The small liberal arts school perched on a coastal rim, surrounded by the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, doesn’t make much noise.
But it has begun to make music.
Soka University of America is one of Orange County’s youngest colleges, established in Aliso Viejo in 2001 on the “Buddhist principals of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life.” It draws about 450 students from the U.S. and abroad, maintaining a low profile while slowly growing from an inaugural class of 120 students toward a goal of 1,000.
Awareness of the school and its sprawling South County campus has increased greatly since the fall opening of the $73 million, 95,000-square-foot Soka Performing Arts Center. The center presented more than 30 concerts and other performances in its first season.
“Next year, it will be about 45 events,” said David Palmer, the center’s general manager who joined Soka in 2010 after 19 years of running a performing arts program at Whittier College. “We upped the number of symphonic and chamber music. That’s what works the best in here.”
The interior of the 1,034-seat house includes details such as a floor of unfinished Alaskan white cedar for a more natural resonance of sound. The acoustics were designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, who also worked on Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and currently is working on a performing arts center at Chapman University in Orange that is slated for completion in 2014.
Soka’s operating endowment is currently at about $800 million.
“The arts center is heavily subsidized by the university through its operating endowment,” Palmer said. “It’s expected to be that way for the next five years. It will take that long to let people know we’re here.”
OC’s other cultural attractions and other performance venues include Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, and the California State University, Fullerton’s Clayes Performing Arts Center and the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
“But we’re a little bit different from one another,” Palmer said. “We’re not going to have identical programs. Segerstrom and we both invite the Pacific Symphony, but the Pacific Symphony partners with us to do programs that aren’t being done at the Segerstrom Center.”
Organizations such as Western Arts Alliance and California Presenters help concert producers remain aware of one another’s plans, “so that we are not running head to head with similar programs,” he added.
The Soka center has drawn well from the southern part of the county.
“San Clemente is  miles south of Segerstrom,” Palmer noted. “We’re 15 miles closer to residents in South County.”
The center’s second season is set to start in November, featuring a Mozart program with the Pacific Symphony and recitals by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The occasional bustling that stirs Soka’s otherwise quiet summertime comes from visitors taking campus tours. There also tend to be clusters of international students gathered in several classrooms for “English as a Second Language” classes prior to the fall semester.
International students make up 40% of the student body, according to Wendy Harder, director of community relations.
“Students come from 40 countries, and within the U.S., from 23 states,” she said.
The college’s endowment is heavily based on support from Soka Gakkai International, a Tokyo-based Buddhist movement founded by Japanese educator and philosopher Daisaku Ikeda. The organization operates schools in Japan ranging from primary schools to universities.
Soka means “to create value” in Japanese, and hints of Japan and Asia can be found throughout the campus, such as the use of cherry wood in meeting rooms. The school’s logo features the wings of a legendary Chinese bird.
The college was originally founded as a graduate school in Calabasas in 1994. It acquired a 103-acre site in Aliso Viejo in 1995 and created the undergraduate curriculum when it built a campus here in 2001. The graduate school also moved to OC in 2007.
The university has a scholarships reserve of about $150 million, funded from interest earned on its operating endowment.
“About $9 million from the interest from the endowment went to students this year,” Harder said. “One of the hallmarks of this university is that if you’ve been accepted but [your family makes] $60,000 or less a year, you’re eligible for scholarship for the entire tuition. Tuition itself is about $25,000. Over 50% of incoming students have gotten this tuition scholarship. And 98% of the students are on some sort of financial aid.”
Soka last fall kicked off a program dubbed Changemakers, designed to help connect students with mentors in the local business and civic community.
The program had 16 students in its inaugural class, nine of whom landed jobs or internships, program Director Mary Patrick Kavanaugh said.
Kavanaugh brought the idea of Changemakers to Soka with her brother Frank Kavanaugh. The siblings also oversee a network of business leaders and entrepreneurs, called the Prosperitas Idea Incubator, at the Paul Merage School of Business at University of California, Irvine.
“I’ve been floored by the opportunities available to the students at Soka,” she said. “It allows me to bring in all my business contacts and brother’s contacts directly to the students.”
Changemakers participants include Irvine-based Taco Bell Corp., the Los Angeles office of New York-based public relations firm Edelman, and Newport Beach-based event planner Elite OC Productions.