Friday, November 26, 2010

The spirit that moves them at Vanguard - by Judge Jim Gray

We have a real gem in our midst, which is Vanguard University of Southern California, and everyone should be aware and proud of it. As I hope you know, this four-year Christian university, which has an enrollment of 1,457 undergraduates and 703 postgraduates, is located on Fair Street and Newport Boulevard, and is just across from the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. And a gem? How about being named to the top five best baccalaureate small colleges in the West by U.S. News & World Report for each of the last three years?

My association with Vanguard began when I was asked about five or six years ago by my now-friend Elizabeth Leonard to speak to her sociology class about drug policy. Since then, I have been back at least 10 times to speak to other classes and forums about various topics, one of which included a rabbi friend of mine talking about the Jewish faith. I have always found the students to be bright, inquisitive, questioning and engaging.

As a result of these talks, I noticed Vanguard's performing arts programs, beginning with the music program under James Melton. In a word: superb! The musicians and singers are as talented, well-instructed and sophisticated as any I have seen, and they have performed recently at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City, as well as in China, Europe, South Korea and Canada. But don't just take my word for it; you can hear them for yourself at their Christmas concerts either at the Performing Arts Center Nov. 30, or at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church on Dec. 3. Both concerts begin at 8 p.m., and I will be deeply surprised if you are not as impressed as I am.

My wife, Grace, and I have also mostly been blown away by Vanguard's drama department. We went first to see their performance of "Life Without Parole," which was written by VUSC Professor Warren Boody and is based upon Elizabeth Leonard's doctoral thesis, "Convicted Survivors." The story centers around women who were so abused by their husbands or boyfriends that they eventually resorted to violence and even murder to make it stop. Obviously, these women must be held accountable for their actions, and the play does not imply anything to the contrary, but it will impress you that the situation of abuse also must be heavily taken into consideration by both society and the court system.

That play was so compelling, and was also so well directed and performed, that we immediately signed up for season tickets, and I recommend you do the same. The most recent performance was of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," and it brought tears to my eyes. The next performance will be "It's A Wonderful Life," and I expect it will have the same effect.

I could go on and describe the other achievements of these professors and students, such as the fact that Vanguard has an amazingly high acceptance rate at quality medical schools around the country. But the fundamental thing that truly sets this university apart is the spirit of almost everyone involved. Yes, like almost all students who begin their college experience, these students are innately idealistic, but this university gives many of them both the tools and the inspiration to carry that idealism on through the rest of their lives.

For example, some of Vanguard's recent graduates have dedicated their lives to helping to provide employment and education to war-affected women in Northern Uganda. In that pursuit they founded "Krochet Kids," which has taught these women to make unique and uplifting types of caps which have been exported all around the world, to the degree that their beanies are now sold in Nordstrom. This program has been so successful that the Ford Motor Co.'s program "The People's Fleet" awarded the Ugandan workers a new car.

Another program in Uganda that was initiated by graduates of Vanguard is called "31 Bits." The name comes from The Bible's Proverbs Chapter 31, which tell a story about a woman providing for her family. The "bits" refers to the scraps of paper that are used to make beads, which are in turn used to decorate jewelry and shoes. 31 Bits now employs 60 women and sells products like its "Ugandals" online, at Seed People's Market at "The Camp" in Costa Mesa, and through a partnership with Reef Sandals.

Other VUSC grads have founded an orphanage! It goes on and on. But when you are exposed to this wonderful temple of higher learning, you will start taking results like these in stride. Why? Because you will see that there is a passion for humanity that is rampant on this campus, and it is unlike anything I have ever seen outside of the Peace Corps.

For example, the recently released feature film, "Sin by Silence," was created by a VUSC graduate filmmaker who came back to the school only to teach as an adjunct professor. But when she was started accompanying Elizabeth Leonard on her visits to a women's prison, the stories about some of the inmates having been beaten by their husbands was so compelling that she simply had to document it to the world.

As set forth in its website, Vanguard's stated purpose is to "pursue knowledge, cultivate character, deepen Christian faith, and equip each student for a life of leadership and service." Every university has a stated purpose like that, but I hope you join me in congratulating and being involved with one that literally puts its stated purpose into lasting practice. Vanguard University of Southern California, you have every right to be proud of what you stand for, and what you are doing. Well done!

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical revue "Americans All" (Heuer Publishing), and can be contacted, or through his website at

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