by Jeff Gilbert
Taiwo Bilesanmi’s undergrad years at Michigan State University showed him the power of living in Christian community. When Bilesanmi, PharmD ’24 was 17, his parents moved their five children from Nigeria to Detroit to give them a chance at a better education. The day Bilesanmi left for college he took his father’s Muslim religion with him. But some freshman-year friendships changed Bilesanmi's life forever. The community he didn't anticipate became the conduit of grace the Lord used to draw Bilesanmi to Himself.
After leaving his Muslim household when he started his undergraduate education at Michigan State University, Bilesanmi quickly learned the power of living in Christian community.
His college friends kept asking him to join them at a Baptist church about an hour away in Kalamazoo. They rode a free shuttle bus to church and convinced him he had nothing to lose. Eventually he went. Then he went again and again. And near the end of his freshman year, he put his faith in Jesus.
Those formative years set Bilesanmi on a path to Cedarville University and a larger, more diverse, and vibrant student culture only God could have foreseen.
When Bilesanmi visited pharmacy schools, he wondered if he would find a group of grad-school friends like he had as an undergrad at MSU. They went to church together, ate out together, and studied together. How could college life be that good again? Then he visited Cedarville.
After climbing the stairs of the Health Sciences Center, he met pharmacy faculty member Samson Amos, a Nigerian. Their conversation convinced Bilesanmi that Cedarville was a place he could find meaningful Christian community even in a diverse group of people.
"It was a family orientation here, too, which was pretty nice,” he said. “I thought the grad students would kind of do their own thing since the program was so small, but that wasn't the case. A lot of the classmates were very open and inviting.”
Bilesanmifits in so well that he is a leader in his third-year pharmacy class of 41. He ’ s been class president and vice president, planned events, and led committees and orgs. He loves his class.
"It's not a competitive thing,” he said. “We're all going to be pharmacists, but it's a journey of how you get there. We are all friends, we all study together on Fridays, or even throughout the week, we go to different outlets together, we go to church together. It's pretty nice when you can replicate something that worked out before at another school."
Faculty leaders in residential graduate programs like the School of Pharmacy and the School for Biblical and Theological Studies love when students like Bilesanmi find their graduate schools and take initiative. The leaders of these residential programs are serious about intentionally building community.
The students commune in classes together for years, but the faculty leaders know that’s not enough. They offer many special events to foster friendships and spiritual growth. They want students like Bilesanmi to enjoy their grad years as much, if not more than, as their undergrad years.
Creating Opportunities to Be Together
Billy Marsh oversees the Master of Divinity program, and he doesn’t want it to feel like a continuation of the undergrad experience at Cedarville. He wants his students, which number close to 70, to get a seminary experience like he had.
Marsh organizes Coffee Talks with some of the chapel speakers. They drink coffee, eat a donut, and get a free book. But the crucial part: Students spend an hour asking questions and gleaning wisdom.
“It's enriching because it gives students a chance to hear about why their theological education is important for ministry implementation,” he said. “We always try to have the dialogue to kind of connect those dots.”
Students can also participate in book studies geared toward ministry training, professional seminars that train them in resume writing, interviewing, and financial skills. Of course, there are always refreshments and giveaways. There are informal times as well, plus the big barbecue Marsh hosts every spring.
Nathan Brown, MDiv ’24 is in the fourth year of his five year program that will allow him to graduate with a BA in biblical studies and an MDiv. He helps Marsh coordinate events in his role as graduate assistant. He sees value in the extra activities Marsh provides.
“It helps cultivate a community that promotes perseverance,” he said. “Ministry is joyful, but also it can be a little difficult at times. Just having that support structure around is important because we're all in this together.”
Together is a key word for Marsh. Paul House’s book Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together has helped him see why building community among his students is crucial.
“Bonhoeffer really saw that if you're going to go off and do ministry, which is visible and embodied, then your education ought to mirror that,” Marsh said.
Marsh also wants the nontraditional students to feel at home. Michael Conn, MDiv ’24 pastors the church he grew up attending in nearby Washington Court House. After he finished high school in 2009, he attended Bob Jones University and finished with a master’s in 2015. He came to Cedarville for his MDiv to learn more and to meet a requirement to become a Navy reservist chaplain, which he was commissioned for in March.
“When you're in a community of kindred spirits, you all have the same values and philosophy of ministry and you just really jive well,” he said. “I've gotten that really mostly in the classrooms, but also through initiating personal time just by getting lunch and talking, having them in my home.”
Conn knows he is the older student, but he’s made that work. He struggled mightily with Greek at Bob Jones, but it’s going better for him at Cedarville. He recently had lunch with a younger and struggling Greek student and taught him some ways to prepare for an exam.
“I think it's helpful for people to see an old guy and that it was hard for him, but he's not giving up,” Conn said.
We Are a “Pharmily”
Aleda Chen, the School of Pharmacy’s Associate Dean, admits the term ‘pharmily’ is geeky. But she smiles every time she says it because she sees students learn to love and trust each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“They have potlucks together, they help one another study and make it through classes,” she said. “They're from incredibly different backgrounds, different countries, different languages, different life experiences, and to see them all come together and be able to say, ‘this is how this person has impacted my life and how we've learned and grown together,’ it's just a really beautiful thing. And it really symbolizes who we are as Christians.”
Pharmacy students sit in class together every morning for two hours with their P1, P2, or P3 group. After chapel at 10 a.m., the groups join for a professional hour that takes many forms. Speakers come in and share, they hold org meetings or planning meetings for events, etc. Now and then the school caters lunch for them. Then it’s back to class in the afternoon.
“It's the best part, actually,” Bilesanmi said. “Don't get me wrong, we're all here for education, but sometimes you need a destresser, and they know how to find balances.”
Chen and her colleagues don’t limit the outside-of-class interaction to the school day. They start the school year with the Back-At-It Barbecue, close fall semester with a Christmas party and catered food, and highlight spring semester with another catered event that emphasizes the school’s mission.
"I know that we all appreciate it a lot,” said Haylee Moser ’21, PharmD ’24, a P3 fromMichigan. “It's just an extra step to show that they care. And it’s fun.”
The P3 group might be the most diverse group of students on campus, but the school’s efforts to build community helps them bond more closely than they thought possible. Almost half of them did their undergrad work at other schools, but they are roommates, they go to church together, and many of them call each other their best friends.
When Bilesanmi arrived on campus, Moser had been here for three years as an undergrad. They quickly became friends. Moser said most of her friends not only didn’t start college at Cedarville, but they grew up in Africa, Spanish speaking countries, and parts of Asia. Bilesanmi and others cook food from their homelands and share it.
“Getting to know other cultures, the food, music, everything like that, has been really cool,” Moser said. “I wouldn’t have that exposure anywhere else.”Chen marvels at how the students, particularly the P3 class of 2022–23, love each other. “They celebrate each other's differences and similarities, and the similarity being that they all love Jesus,” she said. “I've heard that from them time and time again. We're all different, but we all love Jesus. And that's our starting point.”