SHAWNEE, Okla. (BP) – When Oklahoma Baptist University students returned to in-person classes this week, the stress of final exams couldn’t compare with the joy of simply being back on their campus, which was wrecked by a tornado in mid-April.
OBU President Heath Thomas said campus leadership has been focused on returning to in-person education as soon as possible for the sake of the senior class, whose college experience has been bookended by challenges.
“The goal has always been to be back on campus so our seniors can finish their year on campus,” Thomas said. “This senior class started their academic journey at OBU in the fall of 2019, so it began with COVID and it ends with a tornado.
“Considering their journey, I really wanted to work, if at all possible, to get them back here to finish out the year and have commencement and a bit of normalcy to finish their time on Bison Hill.”
Multiple tornadoes touched down throughout Oklahoma the evening of Wednesday, April 19, one of which directly hit OBU’s campus.
The damage from the storm impacted every single tree, building and roof on the campus, according to Thomas. It was the worst tornado the school has experienced in its history.
One group of students sheltered in place in the basement of one of the campus buildings during the storm. Among those students was newly elected Student Body President Max Petersen.
As someone not from Oklahoma who had never experienced a tornado before, Petersen described the experience as “surreal.”
“We heard all the winds, the pressure drops, we could feel it in our ears. Then after it passed it was really quiet, really eerie,” Petersen said.
He told Baptist Press another surreal experience was seeing the response from the OBU community and beyond in wake of the storm.
“There was a lot of destruction, but what was really cool was, even before I was awake (the next day), there were students, faculty, staff, professor, community members and first responders helping clean up,” he said. “I’ve really been able to see from Day One until now the transformation of campus. It’s been a hectic time. There’s been a frenzy of activity.”
In addition to OBU students, faculty and staff, many community members, local partners and even many from out of state came to help. Among those who helped were Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers.
“We were absolutely blessed, honored, humbled and dumbfounded at the number of folks who came to help,” Thomas said.
“They (Oklahoma DR) sent an army of folks to our community and our campus. I think that’s what tragedy can do. Tragedy can remind us we’re all part of a community, that we all have the opportunity to link arms for a common goal, and we have the opportunity to encourage and spur one another on as we achieve what God has called us to achieve.”
OBU conducted classes online starting the Monday after the tornado until in-person classes began on campus this Monday, May 1. Faculty and staff were forced to be creative to find classroom space, almost playing a version of musical chairs.
Petersen said all of the effort has been worth it.
“Now that everyone is back on campus walking around, it’s feeling even more normal. It’s been cool to see the energy return to campus,” he said. “I think the majority opinion here with the students is people are glad to be back. I don’t blame them. We all have kind of developed this thing for virtual learning, and it just isn’t the same. To be face to face again and interact with our friends has been a place that none of us really thought that we’d be able to experience.”
OBU is set to host commencement ceremonies on their originally scheduled date of Saturday, May 20. Instead of being held on-campus, First Southern Baptist Church in nearby Del City volunteered to host the event in its sanctuary.
Thomas added that although he and other leadership expect the full campus restoration process to take between 12 and 24 months, the school is planning to begin the fall semester with classes on campus in the most normal capacity possible.
He compared the trial OBU experienced to a story he once heard about actual Bison, where they will head straight into a storm if they see one coming as opposed to having the storm chasing them.
“I think that’s what I’ve seen on our campus,” he said. “Our entire student body, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, what they did is they didn’t run away from the challenge. They really faced it head on, and as a result, I’m confident that God is going to give us a shorter runway out to the other side.
“That’s a real good reminder. As followers of Jesus, we shouldn’t be afraid to run into the storm, because it’s in the storm where Jesus can speak, ‘Peace be still.’ And that’s what He does. He’s given us peace and confidence to know that He is in charge. He’s given all of our people a real, deeper trust in the Lord.”