The boom at Southeastern University boosts the college’s profile, and should boost the community it serves.

In 1995, Southeastern College was known for being the place to go if you wanted to be a teacher, pastor, or music major. But first you had to find the college, tucked between orange groves in a relatively rundown area of Lakeland.

Twenty years later and so much has changed. The private Christian liberal arts university at 1000 Longfellow Blvd. in Lakeland has increased its enrollment to about 5,600 this year. It’s in the middle of a building boom that has transformed the campus from an orange grove to a beautiful, earthy mini-city, complete with a restaurant representing Tuscany, dorms and even a football stadium.

And the growth isn’t stopping.

The university recently opened part of the Buena Vida buildings, two five-story structures (four stories and a mezzanine) totaling 125,000 square feet that will house both classrooms and bedrooms. The dorms were completed just as this semester was starting in September, pushing the opening of the classrooms back slightly. Faculty offices, practice rooms, restaurants and a 280-seat auditorium are nearing completion.

Dubbed the Live/Learn facility, Buena Vida will house the College of Arts and Media, the faculty of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, and the Jannetides College of Business & Entrepreneurial Leadership when completed.

Craig Collins, dean of the College of Arts & Media, said that college will move into about 21,500-square-feet of first floor space in the new building.

“We’re being rather intentional in our focus to assist our students in finding their voice within the creative industries, both locally and nationally,” Collins said. “Ultimately, we want to be recognized not only for ‘traditional’ cultural value, but contributing to economic growth, and our new facilities position us one phase closer.”

Along with more than 250,000 square feet in new educational space, Southeastern has added “relevant degree programs” and increased its endowment 100 percent, SEU President Kent Ingle wrote in an email.

Growth in any form – students or infrastructure – is positive, both for SEU and Polk County as a whole. As Ingle wrote, the combination “equates to an economic impact on Polk County of about $300 million a year.”

And construction isn’t over.

In November, crews will begin building a $7-million building near the recently completed $7 million football stadium (the 3,500-seat stadium is the first college football stadium in Polk County). The three-story Administration and Athletics Operations Building will house offices, conference rooms, a training and workout center, a hospitality room and more stadium seating – all in 44,000 square feet of space.

Last spring, the university opened its new $2 million Student Activity Center, and a $1 million track-and-field facility will open in 2018 near its new soccer fields. The eight-lane track conforms to NCAA regulations.

Southeastern offers much to our community and deserves our support, even if just spreading the word to build enrollment. On Ingle’s part, he wants to continue to develop partnerships in Lakeland.

“One of our core values is teaching our students to love and serve the city of Lakeland,” Ingle wrote. “As a result, our students are working with community development organizations such as Catapult, Y Lakeland, The Dream Center of Lakeland, and the many other not-for-profit entities within the city, totaling 36,000 community service hours a year. We are proud of what Lakeland is doing and honored to be a part of such a great city.”

The university has increased its enrollment 78 percent in the last five years, Executive Vice President Brian Carroll has told The Ledger. It hopes to continue increasing enrollment until it hits 10,000 in roughly the next five years, school officials have said.

Part of that growth comes via 41 satellite campuses in church settings nationwide. Six sites in California, Florida and Washington have more than 50 students each; the remaining 35 sites enroll 50 or fewer students.

With classrooms and dorm rooms in the works, parking remains one of the university’s biggest problems. To address that, the university plans to build a 400-space, $6 million to $8 million parking garage when funding becomes available. We don’t expect that to take long given the support the university already has and continues to build.

What Ingle and his team are doing at Southeastern rubs off on the students there, who are, as Ingle says, committed to making Lakeland a better place. So it’s exciting to see the college grow, and we support its mission to keep giving back.

The Ledger