I can still remember my first visit to Hillsdale College. Walking through campus, the student ambassador leading us around informed me that Hillsdale was “hard,” that students rarely got a 4.0 grade-point average. “Come on, how hard can it be?” I whispered slyly to my mother, rolling my eyes. A year later, you could find me in the office of my Western Heritage professor picking up a paper with the familiar “C” scrawled in formidable red ink at the top. I came to Hillsdale with an unhealthy dose of overconfidence.
With some of the highest grades at my high school, a long list of volunteer work, and a respectable athletic career, the priority of my college search was to find the most prestigious, practical option to boost my résumé. Like so many of my peers, I understood college to be one of the required stepping stones towards attaining a noteworthy job. Little did I know, Hillsdale had much more in store for me.
Honestly, I can’t say explicitly why I chose Hillsdale in the first place. When I think back to making the decision, I really didn’t have strong convictions one way or another. In some ways, it scares me how flippantly I considered the privilege it was to attend Hillsdale. It turned out to have been a decision that would have a significant impact on my life.
Looking back on my first days as a Hillsdale student, I can recall Dr. Arnn, our president, informing the freshmen that we should be frightened. Our souls were about to be etched—an impression left—by the Hillsdale College community over the next four years. For me, the message went in one ear and out the other. I went through the same motions I always had for two years, checking off the necessary boxes, and seeing my education as a means to a practical end.
And then, I left.
In my desperate attempt to fulfill what I thought was a dream, I transferred to a chiropractic school. Putting Hillsdale behind me, I began checking the final box that would lead me to a well-paying, reputable career. You’d think it would’ve occurred to me that perhaps I had made the wrong decision, traveling five hours to Hillsdale almost every weekend leading up to the start of my new school. You’d be wrong. Despite the growing feelings of doubt, I reminded myself that I would be considerably further ahead of my peers once I graduated from my new, career-focused program. This sentiment would quickly dissipate.
It only took a few short days of classes for a profound understanding to take root inside of me. Being apart from it, my heart yearned deeply for a return to Hillsdale College. What had happened to me? What was it that enthralled me about a tiny liberal arts school between dirt roads and cornfields? It had been a slow, discreet process. Unbeknownst to my more pragmatic instincts, Hillsdale had accomplished exactly what Dr. Arnn had predicted: my soul had been etched. An impression had been made. As I considered my longing with newfound perspective, I viewed my being as a canvas upon which an image of my life was taking form. Hillsdale College had been designing an artwork with my nature as its template: my Hillsdale professors painting with wonder and curiosity; my Hillsdale peers decorating with friendship and love; my Hillsdale community adorning with tradition and beauty. As the image took form, I saw how it was incomplete. And so I came back to Hillsdale College.
Students begin during their college years to give form to their future selves. As our distinguished English professor Dr. Jordan reminds us, “material well-being is not the chief or highest end of man: moral and spiritual development is more important.” So, you could say I chose Hillsdale twice: the first time by the grace of God, and the second with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the same grace that brought me back.
Amber Mango is a history major from Allendale, Michigan. She leads Young Life Capernaum, a ministry to young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and works on campus with the College horticulturist.