When students attended chapel for the first time, they were greeted by the University’s most prominent leader: President Dr. Debra A. Schwinn.
Schwinn spoke in chapel Monday through Thursday during the first week of classes. She shared her personal testimony, along with an encouragement to students to be flexible and embrace the unconditional love of God.
Schwinn experienced God’s unconditional love for the first time as a 16-year-old at a summer music camp at a Methodist resort, she said. The youth pastor gave a message as the waves of a lake lapped against the dock and the stars shined in the dark night sky.
“For the first time, I realized that not only did God love people unconditionally; He actually went to the cross because He loved me unconditionally,” Schwinn said. “That changed everything. Scales came off my eyes, and I dedicated my life to Christ that evening.”
While God used music to call her to Him, she had a growing interest in other subjects, particularly chemistry. She reconsidered her decision to apply only to conservatories to study violin and applied to the College of Wooster, a liberal arts school near her home in Ohio.
There, as a chemistry major, she grew as a Christian and as a scientist. She earned straight As, achieved an excellent Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score and honed her skills as a violinist, while having fun fiddling in a student bluegrass band and remaining active in Christian community.
When Schwinn decided to apply to medical school, a biology professor whom she admired sat down with her and said, “I don’t think you’re going to get in,” she recalled. It was because her MCAT scores were excellent, not outstanding, she said. Yet every medical school that she applied to accepted her, and she enrolled at Stanford University.
“I’ll never forget that I could have given up when he said that to me,” Schwinn said. “Don’t give up. God has plans for each and every one of us.”
That encouragement ties into the theme Schwinn selected for the year, “Trust in the Lord.” The theme is based on Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways surrender to him, and He will make your paths straight.”
While in medical school, Schwinn met her now-husband, Dr. Robert Gerstmyer, in a post-college group at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. Gerstmyer was a computer programmer in Silicon Valley who had decided to attend Fuller Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Divinity degree. Afterward, the couple moved to Philadelphia, where Schwinn completed her residency in anesthesiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Gerstmyer completed his Master of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.
They spent most of their careers at Duke University, where Gerstmyer earned his Doctor of Philosophy in New Testament, and Schwinn served in senior faculty leadership roles. Throughout that time, they were active members of a church and hosted small groups in their home to incorporate their faith into their daily lives.
Nearly 30 years after Schwinn accepted Christ’s unconditional love at music camp at the age of 16, she came to a realization, she said.
“I woke up as an adult, an accomplished physician-scientist, member of the National Academy of Medicine, and I realized I was still trying to earn God’s love,” Schwinn said. “Since I knew God loved me unconditionally, I recognized I was not allowing myself to be loved, that I was the block. It was the first time in my life where I felt: ‘Oh my gosh, maybe I’m a failure on what matters most.’ There will be times in every single one of your lives where you’re going to feel like you didn’t accomplish the thing you wanted.”
However, as He often does, God used the realization for good, Schwinn said. He took her on a journey of listening, she said. During the next few years, she sat quietly every morning to listen to what God was saying to her and, gradually, allowed herself to be loved. This new sense of God’s unconditional love opened the door to deeper compassion and ability to love those around her in deeper ways.
Earlier this year, Schwinn answered God’s call to Christian higher education, specifically to lead Palm Beach Atlantic University. She assumed the presidency on May 4. Schwinn reminded students to allow themselves to be loved unconditionally by God. When they’re scared, or a loved one dies or they fail an exam, that’s when He is holding them closest, she said.
She also pointed out that the Christian walk is an ever-deepening journey, one where being flexible and letting go of plans — or holding them loosely — allows God to act in unexpected ways. Sitting with God in the morning is where she lets go of what she has planned for the day, she added.
Finally, Schwinn urged students to allow God to work through them in ways that they never allowed Him to have control before. Radical trust in God runs deep — through the heart, the soul and then the mind, she said. Because Western society tends to be intellectually-centered, that is often how we learn; it takes time for what we understand intellectually to soak into our hearts and souls, she said. Once believers trust in Him, they rest secure in His wisdom, goodness, power and promises.
Prior to Schwinn’s remarks, chapel intern Kyle Martin expressed gratitude for the ability to be together, even wearing masks and spaced 6 feet apart.
“The best thing that the University can do is to open and to let us have this experience and to keep us safe,” said Martin, a sophomore studying politics. “I’m appreciative of it, and I hope you are as well.”
Schwinn and Dr. Bernie Cueto, campus pastor and vice president for spiritual development, assured students that PBA wants to help them get to the next step on their faith journey, regardless of where they’re starting.
God is at work, even in this strange, messy season, Cueto said.
“When I study the Bible, I realize that God does his greatest work in the midst of the mess,” Cueto said. “The important thing is for us to be teachable, humble and available to him.”
Photo 1: President Dr. Debra A. Schwinn speaks to students in chapel during the first week of classes. She spoke about first coming to faith as a teenager and then re-discovering and experiencing the unconditional love of God again as an accomplished adult.
Photo 2: Students gather for chapel services during the first week of classes. University President Dr. Debra A. Schwinn was the chapel speaker.