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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Christian University Celebrates First Graduation

Dressed in traditional black caps and gowns, the first 19 graduates of the Russian American Christian University proceeded across the stage as their names were announced in Russian and then English.

Speakers at Saturday's bilingual ceremony at the Peoples' Friendship University auditorium in southern Moscow sounded a common message: These students have a path to follow.

"You have glorified God in your studies, now glorify him in your lives," said Stanley Clark, a visitor from Geneva College in Pennsylvania.

While hundreds of American colleges and universities are faith-based, secular education is the norm in Russia — making RACU likely the only place where, in a marketing class, the professor tells students to open the Bible to the Book of Matthew.

"We don't just teach them to count money," said Vladimir Solodovnikov, history and philosophy professor.

By graduation, students should speak fluent English and have ample computer skills. An RACU education also means that students are trained in "democratic and free-market values" and are "morally and ethically grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition," said Larry Ort, vice president for academic affairs.

"Now we can tell our country there are Christian leaders ready to come and fight for it," said student speaker Gagik "Chuck" Grigorian, who works as a financial analyst at Golden Telecom and says he pays all his taxes.

Opened in spring 1995, RACU intends to be a mesh of both the North American and Russian educational systems and the 12-member board of trustees and nearly 50 faculty members represent both countries.

The idea for RACU was hatched in 1990 when the education minister asked American John Bernbaum to establish a Christian liberal arts college.

Bernbaum, who was involved with higher education reform at the time and is now the university's president, said he thinks the request stemmed from frustration with other Western institutions that came to Russia in the late '80s to set up programs, but left when money dried up. Also in 1990, a group of 16 Russian university presidents visited liberal arts colleges in the United States and, according to Bernbaum, were enthralled for the first time in academic conversations about ethics and business, morality and technology.

Speakers at Saturday's ceremony emphasized that the Russian American Christian University holds special significance in Russia, where business and financial activities are not lauded for their honesty and transparency. One speaker urged the students to stay in their home country to make it better.

"If believers are to be the salt of the earth, they are to bring the salt where the salt is needed most," said Yekaterina Smyslova, a member of the board of trustees.

Of the 19 graduates of the class of 2001, 11 of them are business majors.

Business and social work are the only majors offered, with English and possibly education and law to be added in the future. The 19 graduates of the class of 2001, 11 of them business majors, hail from Ukraine, Crimea, Smolensk and Moscow, among other cities.

The university does not have its own campus yet and classes have been held at more than one site. A permanent campus near Babushkinskaya metro station is under construction.

Not all of the students and faculty are practicing Christians, with their religions ranging from Baptist to Catholic, Russian Orthodox to Messianic Jew. They also have a range of reasons for coming to RACU.

Russian-language teacher Nelya Roslekova wanted a place where she could openly speak about God and calls finding her new job a "miracle." David Broersma, chairman of the English language department, was interested in teaching and living abroad.

"Some are more expressive of the way their theological tradition informs their academic discipline," Bernbaum said of teachers. "Others are less interested in the connecting points between their discipline and their religious faith."

Student Andrei Urakov of Podolsk in the Moscow region said he attended RACU because it's American, affordable and he had friends there. Student speaker Grigorian sought a business education presented "through the prism of the Bible."

It's too early for RACU to receive Education Ministry accreditation, but students and faculty don't see this as a problem. The school even considered not seeking accreditation because of the state control over curriculum that comes along with it, Bernbaum said.

He added that graduating business majors are being snapped up quickly by big firms in Moscow, though it's a different story for social work majors since it is not a traditional discipline.

Most of the students pay just 20 percent of the $5,000 annual tuition, and financial sponsorship hails mostly from the United States. Corporations contributing to graduation ceremonies included American Express, Delta Airlines and SUAL Holdings/Tyumen Oil Co. Eleven partner universities in the United States also contribute.

Bernbaum said American sponsors will not always be around with handouts, but he sees a new source of funding emerging: Alumni. In closing remarks, Bernbaum told the departing students that they could expect to receive regular correspondence from their alma mater asking for support.