P.J. Gramling: The joy of being with students for the long haul

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P.J. Gramling is the director of admission for Howard Payne University. She is a member of Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood. From deep in the heart of one Texan, she shares her background and thoughts on Christian higher education. To suggest a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated leader to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.


How long have you been at Howard Payne?

As a student, I transferred to Howard Payne University in the spring of 1979 and graduated in May 1981.

My husband Gary Gramling has been teaching on faculty in the School of Christian Studies at Howard Payne since the fall of 1990; so, I have been a faculty wife for 30 years.

For 12 years, I have been on staff in the Office of Admission, where I serve as director of admission.

Where else have you served, and what were your positions there?

I served for three years at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., as the administrative assistant to the provost and dean of academic affairs, Robert Cate. Out of college, I worked in the oil and gas industry at F. Howard Walsh in Fort Worth.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Fort Worth.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

On my 13th birthday, a friend named Delisa invited me to a youth revival at North Fort Worth Baptist Church. My memory is so vivid of that evening.

Delisa and I were sitting on the front row in a large auditorium filled with hundreds of other youth. During the sermon, I remember thinking I needed Jesus. The preacher seemed to be looking at me when he gave the invitation.

“Heirlooms,” a song by Amy Grant, has a phrase, “I remember the first time his love ever pierced my heart.” That is how I remember feeling that evening. Jesus’ love pierced my heart.

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North Fort Worth Baptist Church has a special place in my heart for several reasons. When I was a very small child, I remember walking that same aisle with my mom when she accepted Christ. I joined North Fort Worth after I graduated from college, and it was my first real church home. Gary grew up at North Fort Worth, and he came to serve there as youth minister a few months after I joined. Gary and I reconnected after college, started dating and eventually were married at North Fort Worth.

Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?

I graduated from Castleberry High School in Fort Worth in 1977.  I earned the Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Howard Payne in Brownwood in 1981.

About education

Why do you feel called into education?

When my husband Gary started teaching at HPU, I stayed at home with our children until our daughter Hannah was a senior and our son John was a sophomore in high school.

As Hannah was researching colleges during her senior year, I started reaching out to friends at HPU to ask questions regarding the admission and financial aid process. Finally, one of the administrators asked if I could meet him at his office. He said he was looking for someone who loved students and loved Howard Payne to work with local Brown County students and churches.

At the time, I was not looking intentionally for a job, but two weeks before this meeting, I wrote in my prayer journal: “God, I am driving this big white suburban, and no one is riding in it. What do you have for me next?”

The Lord answered my prayer by giving me a new job and ministry to prospective students and their families.

Also, Gary and I were first-generation college students. Our parents did not have the opportunity to graduate from college, and yet, they supported and encouraged us to go to college.

Having a degree has opened so many doors that otherwise would not have been open to us. I am grateful my job includes helping other first-generation college students.

How does being a Christian influence your work in education?

Students who attend Howard Payne come from a variety of family and spiritual backgrounds. Just like any other ministry, I try to be aware the families I work with may or may not have a relationship with Christ.

It is such a joy to get to know the students and families as I visit with them regarding the admission process. I heard Jane Wilson say many years ago, “I ask the Lord in the morning to help me be the answer to someone’s prayer today.” I try to remember to pray this each morning as I work with families. I want to follow the Lord and minister through my job every day.

At HPU, we seek to reach out to prospective students and continue to care about students after they enroll. I have the opportunity to be a part of students’ lives after they enroll at HPU. It is a joy to see students find the Lord as their Savior, grow in their faith and also to come alongside and support them through their struggles.

It is my joy when students reach out to me for help or prayer. One student came to see me almost every day after moving into the residence hall during a fall semester. A few weeks passed, and the student only came by once or twice a week. As more time passed, the student only checked in a few times a semester. I loved being part of that student’s journey to graduation.

What is your advice to incoming college students to Howard Payne University?

My advice starts with an insight from Kalie Lowrie. Kalie said, “Being a freshman student at college is the great equalizer.”

Most freshmen are nervous and excited about starting college, because they are starting over. However, starting over also can be fun and exciting if you push beyond your comfort zone.

I always encourage students to attend all activities planned for incoming students, even if they are nervous or feel alone. It is a time when everyone feels nervous; so, be the one who reaches out to others to help them feel included.

What is your favorite aspect of education? Why?

I have heard it said Howard Payne is a great place to try things on and see what fits. One of my favorite aspects of education is when students discover an area or major that piques their interest. I have seen an interest develop into a passion through classes, internships, conversations with professors and off-campus experiences. To see a student find the right career fit can be life-changing and a joy to watch.

My son John was not interested in going to college, even though he was a strong student. However, Lynn Humeniuk, professor of criminal justice, started talking to John about pursuing a degree in criminal justice. Lynn was instrumental in encouraging John to continue his education, become a Brown County sheriff’s deputy, graduate from HPU and eventually become a DPS trooper.

What one aspect of education gives you the greatest joy?

Honestly, I prefer to be behind the scenes and help enhance the student’s educational experience in small ways. I enjoy those one-on-one conversations with students who are working through decisions or needing some perspective. My husband tells me I have a great deal of common sense, and so, I am able to provide some helpful advice or perspective.

One of my favorite things is to make chocolate chip cookies for students. I started many years ago making cookies for the first day and last day of Gary’s classes each semester. Also, I love making chocolate chip cookie bags for our student workers, for Super Summer friends, for special occasions, etc. Sometimes, people ask me why my cookies taste different. The love from my grandmother’s more than 50-year-old cookie sheet is the answer.

What one aspect of education would you like to change?

I think high school seniors sometimes feel pushed to make a college decision too early. Many students need time to visit and consider which college is the right fit.

Sometimes, college students feel pushed to declare a major before they are ready. Some of them arrive here with quite a few hours from dual enrollment or from AP credit, and so, they feel pressure to declare a major right away. But frequently, they need a little time to connect with a particular professor or subject area before they know for sure what academic direction to take.

How do you expect education to change in the next 10 to 20 years?

It seems it is becoming much more common for American students to earn a college degree. Also, much of the education being offered now is online. At Howard Payne, we currently emphasize the classroom experience for students.

Because of our size, students get to know their fellow students well. Part of their classroom experience involves learning to speak and respond respectfully to people who have a different opinion or people with whom they disagree. Thus, the close community of students at HPU provides opportunities for students to grow in their social and relational skills, while also developing spiritually and intellectually.

I believe the growing number of online degrees, while increasing the convenience of higher education, eventually will result in many educated people who have not had the opportunity to become skilled at social interaction.

Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing education.

Financial: Many families have not been able to save for college; so, the cost is stressful. It is often difficult for families to share their financial situations. I am grateful for the Financial Aid Office at HPU that helps families navigate through the financial aid process.

Family circumstance: Some students come from families who are not able to support them emotionally. Students need emotional support as they navigate the academic and social challenges of living away from home. The faculty and staff at HPU are very supportive when we become aware of needs.

Anxiety: A growing number of students struggle with anxiety. Of course, anxiety stems from a variety of sources. In the days ahead, I believe colleges and universities will need to provide more formal and informal counseling to help address this need.

What do you wish more people knew about education?

Christian education at the college level should help students gain the academic preparation to start a career, and it should offer a variety of activities and experiences to help them mature socially and grow spiritually.

Sometimes, this is the first time students have the opportunity to makes decisions that will affect their lives. The reason I believe in Christian education is a student can have a positive and caring environment in which to choose classes, social activities and friends—including faculty and staff members—who could endure the rest of their lives.

My academic and social experiences at HPU gave me the confidence to succeed in my first job in the oil and gas industry. I still get together with the friends I met at HPU in 1978. We have been there for each other through our lives. The education I received and friendships I made at HPU have enriched my life.

If you could get one “do over” in education, what would it be, and why?

I would do more research and give more thought to the decision of what major to pursue.

About P.J.

Why are you Baptist?

My dad was Catholic, and my mom was Baptist. Sometimes, I attended Mass and Sunday school on the same day. It was not until I was in college that I made the decision to attend a Baptist church.

I think it is the emphasis that Jesus is our personal Savior, the focus on the Bible and the encouragement to be mission-minded that makes me a Baptist. I also appreciate the Baptist emphases on the priesthood of the believer and local church autonomy.

Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?

My first mentors were fellow students at HPU. My first mentor was Teri Davis Andrews. She loved the Scripture and taught me how it could make a difference in my life. I remember walking into her room on the third floor at Veda Hodge, and she was on the floor reading her Bible. At the time, I did not own a Bible. She showed me the Scripture she was reading and talked to me about what the Lord was showing her through Scripture.

Vickie Clarke at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church always has been an example of a godly mother and church worker. I was watching Vickie, and she did not even realize it. She did not worry about what others thought but always seemed to care about working “as unto to the Lord” while raising her children and being involved at church. Vickie and Keith Clark were our children’s church grandparents since we did not have family in town.

Cindy Liebrum always has been there for me when it came to being involved with ministers and denominational organizations. Cindy has been an example of how to make others feel welcome and important. I know the way I feel would probably surprise Cindy since she is just being herself. I always say I am one of her many best friends.

What did you learn on the job you wish you learned elsewhere?

I learned from Cheryl Mangrum, associate director of admission at HPU, if a student does not have the academic qualifications or the time is not right to enroll at HPU, then it is our job to help him or her make an academic plan. Cheryl taught me sometimes people we encounter need hope. We can give them hope by helping them make a plan for their future.

What is the impact of education on your family?

My husband, two children, and I all have graduated from Howard Payne—Gary and I in 1981, Hannah in 2012 and John in 2015. We did not require our children to choose HPU, but I am so grateful they did.

Hannah was nine months old when we came to HPU. John was born in 1992 while Gary was teaching. Our children literally grew up with the HPU campus as their playground. They kept their toys in one of the empty spaces near Gary’s office. When our children were young, Gary and I would pray for our children to have meaningful relationships with godly adults. Many of the faculty and staff have provided those meaningful godly relationships.

After earning a degree in business, our daughter became a successful real estate agent in Fort Worth. After earning a degree in criminal justice, our son is enjoying his work as a state trooper in Sweetwater for the Department of Public Safety.

Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.

Failing Forward by John Maxwell. I love this book because it explains failing can help us to succeed. Maxwell’s writing style is so fun and easy to read.

Joseph, Moses, Esther by Chuck Swindoll. I love these books because the Bible characters become real people.

The New Gold Standard by Joseph A. Michelli. HPU President Cory Hines mentioned this book when he first came to HPU. It is an encouragement to me always to be looking for a way to be more professional in my job.

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

Proverbs 3:5-6. I started my college career at another university. I was trying to decide if I should transfer to Howard Payne. Since I did not have a Bible, I wrote this verse on an index card and read it over and over again. It was the first Scripture I memorized, and it was the first Scripture that helped me make an important life decision.

Name something about you that would surprise people who know you.

I met my husband because I went out with his roommate. My advice to college girls always has been to be nice to the roommates, because you never know how it will end.

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