Marked by Grace
Written by Dr. Mark Pohl, Grace College Vice President of Enrollment Management
Seventeen years. Some may say that is a long time to work in one department of an institution. But 17 years (with a short break in the middle) goes by with lightning speed when you love your job. I feel blessed to work at Grace. I often say, “I bleed Lancer red” — and I mean it! I truly believe we have the best campus, we have the best people and we are the best college. We’re not a perfect place, but people come here by and large because they have a hunger and thirst for Jesus.
It probably goes without saying, but I have seen and heard stories of many student transformations over the years. Students from all around the world come here and thrive here. They find a sense of community. They find their passions. They find their life calling. And some even find Christ. Although admissions is just the tip of the spear, these stories remind me daily that the work being done at Grace matters.
While every story is significant, there is one student story I’ll never forget.
I will never forget the day a lanky, six-foot senior from Ohio, stepped into the visitor’s center. High school had not been an easy road for the student. Just a few years prior, his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. By the time it was caught, it had spread to other organs, resulting in a terminal prognosis. She passed away toward the end of his sophomore year, and the student’s high school experience was marked by lots and lots of grief. This was not his first time on campus; he had come with some friends several months prior. On that visit, he discovered he thoroughly enjoyed the community Grace had to offer.
The son of a barber and builder, he was navigating the college search as a first-generation student. While his family was supportive of the process, it didn’t negate the fact that he would have to make big decisions on his own, like which major to choose, which dorm to live in and what loans to take out. Despite his uncertainty regarding many things, he knew that he wanted to graduate from college and that Grace was a place he could call home.
The student was looking forward to introducing his dad (who had recently remarried) to Grace and having some quality time on the drive. But as he was getting ready the morning of the visit, he noticed his stepmom was also preparing to go. Frustrated that his plans were being disturbed, an argument broke out and as a result, the student drove to Grace alone that day.
Trying to shake off the disappointment, the student went about his visit as usual; he had wonderful conversations with admissions staff, students and faculty, and he especially appreciated it when Dr. Roger Peugh (BA 65, BDiv 68, DMin 06) prayed with him at the end of their meeting. Even still, there were moments he remembered that he was there alone and wished his dad had come.
After his visit was finished, he stood at the front door of the visitor center and realized he only had one-eighth of a tank of gas in his car — not nearly enough for the two-hour trip home. Oh, and, like any teenager, he had exactly zero dollars and zero cents in his wallet.
Overcome by the emotions of the morning, the conflict at home, the near-empty gas tank, the lack of money and the grief of his deceased mother who would never see his college choice, he got choked up.
As he gazed out the front door of Mount Memorial with tears now rolling down his cheeks, his admissions counselor, Dave Pacheco (BS 95), unknowingly asked, “How was your campus visit?” When Dave noticed the student’s tears, he gently moved the conversation to his office where he offered tissues and a listening ear. Dave was moved by the young man’s story. He showed genuine care and concern. And ultimately, he took the student to the nearest gas station, filled up his gas tank, and sent him on his way.
I know this student was deeply touched by the grace and generosity he experienced that day.
I know because this is my story. And that was my campus visit, more than 20 years ago.
For many years, I felt ashamed of that encounter. I would even go so far to dodge interactions with Dave when I saw him on campus. But eventually, I realized I didn’t need to feel ashamed. Many years later, I thanked Dave and gave him the honor he was due.
When I look back on it now, I recognize the interaction I shared with Dave on that visit was indicative of the three transformative years that followed as a communication student at Grace. Over the course of those three years, I grew as an individual, as a student and as a follower of Christ. That is largely credited to the genuine relationships I formed on campus: relationships with faculty, like my literature professor Dr. Joe Lehmann (BA 81) who invited me to stay at his house for two summers rent free; and relationships with peers, like the upperclassman who organically sought to mentor me and speak into my life.
As a sophomore at Grace, I landed my first job in the admissions office as a student ambassador. I wish I could tell you that on my very first tour I fell in love with admissions and decided that I was in it for the long haul, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, I’ll be the first person to tell you that my heart was not in it. The following summer, I moved to Soweto, the largest black township in South Africa.
During those months, I lived with a Zulu family and served with them in schools and churches throughout Soweto. As is so often the case with missions trips, the Holy Spirit used this experience to impact my life even more than the people I served. I came back to Grace in the fall and was a completely different student ambassador. By the end of that year, my peers voted me “Ambassador of the Year.”
Following graduation, I was hired as an admissions counselor by then Director of Recruitment, Collette (Lehman BS 90) Olson. After four years in that role and also earning a Master of Ministry from Grace in 2007, I moved to Haiti for a short time before moving back to Winona Lake to work for Lifeline Youth & Family Services.
In 2009, I met my wife, Vanessa (Sizemore BS 13, MA 15). Vanessa had experienced her own share of pain throughout childhood, dealing with the separation of her parents and family brokenness. After struggling to finish high school, a college degree was a dream that seemed too far out of reach.
After we got married, I returned to Grace as the associate director of admissions, and she began working on her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in art. She graduated from Grace in 2013 and immediately enrolled in Grace’s Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling until she graduated in 2015 (the same year I received my Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership). She went on to teach several courses in Grace’s School of Behavioral Sciences, including Social Psychology and Lifespan Development. From barely graduating high school to adjunct college instructor — Grace gave my wife opportunities she never dreamed were possible.
I don’t have an inflated view of what we do in admissions. Rarely do we have the opportunity to change someone’s life in our brief interactions with them. But what we can do is invite them to Grace where over the course of years, through many conversations, relationships and the Word of God, there is real hope for life change.
And I’m not just talking about the students who come in with a 4.0 GPA and their future plans all mapped out. I’m talking about first-generation students like me. I’m talking about adult learners like Vanessa. Each Lancer has their own story. I guess you could say each of us is “Marked by Grace.”
Are you ready to begin your own Grace story? Take the first step by applying today.