Embracing Change: Extending Mission in the Digital Age


At AdventHealth University (AHU), students prepare for careers in health, science, academia, and leadership. Early in 2020, faculty leaders in Orlando and Denver quickly innovated teaching for online platforms and adapted to new rules imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Support teams ensured that labs, simulation clinics and digital technologies were up to the challenge, and during the worst health crisis in 100 years, their enrollment increased.

On the heels of 2020, AHU is poised for a new era of innovation and strategic growth. in the years ahead. “The people of AHU are all heroes in my book,” said Edwin Hernández, PhD, AHU president. “Our amazing faculty kept our virtual doors open, embraced new technologies, counseled students through fear and uncertainty, innovated safe clinical education, and ensured that a fresh crop of graduates were ready to enter the workforce on time, with excellent skills, uncommon compassion, and an intense desire to serve.”

Since its inception, the university has been guided by Biblical principles informed by its Seventh-day Adventist heritage, an honored and essential component of the university’s mission, vision, and values. AHU extends the healing ministry of Christ by transforming students through the power of faith-based education., which today includes active learning modalities, innovative technologies, interprofessional clinical education and missional service experiences.

“The unique AIIM learning model at AHU — active, innovative, interprofessional, missional — has served our students especially well throughout 2020,” Hernández said. “[It] equips learners for the realities of modern health care, which encompasses scientific and academic research; lifelong learning in classroom, lab and clinical settings; and top-quality care that connects physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.”

This triad of research, education and health care is a “time-honored tradition in academic medical centers and in the Adventist faith tradition worldwide,” according to Hernández. At AdventHealth and AHU, the health system’s national university, the triad may also hold the formula for future insight and innovation in whole-person care, the promise of AdventHealth as advanced by Adventists 150 years ago.

“AHU is a foundational institution in AdventHealth’s journey to become a dynamic learning community. As we look boldly toward the future of health care, our aspiration is to build AHU into a national asset that will train a significant portion of our clinical workforce in the delivery of whole-person care – body, mind and spirit, ” said Terry Shaw, president and CEO for AdventHealth. "When we treat people, we want to treat them from a whole-person perspective."

With this shared commitment, both institutions are positioned to develop the research, training, and curricula to better prepare professionals to provide whole-person care.

A Community that Connects, Supports and Equips

At AHU, a story is often retold about the difference between U.S. and Australian farmers’ approach to livestock in their care. U.S. farmers build fences to contain livestock, defining boundaries of ownership. In Australia, where farms (called stations) are much larger and fencing costs prohibitive, farmers contain animals by digging a well. The water, essential to survival, keeps livestock voluntarily close and within safe boundaries.

AHU culture reflects the well as a metaphor for its Christo-centric worldview: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." John 12:32. By welcoming students of all backgrounds and beliefs, all three AHU campuses — Orlando, Denver, Online — are safe places where all can choose to strengthen their relationship with God. That “well” — one’s personal relationship with God — draws students to AHU, keeps them close and then sends them into the world fortified with deep and abiding faith.

Savanah Watson, an AHU Denver student, testified that her time at AHU was the driving force behind her decision to be baptized into the Adventist faith in November 2020. “At AHU, I felt welcomed, seen, heard and loved,” said Watson. “I became part of a community that was unlike anything I had ever experienced. My professors believed in me, and they helped me build my relationship with God and my confidence. My life will never be the same.”

“My vision for AHU is grounded in collaborative and integrative research, the source of new human knowledge, insight and understanding in this amazing world we share,” Hernández said. “Alongside the brilliant minds at AdventHealth, AHU scholars and academic research partners are embarking on a journey to uncover the still-unsolved mysteries of faith and healing, prayer and wellness, spiritual practice and human flourishing.”

This research agenda could chart new pathways in the education of whole-person care professionals. Whole-person care, Hernández said, extends to the entire health care operation, including the discovery of new treatments, cures and preventive vaccines, and the essential education of current and future health care professionals.

Carla G. Park, PhD, executive director of faith community strategy at AdventHealth and AHU assistant to the president for mission, frames whole-person care as the foundation of teaching and learning at AHU, including theological understanding, personal wholeness, skill building, research endeavors, and strategic vision. “Faith is not simply an extra thing we do; it is the foundation upon which we build an ethic of wonder, curiosity, and compassion,” Park said. “We encourage personal wholeness, in ourselves and in our students.”

In addition to advancing this research agenda, AHU is deeply committed to ensuring equitable access to education, opportunity and purpose-driven careers. Hernández cited projected workforce shortages in health care, particularly in nursing and primary care physicians, as a potential crisis that must be prevented, beginning in 2021.

Key to preventing future gaps in the health care workforce, according to Hernández, is expanding the education net to include more people with the potential, sense of purpose and passion required for demanding health care, research and academic professions.

To continue to support students, address impending workforce needs and meet growing student demand, AHU has introduced new clinical degree tracks, an evening nursing program in Orlando, and a new Master of Science in spiritual care. But for many students, the challenge of funding their education persists. AdventHealth and AHU are exploring new avenues to make school more affordable for all students, particularly those with high potential and financial need. Geographic scholarship funds, innovative employment/education models and employer-sponsored tuition are all under investigation.

Another key to preventing a health care workforce crisis: online education. Since 2001, AHU has been an early adopter, leader and innovator in online learning. AHU’s e-learning includes its 100% virtual option, AHU Online, which offers seven degrees, including four master’s programs.

“With online access, all students who feel called to health care have access to AHU’s mission-focused education, no matter the physical distance,” said Deena Slockett, EdD, chief operations officer for AHU Online. “AHU adopted and implemented technology-driven instruction over two decades ago — and continues to offer excellence in the design and delivery of health care education.”

University leaders stress that online learning is not only consistent with traditional Christian learning, it can sometimes provide a safer space for students to explore their faith. “The importance of our work in health care requires connecting students to our mission,” said Slockett. “AHU provides virtual forums, community worship services and prayer gatherings to support spiritual growth in addition to professional growth.”

Additionally, support services are completely online and delivered by chaplains, coaches and counselors whose concern for students encompasses their academic, mental, emotional, spiritual, physical and financial well-being. Counseling, tutoring, writing support, academic guidance and coaching are created to provide a high-quality, personalized and mission-centric focus to AHU’s online communities.

Transforming the Science and Practice of Whole-Person Care

As education and technology continue to evolve, AHU puts innovation at the forefront of its vision. On that front, the team behind AHU’s Immersive Technologies Lab (ITL) is critical to AHU’s growth. Focused on virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 360-degree video projects, the ITL team initially created deliverables for the university to supplement in-person education and explore solutions to unique challenges in health care.

Founded by Dan Lim, PhD, vice president of educational technology and innovation, the ITL has exploded with growth in recent years. Projects range from equipment training to a recent award-winning project designed to help hospitals plan resource allocation and distribution for COVID-19. Developed in partnership with Full Sail University, the project leveraged one of many new relationships AHU has developed in this space.

A whole-person care research project currently underway in partnership with ITL is using advanced learning technologies to train key components of whole-person care, including empathy and compassion. Video simulations based on AHU’s chaplain rounding projects for graduate students give more students access to this invaluable, spiritual experience in a virtual learning environment. Now going into year two of the study, Lim reported receiving positive feedback already. One nursing student said that after experiencing the immersive chaplain rounding, she “finally understood the difference between sympathy and empathy.”

Another breakthrough came with an invitation to meet with Apple executives in Cupertino to explore a partnership piloting iPad Pros as a learning tool. Key professionals from AdventHealth and AHU traveled to California to learn how online learning, research, assignments, labs and assessments could be integrated on one device able to deliver AR content. With the support of nursing faculty leaders and a generous, private donor who expressed enthusiasm about the innovative project, Lim’s team is preparing to launch the pilot with nursing programs in Orlando and Denver.

Partnership benefits include full support from Apple, including a dedicated educational device engineer and a dedicated Apple distinguished educator who has a nursing faculty background. The iPad Pros assigned to nursing students in the cohort will serve as everything from a digital textbook to supplemental learning with pre-loaded applications, such as the Complete Anatomy AR app from Elsevier. Another important benefit of using the iPads is ensuring secure testing environments for students.

“If the entire student learning experience is seamlessly executed on a single mobile device and confirmed by data, it could change the way we prepare health care professionals for seamless patient care and great customer service in the health care marketplace,” said Lim. If the pilot groups are successful, they could serve as a foundation for an expansion of the program in the future.

Because of its core mission and aspirational vision to transform the science and practice of whole-person care, AHU is committed to strengthening efforts to innovate in e-learning and other education technology. AHU leaders embrace and explore all new initiatives with the intent to improve health care teaching and learning, expand scientific and academic inquiry, and develop influential leaders of uncommon compassion who will advance the healing ministry of Christ.

“We’re not afraid of the future; we are embracing this moment of change as a brilliant opportunity,” said Hernández. “The future of health care and education demands a culture of learning, a hunger for excellence and innovative leaders fearlessly committed to serving God’s healing mission.”