Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA)

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Eastern Mennonite University Campus Center Building
Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Overview and History

In 2017, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) marked its centennial year of offering a liberal arts, faith-based education with the distinctively Anabaptist core values of service, social justice, peacebuilding, and cross-cultural engagement. From the main campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia, satellite sites in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, and online courses, in 2018 EMU served nearly 2,000 undergraduate, graduate, professional, and seminary students from more than 50 countries. The small, rural Bible school that started in 1917, created explicitly for Mennonite children to protect them from the negative influences of the wider world, served students from 60 denominations and faith traditions in more than 60 programs with nearly 20,000 graduates serving around the world.

Eastern Mennonite School (EMS) first opened in 1917 in a former hotel with six students. By 1919, the school had grown to 77 students. A nearby farm was purchased in 1919 and building began on what is the current campus. Founded as a conservative alternative to Mennonite schools in the midwest, EMS started as an academy (high school) but quickly added a college-level Bible program. The Commonwealth of Virginia accredited the academy in 1921 and throughout the 1920s EMU expanded its college-level offerings to vocational areas including teacher-education and pre-medicine. In 1937 the first four-year academic program (BA in Theology) was launched. Program expansion culminated in accreditation as a four-year college, and in 1947 the school officially became Eastern Mennonite College (EMC). Eastern Mennonite School, which moved to its current location in 1964, became a separate, K-12 institution with own charter and board of directors in 1982. The creation of graduate programs ushered in the new name, Eastern Mennonite University, in 1994.

From an education for Mennonites to a Mennonite education for all, EMU’s program integrates spiritual formation, interdisciplinary academic rigor, artistic creation, and reflective practice. As an institution affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, EMU’s mission and vision are rooted in the Anabaptist values of discipleship, community, service, and peace. EMU is a member of the Mennonite Higher Education Association (MHEA), a collaboration of six member schools and the Mennonite Education Agency (MEA). Along with EMU, MHEA includes Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Bethel College, Bluffton University, Goshen College and Hesston College and seeks to advance educational opportunity, excellence and affordability.

Academic Program

Undergraduate Programs

In 2018 EMU provided more than 50 programs of study at the undergraduate level. New programs, in engineering, leadership, marketing, and global development for example, complement historic areas of academic strength, including teacher education, nursing, pre-professional health, counseling, social work, and peacebuilding.

Students are encouraged to expand their interests, through art, music, clubs and sports. Eighteen athletics teams compete at the NCAA Division III level in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) and the newest athletic addition, women’s lacrosse, will field a team in the fall of 2019. Student-athletes are supported in developing life skills along with athletic ability. Many individual athletes along with teams are recognized every year for outstanding academic success.

Graduate, Professional, Seminary Programs

Fourteen graduate level programs in 2018 offer degrees and certificates that range from biomedicine to restorative justice and organizational leadership to Christian leadership. Adult, professional, and graduate programs in the areas of peacebuilding, health and wellness, business, education, and ministry studies offer field skills development and leadership training from scholar-practitioners who are experts in their fields.

When Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) was established in 1965, the theology and bible classes that had helped start the undergraduate program expanded into advanced coursework for graduate degrees. As an Anabaptist seminary, EMS has placed emphasis on peacebuilding and spiritual formation in addition to theology and biblical studies. EMS training programs and graduate degrees have helped students discern their call for ministry in a variety of roles, in the church and beyond. Leaders for Mennonite Church USA and other denominations are trained at EMS. EMS is approved by the United Methodist Church (UMC) for the training of candidates for ordination in that denomination.

Internationally, EMU is best known for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) and its graduate programs for conflict transformation and restorative justice. CJP’s founding director, John Paul Lederach, and Howard Zehr, founder of CJP’s Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, are internationally known leaders in the field of peace and justice. Since the start of CJP in 1995 until 2028, there were 638 graduates, including 84 Fulbright scholars, working in 65 countries. Notable CJP alumni included 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate, Leymah Gbowee, who graduated with a master’s degree in conflict transformation in 2007. Gbowee received the Nobel prize for her work in organizing a women’s peace movement that ended Liberia’s violent, 14-year civil war. In 2017, Gbowee was awarded EMU’s first honorary doctorate of justice.

CJP has developed programs that fill specific needs for peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and restorative justice. The Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) was created to provide short course training on practical skills and tools to promote positive change for justice and equity in communities and organizations. Since SPI’s beginning in 1996 until 2018, 3,300 participants from 124 countries have attended. More than 5000 participants have trained in the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program, a program that was originally developed for leaders after the 9/11 attacks. In 2018 STAR prepares leaders to address the effects of all forms of trauma in organizations and communities around the world. In 2011, the Women’s Peacebuilding Leadership Program (WPLP) was created in support of UN Resolution 1325 and the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda. WPLP equips regional cohorts of women in conflict-affected communities with the skills, knowledge, and support to build peace.

Core Values


EMU has a history of diversity that contrasts with its, mostly white, Mennonite heritage. The first international students (one Russian and two Chinese) were admitted in 1946. In 1948, EMU became the first Virginia college to admit African-American students, and in 1954, the same year as Brown v. Board, the first African-American student graduated. In 2018, EMU attracted a diversity of students from 55 countries and 37 states representing 64 faith traditions. Community is broadly defined as a world community as well as a community of learners that builds trust through accountability to one another and through shared values.


EMU’s commitment to service is reflected in its mission “to prepare students to serve and lead in a global context.” Service is where values are lived out and it is often woven into class work, student clubs, teams, and organizations. EMU’s oldest student organization, Y-serve, started in 1922 and today offers local service opportunities as well as fall and spring break trips for service and volunteering.


Faith, justice, and peacebuilding are guiding principles in the classroom and across community life. As a university in the Anabaptist tradition, EMU’s vision to "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8) is a commitment to the values of service, social justice, Christian discipleship, and peacebuilding. The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding is known worldwide for its academic excellence and practitioner-based emphasis. In 2014, EMU became the first in the country to offer restorative justice programs within graduate teacher education. CJP’s MA in Restorative Justice program was the first residential graduate program for restorative justice in North America.


Sustainable living and care for creation efforts at EMU include:

  • First commercial solar array in Virginia in 2010. Additional solar arrays which increased the university’s solar capacity by 65% were added in 2018 as a result of a student-led, funded, and installed initiative.
  • First gold-level LEED certified dorm in the state (2011).
  • First micro-grid on a Virginia college campus (2018).
  • 4-time state champion for recycling in small school category (2018).
  • Campus gardens that provide produce for the dining hall, students, and local community.

Sustainability is incorporated into the curriculum as part of the understanding of and commitment to creation care. Degree programs in Environmental Sustainability and Peacebuilding and Development, as well as a graduate certificate in Humanitarian Action Leadership, have advanced the study of sustainability. EMU offers one of two nationally recognized conservation photography course (the other is taught at Stanford). EMU students and faculty have earned conservation photography awards and have contributed to efforts of conservation activists.

Cross cultural engagement

EMU was one of the first American colleges to require cross cultural study. Since EMU’s first cross-cultural trip in 1973, students have visited more than 80 locations around the world. Graduates have called the experience “life-changing” for its immersion into a new culture and the integration of course content, experiential learning, and reflective practice. The requirement can also be fulfilled through service opportunities in the U.S. and through an urban cross-cultural experience through the Washington Community Scholar’s Center (WCSC) in Washington D.C.

Experiential Learning

EMU has an emphasis on applied learning. Many programs have an element of hands-on research, practicums, or internships that are required. This gives students a way to build resumes and makes them stronger candidates for jobs and graduate schools.

Into the Second Century

The Strategic Plan 2017-2022 established goals to strengthen EMU’s second century. Four overarching strategies sought to live into the vision of offering a third way between the missions of more traditional Christian universities and the more secularized missions of mainstream universities. The goals articulated were:

  • Celebrate: EMU celebrates an education that transforms lives throughout the Centennial year and beyond.
  • Engage: EMU seeks to engage students, faculty, staff and alumni in an energized and active local and global community of learning.
  • Grow: EMU strives to strengthen its long-term sustainability through enrollment growth, enhanced academic reputation, and financial strength.
  • Diversify: EMU attracts and sustains diverse faculty, staff and administrators to best serve a diverse student body.

Additional Information

Address: 1200 Park Road, Harrisonburg, Virginia 22802-2462

Phone: 540-432-4000

Website: https://emu.edu/

Denominational Affiliations: Mennonite Church USA


Name Years
of Service
J. B. Smith 1917-1922 Worked tirelessly to develop the school’s curriculum, hire faculty, recruit students, solicit support from Mennonite churches and expand the campus.
A. D. Wenger 1922-1935 Reduced the school’s capital and start-up debt while keeping the school on solid financial ground through the Depression.
John L. Stauffer 1935-1948 Presided over facilities and enrollment growth from Depression era recovery and post-war interest in Mennonite education. Program expansion culminated in accreditation as a four-year college.
John R. Mumaw 1948-1965 Steered the college through racial integration, regional accreditation, creation of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and institutional separation from the high school.
Myron S. Augsburger 1965-1980 Nationally recognized evangelical leader and one of Time magazine’s five most influential “preachers of an active gospel.”
Richard C. Detweiler 1980-1987 Presided during the Ad(ministrative) Building fire and the building of new Campus Center. Governance shifted from board to denomination’s Board of Education.
Joseph L. Lapp 1987-2003 Creation of four graduate programs in counseling, conflict transformation, education, and business ushers in the new name, Eastern Mennonite University in 1994.
Loren E. Swartzendruber 2003-2016 Led the school through the recession and the re-accreditation process with financial and enrollment stability
Susan Schultz Huxman 2017-present EMU’s first female president.


Eastern Mennonite University

Original Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

By Harry A. Brunk. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 134. All rights reserved.

In the second decade of the 20th-century, a number of Virginia Mennonite Conference (Mennonite Church) leaders believed there should be a church school in the East. It was observed that a great many Mennonite young people who attended the local high schools were being lost to the church. It was to prevent this loss and to establish a school that would promote the cause of the Mennonite Church, that steps were taken to organize a church school in the East. It was difficult to find a permanent location for the school. Warwick County and Alexandria, Virginia, were considered as possible locations in 1914 and 1915, but these were rejected because they were off center from the total Mennonite population in the East. The Assembly Park, a 16-acre forest area, 1 1/2 miles northwest of Harrisonburg, with a large, three-story frame building which had been previously used as an industrial school, was chosen as the location, since it was located near the border between the Middle and the Northern districts of the Virginia Conference. This property was purchased in 1916, and used until the winter of 1920, when the college was moved to its permanent location on the hill west of the Assembly Park. The first building on the new site was a large (50 x 120 feet) three-story tile stucco building providing classrooms, dormitories, dining hall and kitchen, and administration offices. In 1926 a south annex was constructed providing additional dormitories on the third and fourth floors, a new chapel on the first floor, and a science laboratory and dining room in the basement. With the exception of the gymnasium, no further major building enterprise was undertaken for more than a decade. In 1938 Vesper Heights Observatory was constructed as a class project. Its development attracted wide attention.

In 1940 building operations were begun again on a large scale. The new north annex provided for science laboratories in the basement, a library on the entire first floor, and an infirmary on the second and third floors. The old frame building in the Assembly Park was razed and some of the material used in the construction of an industrial arts building. The largest unit of construction in the early 1940s was the auditorium with a seating capacity of 1,500. An assembly room in the basement provided accommodations for 500.

During World War II and several years following, building operations were practically at a standstill except for emergency building. In 1949 the board of trustees decided to undertake building again on a larger scale. Work was begun on the largest single building unit in the history of the school to that time—the women's dormitory, which accommodated 250 persons and included a larger kitchen and dining room as well as additional classrooms; it was completed in 1953.

The building programs have not been the most important phases of life at Eastern Mennonite College. Curriculums have been added and expanded; accreditment has been sought and attained. Work of college grade was offered first in 1920. In the following years, two and three years of college work were offered. In 1930 the College was accredited by the state as a standard junior college. Two years later the College received state approval for a two-year teacher's training course leading to a normal professional certificate. A Bible course of college grade has been offered from almost the first. The course has been expanded along with the general college work, so that in 1937, a four-year Bible course leading to the Th.B. degree was offered. A four-year liberal arts college program was initiated in 1945. The Virginia State Board of Education in 1947 gave Eastern Mennonite College the rating of a standard four-year college with permission to grant the A.B., B.S., B.S. in Education, B.R.E., and Th.B. (6-yr.) degrees.

The college in 1955 offered the following curricula: Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Premedical Course, Bachelor of Science in Home Economics, Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education, Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education, Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, and Bachelor of Science in Nursing; in the Bible School, the Christian Workers' Course, Junior College Bible Course, Bachelor of Religious Education, and Bachelor of Theology.

In 1965 the graduate seminary had evolved as Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Other graduate programs were initiated in the 1990s. Because of the graduate programs, Eastern Mennonite College became Eastern Mennonite University in August 1994.

These increased offerings and accreditment by the State Board meant much from the standpoint of enrollment. In the 1930s the enrollment was around 50 students; by 1952 it had increased to 260, almost exclusively members of the Mennonite Church (MC). The College also operated a strong high-school division with about 200 students. In 1955-56 the total enrollment was 623, with 381 in the college, and 242 in the high school. In 2007 Eastern Mennonite University had over 1400 students.

By 1955-56 the College was staffed by 41 teaching faculty members. Six of this number had the doctor's degree, or its equivalent, and two were candidates.

Presidents of the college up to 1956 included J. B. Smith 1917-1922, A. D. Wenger 1922-1935, J. L. Stauffer 1935-1950, J. R. Mumaw 1950- . Deans have been C. K. Lehman 1924-1956, Ira Miller 1956- .

A large variety of extracurricular activities was provided. The Christian service activities in the 1950s were under the direction of a Director of Christian Service and the Young People's Christian Association. This provided an outlet of expression for the religious emphasis in all departments of training. The college was characterized by a strong religious atmosphere and a conservative theological viewpoint. It aimed to train youth for service in the church and has for its motto "Thy Word Is Truth."

The school was owned and operated by the Virginia Mennonite Conference through a board of 17 trustees elected for a three-year term by the conference. In addition there was a Religious Welfare Committee of four elected by the conference.


Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 498 f.

Author(s) Mia Kivlighan
Date Published October 2018

Cite This Article

MLA style

Kivlighan, Mia. "Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. October 2018. Web. 5 Dec 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Eastern_Mennonite_University_(Harrisonburg,_Virginia,_USA)&oldid=162231.

APA style

Kivlighan, Mia. (October 2018). Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 5 December 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Eastern_Mennonite_University_(Harrisonburg,_Virginia,_USA)&oldid=162231.

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