With the clearest view of the San Gabriel mountains behind her, the glory of Southern California’s sunsets in front, the last of the Brazell kids will walk across the stage at Azusa Pacific University, leaving childhood and a chapter in the books behind her. While this is a big day for my sister, it’s also a significant moment for those of us sitting in the trademark white fold-out chairs, neon-colored signs in tow.
In September of 2002, my parents and I drove in our white Montana minivan down I-5 to 210 (before the article “the” permeated our dialect), and exited Citrus avenue. Actually, we exited Azusa Avenue because 18-year old Corrie was certain her college was on the same street as its city’s name. Also, this was when my cell phone was the size of my hand and had clicking buttons for a keypad, so my parents couldn’t actually correct me with anything besides their map-quest printout, so we ended up driving along a wide, palm-tree- lined Azusa avenue, making a few wrong turns.
And then we just didn’t leave. For fourteen years.
While APU has left an enduring mark on our family’s history, it’s done so in myriad ways. As we close out this chapter of our family’s story, I wanted to pause to take in what that means. To take in what it means to leave the undergraduate life on Alosta and Citrus, to leave behind Engstrom and Adams, Smith, and Trinity, one final time.
Here is our APU story:
It’s the story of a first-born who loved language and people, so she spent her APU days reading and talking about Kingsolver, Wordsworth, and Neruda, and her evenings throwing un-themed, un-Pinterested parties for her residents, side-stepping 100 dixie cups filled with water (ahem, 3rd South). She had lots of friends but no time for men, until one day a basketball player made her change her mind. She walked across the stage, fell down the stairs (seriously), then spent the next day preparing for her first job interview. She’s been standing in a room with teenagers, talking about Lee and Steinbeck, culture and people, ever since.
It’s the story of a strong-willed, could-have-been-a-first-born who traded Berkeley for Azusa, and pre-med for people. He chose business, but he also chose… well, APU. His skill for administration, organization, coupled with his perceptive and compassionate nature made him everyone’s friend and everyone’s leader. Literally, every single person who has been at APU during the last fourteen years knows him and knows how much he cares. He could be a CEO, he could be a powerful PR Rep, he could be at any of the top companies in the country, but because of his experience and passion, he chose a work of purpose over pension. He’s currently working to help students and alumni discover the same purpose.
It’s the story of a walk-on, who believed in the power of the underdog, of showing up and following-through, despite all odds and stereotypes. His is the story of showing up to basketball practice, to people, at the firepit, and for the girl he liked. He spent his Tuesdays and Saturdays diving after every ball, regardless of who or what was in the way. That same drive, that very hustle, transferred over into the way he led junior highers on Tuesday nights and college students all summer. And, best of all, it’s the way he loves his wife and it’s the way he cares for our son.
It’s the story of the one learned how to err and keep going, face mistakes, and learn the right way. And in this story of falling down, getting up, falling down, getting up, in the clatter of the critics and shadow of his brother, he found his voice. Quite literally. This one, the musician, fought and found the right niche of creativity and purpose and he didn’t let go. He poured over pianos and spent hours getting the sound just right. He stayed up late with his group of ten, and found himself in those moments on Adams field. And in the midst of the working and failing, getting up and perfecting, he found a creative space that so many of us don’t dare to find. This one, the musician, turned regret into bravery, and mistakes into songs. His words and music settle your soul and speak for your heart, the same way they have since he started out as a teenager.
And finally, for about five more glorious, finals-filled days, it’s the story about the youngest one. The one who, in her quiet determination, sought to mark her own path. Hers is the story of seeking to learn and discover a confidence rooted much deeper than the ground on which she previously stood, and that her worth is not predicated by performance. Her confidence implores those around her to enjoy being exactly who God created them to be, which is possibly the greatest gift you can give. She spent her academic years studying the mind and the way it worked and spent her summers holding kids and letting them sail, so she decided she might combine both for a career. She’ll spend the next few years learning how to teach children and support parents as she works to become an Occupational Therapist.
Together, we have occupied almost every sector of the campus. We’ve been on Walkabout four times, Bridges a bazillion times, Chapel band retreat in Dana Point (the younger two were MUCH smarter than the older three), Engstrom (x3), Trinity (x3), Smith, Bowles, The Mods (x2), UP, Crestview/University Village (x4).
But underneath the individual stories is a thread of truth that ties our individuality together, that tells a bigger story that we’re all vying to make louder. It’s the story of passion, purpose, and service.
Dr. Wallace, we are so grateful for the way you gave. We’ve known you, Gail, and your three kids just enough to know that every aspect of our experience, while crafted by an institution, was led by, prayed for, and dreamed of because of your deep, deep commitment to challenging students to become more tangible, palpable change in each sector of our world. You don’t do it for the pay or for the pomp and circumstance. You give and keep giving, through illness and setbacks, through awards, accolades, and life change.
So, Jon, here is the greatest gift you gave my family: Not an event, not a sermon, and not a singular leadership training event. You created a space where each of us could grow up into who God created us to be, and empowered us to go forth and be just that. We heard it from you, and we heard it from Woody and Chris, no doubt. But we heard about it in the day to day, in the normalcy of classes and lectures from Dr. Griesinger, Karen (Now Dr. Sorenson-Lang), Dr. Beatty, Dr. Gerali, Professor Higgins, Dr. Hauge, Dr. Andersen, Dr. Henck and Dr. Reverend Lambert. And we heard it through the leaders and mentors, the people who took us aside just to tell us they believed we could keep going: Stacie, Jan, Peggy, Dr. Ed Barron, Dr. Mike Lizárraga, Dr. Terry Franson, and Dr. Bixby. Day in and day out we were taught how to think, how to question, how to reason, and how to discover. We were drenched in truth, both externally and internally. We were challenged to become the best version of ourselves and then to work tirelessly to give that best of ourselves in service to others.
This next Saturday, as the dusk turns to night, as we watch the last one climb up the stairs to the stage, her stomach fluttering with excitement and sadness, she’ll cross the threshold to the next chapter of her life. We’ll cheer for her louder than the four times prior. And we’ll applaud for the change that occurred in the last fourteen years, for the days that were hard, and the days where we knew deep in our soul that we are a part of something so much bigger than our individual stories. We are family, but we are also connected forevermore to the people and friends who became a part of our greater community. Community that withstands graduation ceremonies, transitions, and location. Community that continues to leave a mark in every chapter, in every story.
John’s Graduation, 2011
Phil’s Graduation, 2008
Corrie’s Graduation, 2006