January 11 2018

I’ve often heard students ask each other some variation of the question, “How did you get to Wheaton?” Everyone has a story, whether it’s of an obvious sign or a more winding journey.

When I asked freshman Jenna Watson, “How did you get to Wheaton College?” she told me she knew she would come to Wheaton when it started to snow. The snow fell when she and her family visited campus during an uncharacteristically warm winter weekend. “Before we had gone,” she explained, “I had just prayed, ‘God, if you want me to go, send snow when we’re there.’ Which is not something I normally do.”

As Chippy Hui (’17) reviewed her time as an international student at Wheaton, she too clearly saw God’s hand in bringing her here. As we talked over Skype, Hui explained that she had originally planned to attend an entirely different liberal arts college. In fact, she had already been accepted, but during her gap year at a Bible institute in New York, she learned about Wheaton through encountering books by Wheaton professors and conversations with her professors at the Bible institute. Wheaton’s anthropology program, which integrates a Christian focus into the study, made Wheaton replace Hui’s dream school. “For me,” she said, “anthropology has been learning about appreciating images of God.”

But when Hui’s parents, who are not Christians, had allowed her to study at the Bible institute, it was with the understanding that she would then pursue a degree at her dream college that had already accepted her. Rather than ignore her parent’s wishes, Hui argued back and forth with them over their weekly Skype calls. “I think the most important part is that I was trying to learn to honor my parents,” she told me. On one of those days, Hui told God that if her parents didn’t agree to let her go to Wheaton on that day, she wouldn’t go, “Kind of like a little kid negotiating,” she admitted. According to Hui, during that Skype meeting her mother said that after reading an article about drug use in liberal arts colleges, she had decided that Hui should go to Wheaton — she wanted Hui safe and happy, and if that meant letting her go to a Christian university, so be it.

There were still hurdles to overcome. Hui’s computer broke down, an expired TOEFL score threatened her application, illness made her almost give up. Finally, the day she was expecting to hear back from Wheaton, Hui felt peace about her decision. She climbed down from the tree in which she had been praying and glanced at her watch. It was 4:29 pm. When she checked her email later that evening, she found an acceptance email from Wheaton. It had been sent at 4:29 pm.

Senior Carolina Quiroa-Crowell’s journey to Wheaton took a detour. Though she grew up in the Wheaton area and her father worked at Wheaton and her sister studied here, Quiroa-Crowell told me, “I want[ed] to do my own thing!” She spent her freshman year at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and though she found community there, Wheaton’s slightly bigger size and proximity to Chicago drew her back. “Going to a different college really made me realize who I am, as cheesy as that is,” she said. “It made me realize what environments I thrive in and what environments aren’t super helpful for me to learn in.”

Sophomore Santiago Hernandez, on the other hand, found it amazing that he got to Wheaton at all. Though Hernandez had been accepted by 17 schools, Wheaton among his top three, when his mother lost her job he could no longer afford to attend any of them. He gave Wheaton his confirmation deposit, hoping that some of the 30-something scholarships for which he had applied would cover the cost, but still ended up several thousand dollars short. July found Hernandez at the orientation of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio — a good school, he said, but not where he wanted to go. Yet two days after the orientation, he received two very late scholarships that closed the gap between what he could pay and the cost of Wheaton to 1,700 dollars. He raised that money in a week. “It was in a way a Cinderella story,” he said, “I couldn’t afford to go, but last minute I was able to raise the funds to end up going. It was really intense.”

When I sat down to talk with junior Sarah Herning, she told me she has occasionally questioned her place at Wheaton. Originally from Chicago, Herning’s original plans never included studying in the suburbs. “It was my plan to be a highschool dropout,” she laughed. “Fortunately, that plan didn’t work out too well.” Called by God to work with former child soldiers, Herning wanted to drop everything and move to Africa. But conversations with family and friends convinced her that she needed to prepare beforehand by attaining a degree, so she ended up combining Bible and theology, anthropology and the HNGR certificate into an Interdisciplinary Studies major at Wheaton. “Every single semester,” Herning explained, “I do the thing where I’m like, ‘God, where do you want me? What do you want to do with me? I’ll go wherever you want me!’ and literally every semester without fail he says, ‘Will you go to Wheaton?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s not what I wanted to hear!’”

But despite her sometimes complicated relationship with Wheaton, Herning knows that God has confirmed that he wants her here. Her first day as a student, as she sat on Blanchard lawn and prayed, Herning felt a profound sense that God wanted her at Wheaton. “Just one of those feelings deep in your gut that you know is God,” she explained. Later that semester, Herning broke down in tears at a Wycliffe presentation on campus when she realized that God was telling her that her life goal should be to tell others about Jesus. It was a moment that couldn’t have happened anywhere else and confirmed for Herning that she is where she’s supposed to be. In the end, she said, “As much as I have a really complicated relationship with Wheaton … it’s become a kind of home.”