Representing one of life's most dramatic transitional stages, the college years are more than just new scenery and harder classes. It's a formative time, a time when many young people experience unprecedented levels of independence and responsibility. Life looms large as every choice seems to carry lasting implications. Whether choosing a career, finding a spouse or simply learning to survive in the world, college is the setting for some truly momentous milestones.
For many Walla Walla University students, higher education represents a daunting but rewarding multi-year journey of self-discovery—a time to truly come into their own. Four such students are Eric Gray, Irving Basañez, Bridget Bechtel and Nathan Hellman.
For WWU pre-med student Eric Gray, college has been all about developing leadership skills and affecting change, both on campus and in the community. Since arriving as an enthusiastic freshman, he's jumped right in and made the most of a wide range of opportunities for personal growth and positive impact.
Involvement in student senate led to his election as president of the WWU student body, and Eric has slipped comfortably into the new role. With a commitment to helping provide students with a positive and spiritual atmosphere on campus, he's also the student representative on the search committee selecting a new senior pastor at the University Church.
Over his time at WWU, service has become a huge interest of Eric's, a passion that has been fueled by participation in quarterly Service Days. Students, faculty members and staff work together to tackle as many as 50 projects in the local community, including highway garbage pick-up, museum clean-ups and painting or pulling weeds for local seniors.
Eric's desire to live a life of active service is rooted in a deeply held personal philosophy. "As Christians, we have the ability and the opportunity to support everyone we encounter," he says. "The mission field is not only in distant countries, but also in our neighbors next door."
With the daily grind of classes and extensive campus involvement, college has flown by quickly for Eric. He plans to graduate in June with a bachelor of arts degree in business administration and a minor in pre-medicine, followed by a year of internships and volunteering while applying to medical school. Looking back on his experience, he appreciates most the diverse opportunities he's had to grow both personally and as a campus leader, and has been delighted to serve his school and community in return.
As graduation approaches, he remembers fondly his first campus visit, and credits faculty and staff for the role they played in his decision to come to WWU. "They were truly supportive of the university," he recalls, "and I wanted to be an active part of what they were so excited about."
Irving Basañez had already decided not to attend Walla Walla University. As a 16-year-old high school graduate, he wasn't sure moving hundreds of miles away was such a good idea. Would he fit in? And even if he did, how could he possibly pay for it?
The previous year, he had met an engineering professor from WWU, and had become extremely interested in pursuing the university's engineering program. But growing uncertainty about leaving his Texas home, as well as a scholarship to the local community college, had convinced him to stay.
With one phone call, everything changed. Ginger Ketting-Weller, WWU vice president for academic administration, had seen Irving's high school grades and was very impressed. She felt WWU was the place for him, and was calling to invite him to participate in the honors program. Suddenly, he had much to think about.
"We did a lot of praying," remembers Irving. "God knew what needed to happen, even if we didn't. At first it was quite a roller coaster ride, and then everything just fell into place."
Many prayers and telephone conversations later, including calls to Irving's parents from Spanish-speaking faculty members, Irving decided that WWU was where he belonged after all.
Now a senior at WWU, he remembers vividly that first day on a strange campus, miles from home and the close-knit church community in which he had been raised. "I've grown a lot since my freshman year," says Irving. "My academic and spiritual thinking has matured, and I'm more social than I was before."
Irving intends to graduate in June with a double major in mathematics and pre-medicine. After medical school next year, he hopes to return to his native Mexico to do mission work, building medical clinics. He's grateful for the personal growth he's experienced while at WWU, and is excited about the future. "Now I make decisions based on my experience and what's real to me, not just on what others tell me," he says. "I found my own identity here."
It was an obvious choice. Bridget Bechtel was born in Walla Walla, Wash., and had lived in the same house her entire life. She attended both Rogers Adventist School and Walla Walla Valley Academy, so when it came time for her to choose a university, it seemed only natural to move on to WWU.
It was an easy decision. The university had a strong reputation, after all, and she didn't want to go too far from home her first year in college. But she also knew she couldn't attend WWU without a job. Three days after her interview with Student Employment, Bridget was hired. "I knew that had to be a sign that God had a place for me here," she says.
Since then, Bridget has held as many as three jobs at once. While she's working her way through school and picking up important life skills along the way, it limits the amount of time she has to spend on extracurricular activities—which makes her appreciate the Tuesday morning CommUnity meetings in the University Church all the more.
Although the crowd can be intimidating, Bridget loves that there is a time set aside for the whole school to participate in worship together. She's especially exhilarated by the music, particularly when students, faculty and staff lift their voices together in songs of praise. "I'm not much of a singer," she says, "but all those voices worshipping God together is the greatest connection you can have with other people."
Bridget has found a place for herself at WWU, and connections are what it's all about for her. Her friendly demeanor gives her the opportunity to meet and get to know people from many walks of life, and she draws her energy and motivation from the friendships she makes on campus. "The people here are awesome," she says. "They care for each other, and take that extra step to reach out. They really keep me going."
Perhaps in appreciation for the warmth and human connections she experiences every day on campus, Bridget takes the time to show special kindness to others who might be lonely or having difficulty making the transition to WWU. Another way she gives back is through the university's Service Days. "They're great!" she says. "You get to know so many people, while at the same time helping the community."
In just a few months, Bridget will leave the Walla Walla Valley, her home for the past two decades. She'll graduate in June with an associate of science degree in business administration, and intends to spend the following year as a student missionary in Central America. Still reaching out. Still making connections.
Growing up, Nathan Hellman attended church regularly, but it never really meant anything to him. At age 12 he stopped going entirely. During high school he experimented with drugs and alcohol and began hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Things got worse when Nathan's mom called to tell him she and his father were separating. The news hit him hard, and he began reading his Bible again. When his mother suggested Nathan talk with the pastors at her church, he nervously agreed, but was shocked at how accepting they were of him.
Soon after, Nathan sat alone in his bedroom while his friends partied in the living room and had a heart-to-heart talk with God. He experienced what he calls a "huge conversion," and it was then that God not only put WWU on his heart, but called him to be a pastor.
Until that moment, Nathan hadn't even considered going to college, and the fact that he felt compelled to enter a life of ministry surprised him. "I told God, ‘OK, You are the Potter, I am the clay. I'll do this if I know You're behind it.'" So he applied, and was accepted to WWU.
Since then, one of the biggest challenges Nathan has faced is coming up with financing every year. But somehow, through one miracle after another, God has made a way for Nathan to stay in school. Whether through the help of a staff member or a surprise monetary gift from a church member, Nathan hasn't missed a single quarter. "God has been so good to me throughout my college career," says Nathan. "He has either supplied for my need, or directed me how to move around constant obstacles."
Throughout his WWU experience, Nathan has felt God challenging him to get involved—including positions as resident assistant in the men's dorm, spiritual vice president for the OPS men's club, Theology Club president, and chaplain and vespers coordinator for the Village Student Club. In every position he has held and every activity he has been a part of, Nathan has felt God's presence with him.
Nathan knows WWU is where he needed to be. He has no uncertainty at all about that. "God is really working His clay," he says. "I am coming out of this university experience tried, stretched and grown. I have learned so much here—both academically and spiritually. It is through my interactions at WWU that I have learned the most about life, God, and myself."
He's now married to the woman of his dreams, and will graduate in June with a theology major and head out to be a pastor for the Oregon Conference. He readily admits that his experiences at WWU have been instrumental in making him who he is today. "God has been there every step of the way," he says. "I am deeply grateful for the work He has done in my life, and for His presence on the WWU campus."