Corey Smith stood in the gas station parking lot on the corner of US 30 and County Road 250 E preparing to make a major life decision. On the hood of his car that night, he signed a letter of intent to play basketball for Coach Jim Kessler and attend Grace College to earn a bachelor of elementary education degree.
Although the final decision was made at an unlikely venue, Smith’s parents were happy with this choice, and he believed he was doing what God wanted him to do.
“I didn’t realize at the time just how much I would actually benefit from that choice over the next four years as I was blessed by a myriad of people,” said Smith.
A Myriad of Mentors
Throughout his college career, Smith enjoyed living with spiritually strong roommates and playing ball with brothers who exemplified Christ. They had a discipline and zeal on and off the court, displaying transparency in their lives that Smith found to be truly humbling. He also enjoyed rich relationships with his coaches. “Rather than focusing only on what they could get out of me athletically, Coach Kessler and Dr. Mike Grill (my basketball and tennis coaches at Grace) invested in me relationally and spiritually. They showed me that I was important to them,” said Smith.
Even off the court, many of Smith’s instructors showed an authentic interest in his life. One of the professors who impacted him greatly was the late Ron Raber, professor of English.
Professor Raber first opened his home to Smith during his freshman year. Smith would go with a group of students to sit around the Raber’s dinner table and talk basketball as they devoured Rhonda’s “world-class cuisine.” Other times, they would watch an IU basketball game with the television muted so that they could listen to the radio broadcast of the game instead. But what stood out to Smith most of all was Raber’s radical hospitality in the midst of his own hardships at the time.
“All of this investment sacrificially took place while Ron battled a chronic terminal illness,” explained Smith. “I learned a great deal from him when it came to scholarly writing in the classroom, and more importantly, gleaned other life principles that have profoundly influenced me,” he said.
The same intentional mentorship Smith received from Raber was demonstrated within the School of Education as well. Smith found the coursework and strategies he learned during his bachelor of elementary education major to be highly effective in the contemporary classroom.
“Professors like Dr. Laurie Owen strategically taught and modeled cutting-edge methods and provided hands-on opportunities to put our knowledge into practice,” said Smith. “The most important thing I learned from Dr. Owen about teaching, however, was to love each of my students individually,” he explained.
From Mentee to Mentor
After Smith graduated from Grace College in 2004 with a bachelor of elementary education degree, he became a fourth-grade teacher and high school varsity basketball coach in Fort Wayne — mentoring students the same way that Coach Kessler, Dr. Grill, Prof. Raber, and Dr. Owen had mentored him.
In the classroom, Smith worked to connect with his students the same way Dr. Owen did. Just as she always seemed to be in tune with modern research and theory, Smith tried to keep his classroom and instruction fresh. He focused on knowing each child and showing them the love of God unconditionally. Through his faithful service, Smith had opportunities to invite students to church, hold Bible studies, and even pray with several students to accept Christ.
“I am compelled to allow God to use me to represent Himself,” said Smith. “As I strive to do so, the Lord has been more than faithful in providing me with opportunities to help establish His kingdom and impact the faith formation of my students.”
In 2009, Smith earned his master of education from Grand Canyon University.
And three years later, he took his role as “mentor” to the next level. Smith partnered with his brother, Cameron, and his father, Thomas, to cofound the Smith Academy for Excellence, an all-boys charter school established to strategically develop elite scholars of responsibility, dignity, character, and service.
“It is our deepest longing and greatest joy to see young men at Smith Academy become positive leaders of consequence in their communities,” said Smith.
Since its opening in 2012, the school has grown to serve grades 4 through 12, and its enrollment is up 37%. And when it came to authorizing the school at its inception, Smith knew who to reach out to for oversight. To this day, Grace College is the Academy’s authorizer — approved by the state legislature to bring the charter school into existence and provide accountability for the school’s meeting of state and federal requirements.
Smith looks back on his journey and realizes that where he is today has a lot to do with the mentors who poured into him many years ago.
“All of this is a trickle-down effect of my own faith formation at Grace College,” said Smith. “And now, generations of my students are the benefactors.” – from grace.edu