it a University and that is no small feat. She has used her strengths, dedicating herself to this community and she has been a wonderful affirming voice to me as I enter this new chapter. She is not perfect and neither am I, but we share our desire to do the best we can to serve this community.  

One difference between us is that she came from academia, marketing, administration and of course from Southern Adventist University, closer to the midwest.  

I come from education, ministry, administration, and decades of leadership. And of course I originally come from Inter-America, and was raised in Southern California. So our lenses will be different, and I will lead from a different place. Thanks to her leadership, I stand at a different crossroad in Union’s history, so I will need different skills as I pave a new way forward. 

As for my leadership style, I look for consensus and try to make sure we all agree on the direction. I enjoy removing barriers. Some leaders love to enter fighting. I understand figuring out local operations and I like thinking things through. You might not find me in the front leading a charge, but you will find me in the back, looking for potential future barriers, working to remove them for the next person. 

As far as I can tell, you are the first woman president of an Adventist higher educational institution in North America to take over from a previous woman president. Does this make your path smoother? Would you anticipate any issues related to your gender? 

I don’t see this as an issue. Union has been very affirming, as has the Mid America Union Conference president. I don’t have to prove anything. And in Adventist higher education as a whole, so many of us are new — men and  women— and from a different generation. There will be lots of challenges, but I don’t see gender as one of them. 

How would you describe your philosophy of education? 

By definition, the philosophy of education is a systematic study often using rational and critical inquiry of how we transmit knowledge and skills in a structured manner following a curriculum, and using frameworks to guide learning.  

If I consider it this way, this means education is concerned with growing and developing the mind, heart, and soul of the learner. If this is the case, then Adventist education is about growing and developing the whole human so they can serve their Creator wholly. Meaning that education at its core does not allow for easy answers, but wrestles with the difficult ideas, decisions, messy life-circumstances, etc. And this is a gift that the body of Christ needs.  

Those of us who serve and lead in this important work must recognize that our greatest asset is not money, knowledge, or new innovative strategies. Our greatest asset is our people, the students we are trusted to develop and the local church communities. And it is also the faculty, staff, and administrators who have dedicated their lives to this work of systematically transmitting knowledge.  

In layman’s terms, Adventist higher education is about developing the minds, hearts and souls of the young and growing the church’s understanding. As it does this sacred work alongside the Divine, humans become the vessel where the Holy Spirit blooms new fruits that heal, bring about new ideas for good, call us to change, and grow in our walk with the Divine. As educators, we get to live life alongside the learners and grow ourselves.  

Education is a gift that has been available to humanity since the Creation story. We have a God who didn’t download all of His knowledge and wisdom, but chose to “walk in the Garden in the middle of the day” among His created beings.  

Yet education — the systematic work of growing and developing the mind individually and in the community — is very hard. It is risky, painful, and disappointing. It can be disorienting because we do this work together and we don’t always agree.  

A definition is easier than the praxis it calls us to enter into, but there is no other place where I’d rather co-labor with God. So here I am, in cautious expectation, wondering how He will write this new chapter in my life and in the life of this beautiful new university, Union.

What do you want the students of Union to know about you? 

I want them to know that I am excited to be part of their story! I want them to know that I will take my calling as a leader seriously to serve and support their learning, their faith development, and their preparation for the calling God has for them. I want them to know that the church needs their minds, hearts and souls to be prepared and I want to bridge any gap that may be blocking their understanding of that reality.  

I want them to know that I follow Jesus. That is not just a trite saying — I  really do! And I desire that my life is an open invitation for them to do the same. Whatever career they choose, if He is their guide, light will shine in every space they enter.  

I want them to know that I will make many mistakes, and I will surely not accomplish all the goals that I have in mind. However, that does not negate the fact that He will be faithful and He will, in spite of my mistakes, redeem every moment. As such, I pray they are not afraid of making mistakes, but instead enter daily, like I will, with hearts filled with faith, to the work that  God has for them. 

What is Union’s enrollment as of right now? Is it up or down from the  previous year?  

Union reflects where Adventist education currently stands: a downward enrollment trend that has a 10-year trajectory. So I am entering into a challenging landscape in Adventist education and especially in higher education. Every institution that I’ve been in these past 17 years has seen this challenge. I am no stranger to the problem and to the various ways in which we can close the gap. 

What are your plans for maintaining or growing enrollment? 

I am a visionary-realist who leads collaboratively. I’ve been gifted with a lifetime of leadership opportunities and I am grateful to all the communities that have invested in me. I will enter this new chapter attentive to the needs of the campus (faculty, staff, students, administration, board) making space to listen. I will also listen to the constituency that I serve, and the Lincoln community.  

I’m keen on being data-informed and so I will spend time poring over the data and attempting to understand both what it reveals about the past and the possibilities for the future.  

Stay tuned for the plans to grow enrollment because they will not come from only me, but rather it will be something that my leadership team (with the support of our active board of trustees), will roll out in the coming future. 

What do you think makes Union a unique school among its Adventist sister institutions? 

I look forward to answering well. But I am currently a Union novice to be able to give this the answer it merits. I will tell you that their mission-mindedness, unassuming  hard-work ethics, generosity of spirit, and their open hearts have already ministered to me and blessed me. 

What changes do you see Adventist third-level education undergoing in the near term? Does Adventist higher education have a future? 

There will absolutely be changes in the near term. Especially when you recognize that a great majority of us entering Adventist higher education leadership are new. Changes are on the horizon. What they will be and how they will affect us, I cannot say, but they are most definitely needed and coming. 

Do we have a future, and is there a place for us in the higher education landscape? Yes and yes! Adventist higher education has a voice and a testimony that our faith communities and social communities are longing for. The wisdom of our faculty is needed more than ever. The dedication of our staff is sought after. Our students are desperately needed in the public sphere.  

And yet, we will need to do things differently. We need to follow Jesus more  intentionally. We must trust the slow-moving work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, instead of our fast-track strategies and answers.  

The path ahead is not clear, but “He who called us will equip us” if only we allow His presence to guide our steps.  

When it’s time to finish out your time at Union, whenever that may be, what do you hope people will see as your legacy?  

She walked with God. Her fruits reflect His leadership in her life. And we are better because she and the Divine were here.

About the author

Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum. More from Alita Byrd.
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