Written by Rebecca Nakashima
Students at private, Christian universities are typically expected to fit a specific mold. The prevailing assumption is that they are raised in church-going families and sheltered from the barrage of secular culture. They are often labeled as “good kids” with little real-world experience.
While pieces of this stereotype may ring true, it is never really that simple. Some students shatter the mold entirely, throwing off common expectations as they transition from uncommon pasts. A few of these remarkable individuals have arrived at Biola University, each with his or her own powerful story.
“I wanted to go out. I wanted to travel. I wanted to learn about myself, learn more about life. Everything I wanted, I got.”
John Reid leans forward eagerly, clasping his hands in front of him, as he discusses his decision to join the Marine Corps. Reid has a mature air about him, regularly slipping a “ma’am” or two into his answers.
As soon as he graduated from high school in 2003, Reid entered boot camp and began seven years of service in the military police. “We do everything from traffic control, to law enforcement, to criminal activity and force protection,” Reid explains.
After spending two years in Japan, Reid applied for a presidential security detail in Washington, D.C. He was accepted and spent two years with President George W. Bush and two years with President Barack Obama. “Bush never wanted to talk politics,” Reid remembers. “He would if you wanted to, but he wanted to talk sports, life, anything else.”
When Reid lived in D.C. he was actively involved with the church he attended, which helped him transition to Biola. “[Adjusting] wasn’t difficult socially so much,” he says. “I was really involved in my church. I led a high school small group and went with them on retreats.”
Of course, some things took getting used to, such as dorm life. After spending most of his time around his peers, 26-year-old Reid had to adjust to living with so many young people. “The biggest adaption I had to make was how I respond to people,” Reid says. “I had high expectations, and I needed to realize I’m not a sergeant; I am a student along with these guys here.”
Reid looks at his situation as preparation for the calling that God has given him. “I’m here to go to school, but I’m also here to be trained,” explains Reid. “I stay in the dorms because I want to be with guys. I want to be able to coach them.”
Reid looks at Biola as a place of rest, where he no longer has to be on guard against both the ridicule he had faced in the Marines. “You’re surrounded by people who don’t know much — and don’t care much — about religion in general,” Reid says. “If you, in any way, are associated with Christianity or any religion, they’re going to know. You’re going to be called ‘The Jesus Guy,’ ‘The God Guy.’”
Reid transferred to Biola as a journalism major last spring. Ultimately, he wants to go through Talbot and return to the military as a chaplain, where he will help educate other soldiers in theology, apologetics and ethics. “I want a full-time job where I can minister to those on the battlefield, to those who are serving,” Reid says. “As a Christian and follower of Christ, I know that it is my responsibility to administer the true Gospel.”
Steven Oatey had never planned on going to a Christian college. “I assumed, probably arrogantly, that I wouldn’t learn as much [as I would at a secular school],” he explains.
Originally, Oatey’s dream school was UC Davis. However, when he was not accepted, he had to consider the other state schools he had applied to, which he says was a humbling experience. After a semester of community college, Oatey decided to enroll in UC Berkeley’s rigorous engineering program.
Because of the school’s liberal reputation, he received mixed reactions from his friends and family about his decision, but his experience defied expectations. “The professors were very liberal, but I found the students were more moderate, especially regarding their beliefs in God,” Oatey says.
Even so, the theological discussions Oatey had with fellow students forced him to critically examine his beliefs. “It was refreshing to have my own thoughts challenged by non-Christians,” Oatey explains. “There were a lot of very intelligent people there, which made for a lot of really good conversation.”
Oatey intended to spend the rest of his college days at Berkeley, but was surprised when, halfway through the semester, he felt God pointing him in a completely different direction. “I distinctly remember a sudden realization of ‘I need to do something more involved with people,’” Oatey says. “It wasn’t any more specific than that. It was just a realization that engineering, while good and full of potential, wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing.”
After this shift, he decided to pursue teaching and was eager to become involved in mentoring at his church. It wasn’t until he started searching for Christian universities online, at the urging of his parents, that he found Biola.
Now in his junior year, Oatey is majoring in math and secondary education. “It’s my practical pursuit of ministry,” explains Oatey. He views his time at Biola as a “taste test” of formal Christian education, the area of teaching that interests him. Eventually, he plans on attending seminary and becoming a pastor.
Oatey says when he transferred to Biola he had to remind himself to see his Christian peers as family. Because of his new perspective, Oatey often addresses other believers as “brother” and “sister,” even in text messages and emails. His recognition that Christians act as one body changed the way he interacted with others. “Being committed to people in that way is something I’m very convicted about,” Oatey says. “The expectation of community is not how much you can get but how much you can give.”
Taija Ziegenfuss pedaled over on her bike with a can of Coca-Cola in hand. She had been helping her elderly neighbor with chores, and the beverage was her reward. “I don’t usually like soda, but I worked for this,” she explains playfully.
Working for things has come to define Ziegenfuss’ life: She has lived in nine different homes with nine different families. Fighting the odds, Ziegenfuss has made a new life for herself — and she isn’t done yet.
As an infant, Ziegenfuss was taken from her first home by Social Services because of her mother’s drug addiction. “I was born with drugs in my system: Methamphetamine and cocaine,” she explains. Her mother died of a drug overdose when Ziegenfuss was 12, and she never knew her father. From then on, it was foster home after foster home, though she says nine different homes is a relatively small number compared to the experiences of other children in the foster care system.
Ziegenfuss knows firsthand the problems of the system, including abuse at the hands of a foster family. To make matters worse, no one seemed to care. “I had pictures of my bruises and scratches, and [my foster family] still won [the court case],” she says. “Things happen like that in foster homes all the time, and no one really knows it.”
The summer before she entered Biola, Ziegenfuss lived in government-subsidized housing. Her foster mother, who depended on child support checks and food stamps, began demanding money from her in exchange for room and board — money Ziegenfuss didn’t have. Eventually, the situation became too much to handle. Ziegenfuss called her future Biola roommate, whose family came to help her move out while her foster mother was at the store.
Despite her traumatic living situation, Ziegenfuss graduated high school with honors and was accepted into Biola, her dream school. “I was infatuated with Biola,” she says. “I felt so honored to get a letter from them.”
After so many years in unloving foster homes, Ziegenfuss found Biola’s atmosphere difficult to adjust to. “It was hard to be in an environment where there was so much love and not much negativity,” she explains. “It was very overwhelming. I got really depressed my first year here. . . Even though it was positive, I was panicking.”
She was also forced to experience new things completely on her own, which she says was a significant struggle. “I couldn’t call my mom and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, Mom, you wouldn’t believe what happened to me today.’ I didn’t have that,” Ziegenfuss says. “And it’s still hard right now because Mom’s not here. She’s not coming back, and she won’t see me graduate.”
After graduating in May, she hopes to earn her master’s degree in social work at USC. She feels called to minister to children in the foster care system who are in the same situations she faced. “I just want to be with [foster children], talk with them, care for them,” she explains. “I want to make sure these kids are taken care of, because the only reason why this system exists is for their benefit, and I think we’ve strayed away from that.” Despite a rough past, Ziegenfuss still acknowledges God’s providence and is optimistic about her future. “God is good,” she says. “I’m here at my dream school. I’m going to graduate on time. He brought me out of [a painful situation], and I feel like I’m on top of the world.”