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GOSHEN -- When Goshen College President James E. Brenneman meets you in the door of his new office, he does so with a warm smile and a handshake that makes you feel welcome.
For the former pastor, the gesture is as genuine as it is intentional. He's a specialist in building bridges, and he'll get plenty of opportunities to practice it as the college's new president.
The hospitable attitude will come in handy for the 51-year-old whose vision is to almost triple enrollment at the college, from 900 to as many as 2,500 potential students. Many of them will be Hispanic, he hopes.
"I think we'll start to reflect the community we're in," Brenneman said. "Twenty-five percent are now Spanish-speaking people. My hope is, our demographics will reflect that of the community around us."
More specifically, students could be recruited as early as elementary and middle school. Intercultural, interdisciplinary, adult and nontraditional programs could also help increase enrollment, he said.
Brenneman arrived in Goshen about a week ago after having traveled cross-country from his home in California with his wife, Terri J. Plank Brenneman, a clinical psychologist, and his 9-year-old son Quinn, who will attend Chandler Elementary in the fall.
Brenneman is the official successor of John D. Yordy, who has been interim president of Goshen College since October 2004, when the former president resigned.
As such, he's the one who's welcomed. But as the founder and lead pastor of Pasadena (Calif.) Mennonite Church, Brenneman is the one who's used to welcoming people from various backgrounds.
In his effort to welcome people from "nonmajority cultures" and the areas surrounding Goshen, he's working on his Spanish skills. And although Goshen College should continue to be Christ-centered, he said, everyone should feel welcome at the Mennonite College, even if they're not Mennonites.
"One goal is for us to become a more hospitable campus," Brenneman said. "I enjoy welcoming other people, to my home and to my faith. I want people in the surrounding area to consider Goshen College as their community college, not just a narrowly denominational school. These are values that are important to the people of the world."
Another challenge Brenneman will be taking on in the coming years is to bridge the gap between the college's conservative alumni and the progressive, more liberal-minded young students. The way to do it is to change political debates and go back to the college's Mennonite roots and the vision of making students compassionate peacemakers, he said.
"Left, right or center, we follow Christ," he said. "We need to let political labels fall away. We stand up against the war in Iraq. People say, 'how can you do that and be a good Christian?' Some say we're very progressive. No, it's conservative. We're the last religion going back" hundreds of years.
Brenneman is a philosophical scholar at heart. He has two religious books and several articles on his résumé, as well as experience as president of an Anabaptist leadership school and teacher at three religious schools in California.
But he also has his mind set on some practicalities. One of them is to create closer connections with the business community to benefit Goshen College.
"We have a center for entrepreneurial leadership. I would like to expand it and tie in the business leaders. They have been a part of who we are," Brenneman said.
But an equally important bridge to build is that to students. They're likely to see a leader they can connect with if they look to his past. Brenneman knows what it's like to not "know your life in advance," as he puts it, from his student life at Goshen College, where he studied biology. It was a professor there who inspired him to become a pastor and connect with his family's Mennonite roots.
"As a pre-med student, I was living the dream of other people in my life," he said. "I was sort of being directed. I discovered I wasn't truly a scientist. It was the people part, the pastoral dimension of (being a doctor) I liked.
"It wasn't 'til my senior year that I took a class in Jeremiah. It's the power of a teacher to transform you. He became an icon for me to pursue. Goshen College opened up my heritage to me in that sense."
Anyone interested in meeting Brenneman can do so during the inauguration festivities. They will take place during the first full week of September, with an installation ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 10.
Contact Gitte Laasby at firstname.lastname@example.org.