Photography by Nate Chappell
The students, faculty, and staff that make up the influential presence found at Southeastern University
The Domino Effect
2017, a freshman collegiate athlete’s world was turned upside down. Xavier Hendrix had just finished a successful high school athletic career and was ready to jump into college football at Southeastern University (SEU). He was set to start the season when he received devastating news.
“Two or three days after an EKG (electrocardiogram), the director of the program contacted my athletic trainer and told him there was a problem in my screening and that I needed to see a cardiologist,” says Hendrix. The screening, offered at SEU, found a heart abnormality, and further testing also revealed that Hendrix had Wolf-Parkinson-White Syndrome — a syndrome in which there is an extra electrical pathway between the heart’s upper and lower chambers that can cause a dangerously rapid heartbeat.
This news would end one dream — but also redirect Hendrix toward another.
With a death occurring once every three days, sudden cardiac arrest is the number-one killer among young competitive athletes. Hendrix knew that this was a problem that needed to be fixed.
Since a successful final heart surgery, Hendrix has worked alongside the EKG screening program, Who We Play For, to advocate for more screenings across the country. One of the biggest reasons athletic departments have not already implemented these screenings into their programs is simply a lack of funding. Hendrix is grateful to be at a university that has continued to invest in these screenings since his freshman year.
“At Southeastern, we already identified several students that may have never known that they have a detectable heart condition. We were able to save people’s lives,” says Hendrix. “I was the first that had my life saved, and now we’re doing a domino effect.”
Hendrix enrolled at SEU as a pre-med major with the intention of pursuing medical school. “I always knew I wanted to do something in the medical field but didn’t know what specifically,” he says. Through his personal story and the investment made by SEU, Hendrix (now in his junior year) is actively involved in multiple clubs and organizations in the College of Natural & Health Sciences, and aspires to work in pediatric cardiology or orthopedic surgery.
The Full Circle
“Being an effective influencer is meeting the needs of individual students and not a collective body,” says Dr. Aimee Franklin, associate professor of biology at SEU. As a former student and current employee, Franklin’s academic career was significantly influenced by the faculty and staff at Southeastern.
After graduating with her undergrad degree, Franklin’s former dean (and now boss at SEU), Dr. Deborah Hazelbaker, encouraged her to take the GRE and apply to graduate programs. “I thought I wanted to go to med school, and she really encouraged me to pursue graduate school.” Hazelbaker’s voice carried great weight in Franklin’s life because of the continued investment she made even after undergrad. “We would chat on the phone and stay in contact. She would check in and see how I was doing, and that was a huge comfort through six years of graduate school,” says Franklin.
Franklin has now been a professor at SEU for six years. She teaches neuroscience and anatomy and physiology, and serves as a pre-health advisor for the department. “It seems like every step of the way, I was being pulled back to Southeastern,” says Franklin.
Prior to working at SEU, Franklin was on her way to do a postdoctoral research fellowship for the National Institute of Health (NIH) when she withdrew her name three weeks before the start date so she could accept an offer from Hazelbaker to come back and teach.
“One thing I knew I wanted to do was start an undergraduate research program for our science majors.” Recounting the many ways SEU prepared her academically for graduate school, she does remember the lack of laboratory prep. “I went on to graduate school and the first time I stepped foot into a laboratory to use pipettes was the first day of graduate school. So I felt kind of behind with laboratory techniques,” says Franklin. She desired to see SEU students better equipped with experiences for graduate school and more competitive for med school.
Because of her dedication and the support of her colleagues, SEU now has a thriving research program. “We have many students who participate in research now. We’re doing experiments that have never been done before. Real experiments, not like a laboratory as part of a class — actual research,” says Franklin. Because of the great strides made in the program, students have gone on to present and be recognized at national conferences. Franklin emphasizes how none of it would have been possible without the support of the provost and administration.
“To be an effective influencer of students and colleagues, you have to be someone who listens to what they need and what they need you to be.”
– Dr. Aimee Franklin
But even more so, none of this would have been possible without a few key faculty members who influenced Franklin well before her time began as a faculty member at SEU, too.
“Southeastern is unique in how much the faculty cares about the students. They want to play an active role in helping them plan for the future,” says Franklin.
Xavier Hendrix, who also works as Franklin’s teaching assistant for her anatomy and physiology courses, couldn’t agree more. “I know I’m able to talk to [Franklin] about anything in my future and she’ll be 100 percent honest with me about it and what I can do to get to where I want to be because she knows my goals,” says Hendrix. “I’m forever thankful for her and for all of my professors.”
Franklin came back to SEU for this very reason — to impact students in a similar way that she had been impacted by her own professors. “To be an effective influencer of students and colleagues, you have to be someone who listens to what they need and what they need you to be,” says Franklin.
“SEU has taught me that influence has a lot to do with the intentional investment,” says, Elena Espinoza.
Espinoza is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and is involved in multiple areas on campus. She works in the enrollment marketing office as a student worker, on the student magazine team as a student leader, and as a teaching assistant for a missions professor. In addition to what she’s learning in the classroom, she believes all these additional experiences are giving her the tools she needs to reach her future goals.
“I hope to be a missions photojournalist,” says Espinoza. Specifically, she hopes to launch a nonprofit that would almost function as a third-party marketing company that focuses on telling the stories of missionaries on the field. “It would help tell their story and, hopefully, through the media content, help expedite their fundraising process by taking care of the communication side for them, allowing them to just focus on foot,” says Espinoza.
Similar to Hendrix, one of Espinoza’s most transformational moments from SEU came during her freshman year. Prior to coming to SEU, Espinoza had suffered from a severe jaw injury that greatly impacted her respiratory system due to blockage in her airways.
She was set to have total joint replacement surgery to repair the damage caused by the disintegrated jaw when the pain miraculously subsided while at SEU’s annual conference. “I prayed, and in that moment I took a deeper breath, deeper than any in the past three years. As I closed my mouth, my lower jaw had just shifted forward,” says Espinoza. She no longer needed the surgery.
The vice president of student development caught wind of Espinoza’s story and asked to meet with her. “I go into her office and she says, ‘I want to hear your whole story. Start from birth,’” Espinoza laughs as she recalls sitting in Bethany Thomas’s office and sharing not only her experience at SEU Conference, but her future hopes and aspirations.
“Southeastern has influenced me the most just in encouraging me to tell my story and personal testimony, as well as taking the time to learn about my goals and dreams and then doing everything they can to help equip me for that,” says Espinoza. After sharing her story in a vice president’s office, Espinoza found herself on the stage of SEU Conference a year later sharing her story to thousands of her peers and encouraging countless students.
“I think any leadership position has influence over someone, and the best influencers are the people who are good stewards of that.”
– Elena Espinoza
In addition to the opportunities in her student leadership position working with the campus magazine and student worker role in enrollment marketing, Espinoza has been given many opportunities to grow in her craft and better understand the privilege of sharing a story. “I think it doesn’t matter what I do or what position I’m in, I always want to be helping others,” says Espinoza.
Xavier Hendrix, Aimee Franklin, and Elena Espinoza are a few among the many who have used their influence to positively impact those around them. Countless stories fill Southeastern’s campus of those impacted by the leadership of students, staff, and faculty, and serve as a reminder that the influence we are given is meant to be shared with those around us. As Espinoza says, “I think any leadership position has influence over someone, and the best influencers are the people who are good stewards of that.”