Graduates share stories of God’s preparation during time on Seminary Hill

Ashley Allen


Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Texas Baptist College (TBC) graduated more than 300 students during the Dec. 3 commencement exercises held on the Fort Worth campus.

Before awarding their diplomas, President Adam W. Greenway preached an “Isaianic ministry” model from Isaiah 40, urging graduates to both “comfort God’s people” and “cry out” to the lost. 

The graduates, which included 31 doctoral candidates, represented 33 states and 20 nations, including the United States. The graduating class included students enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry, Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Christian Education, Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling, and Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies degree programs at Southwestern Seminary and TBC who shared their experiences on Seminary Hill.

Jalil Dawood, who came to Dallas as a refugee from Baghdad, Iraq, in 1982, was awarded the Doctor of Ministry. The pastor of the Arab Church of Dallas since 2007, Dawood grew up as a Catholic in the Middle East. Due to persecution, as an 18-year-old, he fled to Italy, where an American missionary serving in Rome shared the Gospel with him and he trusted Christ as his Savior. From Italy, he came to the United States as a refugee.

Dawood’s doctoral project was based on the 2015 non-profit organization he founded to aid refugees, World Refugee Care. The organization is based on Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18-19 that He came to preach the good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. From this passage, Dawood said the ministry follows the same pattern as they work “to cover the physical and spiritual needs of refugees in order to know the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Dawood pursued his doctoral degree at Southwestern Seminary after he “heard great things about the school” and brought refugees to the campus to apply for study. This led him to think “maybe would the Lord open the door for me to study here as well?”

Dawood said Southwestern Seminary was “the greatest Baptist school” and his doctoral seminars helped him “as a minister and ministering to people.” During his time of study, God has opened great opportunities to work with refugees, “overseas especially because the last four years we’ve been limited in the USA.” However, the ministry work outside the U.S. has grown as he has trained pastors who are working with refugees and planting churches among refugees in Europe. 

The professors at Southwestern Seminary are “kind, direct, and patient with us because they want to see us succeed but they want to see us not succeed at the expense of being effective and being direct and good workers for the Kingdom,” Dawood said.

Jeffery “Tyler” Sulfridge from Tok, Alaska, earned his Master of Divinity degree. Sulfridge, who has served as a student ministry associate at First Baptist Church of Keller while studying at Southwestern Seminary, said his reasons for choosing to study at the Fort Worth-based seminary were two-fold.

“First, I trusted that the faculty had a high view of Scripture,” Sulfridge said. “Second, I appreciated the fact that SWBTS has always made missions, church planting, and evangelism outside of highly concentrated Christian areas a priority.”

Sulfridge, who plans to continue serving at First Baptist Keller, also noted he “learned the value of community with wiser, more experienced men in the faith.” He said his pastoral ministry and preaching professors have “impacted my life, ministry, and my own spiritual walk. I couldn’t be more thankful that I have been guided and taught by great men of faith as I have prepared for pastoral ministry.”

Susie Kim, who was raised in Dallas and Austin, earned a Master of Arts in Christian Education with a concentration in Women’s Ministry. When Kim shared with her pastors that she wanted to “study God’s Word,” they “highly recommended” Southwestern Seminary.

Kim said her time of study at Southwestern Seminary has helped her learn ministry must begin with her own personal walk with the Lord.

“There were many nights when I felt overwhelmed as I frantically balanced vocational ministry and my studies,” Kim recalled. “However, I realized that neither was where I could receive greatest fulfillment and intimacy with the Lord. It was when I set aside time each day and prioritized being in the Word in the Lord’s presence, pouring out my heart and then listening for direction, that I felt truly empowered to love others and to complete my assignments.”

Kim prays this lesson remains for “the rest of my life, and that each time I get lazy, I would be able to count the costs and know that nothing is worth neglecting my relationship and time with the Lord.” 

Following graduation, Kim plans include continuing “serving the church, loving on the people He’s given me, becoming more equipped in the Word, being teachable, and walking alongside women who are seeking a relationship with Jesus” while also building relationships “with those who don’t know Christ and share the Gospel with them.”

When Cristina Aguilera came to Fort Worth in 2012 from her hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, it was to begin a new job. However, in 2015 she “asked God for an opportunity to learn more about Him and how to study the Scripture.”

Aguilera said God “answered” when she was laid off from her job in 2016. She explained that “after much prayer and wise counsel from mentors in my local church I applied to Southwestern.” After she graduated in 2019 with a Master of Arts in Christian Education, Aguilera worked for a year with a local ministry serving human trafficking victims. 

As she was preparing to return to Columbia in 2020, the COVID-19 travel restrictions altered her plans and Aguilera enrolled in the Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling (MABC) program. Her time in the MABC degree program has enhanced her advocacy role for trafficking victims and her counseling ministry at Southcliff Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

Her time of study at Southwestern Seminary has improved her ministry “in every respect,” Aguilera said. The “knowledge of the Scripture, the ability to study the Scripture, the use of resources [such as] commentaries, websites, journals, books, and being able to filter through the information out there” have all added to her ministry.

“I am grateful that the Lord allowed me to study here,” Aguilera concluded. “It has been a challenging journey, but I cherish every bit of it. I know I am privileged for having received the training provided at SWBTS.”

Christopher Gardner, a Huntsville, Texas native who earned his Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies at Texas Baptist College, said while he has “learned so much in the classroom” his interactions with his professors outside of the classroom have “left a monumental impact” on him.

“To see their devotion to the Lord being applied outside an academic setting, along with their willingness to engage with their students, makes what I learn in a classroom setting more significant,” Gardner said about the TBC faculty.

Of his time in his degree program, Gardner said, “Reading what some of the greatest philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have to say about humanity, while saturating these ideas with a Christian worldview, has allowed me to better understand how to flourish as a person by loving my Lord through loving and serving my neighbor.”

Following graduation, Gardner intends to remain on Seminary Hill to pursue his Master of Divinity at Southwestern Seminary, but said, “My time at TBC has been hands down, the best years of my life.”

The members of the fall 2021 graduating class join more than 41,000 living Southwestern Seminary alumni who are serving in churches and ministries all over the world.

The full commencement ceremony can be viewed here.