The University’s next president is a lifelong learner with a deep, ever-growing faith, an innovative spirit and a penchant for bluegrass fiddling to boot.
Debra A. Schwinn, the associate vice president for medical affairs at the University of Iowa, will join PBA in May, after the retirement of President William M. B. Fleming, Jr. She was selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants.
An accomplished violinist, Schwinn put her faith in Jesus at a Methodist music camp on Lake Erie as a teenager. She shared her testimony with about 300 faculty members, staff and students during chapel on Thursday, following the announcement of her hiring.
“For the first time in my entire life, I understood that God’s love is unconditional,” Schwinn said. “It was as though the scales came off my eyes, and nothing was the same after that.”
After her conversion, she joined a vibrant youth group and began reading the Bible. God nudged her to rethink her plan of pursuing music in a conservatory at the expense of more academic studies. All the deadlines had passed, and she hadn’t applied to a single college or university. But she couldn’t bear the thought of giving up on other subjects, most notably, chemistry.
She enrolled in the nearby College of Wooster, a historically Presbyterian institution, where she took Bible courses and courses such as African history to satisfy her liberal arts requirements.
“It really changed my perspective of the world,” Schwinn said. “I’m very grateful, and I’m a very strong believer in the liberal arts as a result.”
She kept up with violin, played in a bluegrass band and gave lessons to professors’ children to buy books — all the while growing in her faith through a student-led church and small groups.
“We really tried to take our faith seriously and deeply,” Schwinn said.
During her junior year, she decided to go to medical school, and she excelled at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Along the way, she met her husband, Dr. Robert Gerstmyer, in a small group for post-graduate students at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. At the time, Gerstmyer was a computer programmer in Silicon Valley — although he had already made up his mind to go to seminary.
She graduated from Stanford the same weekend that Gerstmyer graduated with his Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Schwinn completed her residency in anesthesiology at the University of Pennsylvania, and then followed Gerstmyer to Duke University, where she was on the faculty for 18 years and completed a research fellowship in the Departments of Biochemistry and Medicine. She served in senior leadership roles at Duke and the University of Washington prior to her positions at the University of Iowa.
Once again, Schwinn felt God’s clear call — this time away from running healthcare systems and toward the Christian university setting. Schwinn said Palm Beach Atlantic was the right fit because of the University’s innovativeness and “the real need and my desire to make sure that a Christ-first liberal arts education is deeply supported.”
“In today’s world, really strong Christ-centered universities are essential, absolutely essential,” Schwinn said. “We need godly men and women leaders in this country.”
PBA is a place where students can explore their faith. Professors embrace students as they undergo a transformation from the faith they had before college to one that is storm-hardened, or “hurricane-proof,” Schwinn said.
Faculty members challenge students to ask tough questions and to know that God is working in the world.
“That’s a real privilege, and a strength,” Schwinn said.
As a liberal arts institution, PBA prepares students to achieve their potential by developing creativity and innovation that companies such as Microsoft and Google desire. Students also gain the analytical acumen to turn a profit.
A visionary leader herself, Schwinn loves forecasting needs 10 or even 20 years from now and developing interdisciplinary centers to meet those needs. She wants to “create a path into the future so that PBA is leading others into the future,” she said.
Photo 1: Dr. Debra A. Schwinn speaks to about 300 staff, faculty, students and trustees in the DeSantis Family Chapel on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
Photo 2: President-Elect Dr. Debra A. Schwinn greets Kara Wenger, director of residence life; Natalie Johnson, director of student activities, involvement & leadership; Kate Magro, assistant dean of students and Kristin Knudsen, associate director of student activities, involvement and leadership during a reception on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, following the announcement of her hiring.