Westmont Magazine Six Seniors Tell Their Stories
Six Graduates from the Class of 2015 Reflect on Their College Careers and Look Forward to the Future
NIKKI DRESSLER, who majored in chemistry and biology, knew in high school she wanted to pursue a career in medicine. Her sister, Jackie, who graduated from Westmont in 2013 with degrees in English and theater arts, nagged Nikki to join her at the college. “I came to an Admitted Students Day and experienced firsthand the thriving and unique community,” she says. “It made all the other colleges seem unattractive and unappealing. I was focused on a pre-med track, and I appreciated Westmont’s biology and chemistry departments with their small classes and research opportunities.”
Nikki added the chemistry major when she discovered she enjoyed chemical research. She assisted Professor Kristi Cantrell in her studies of peptides, working both on campus and in a local, professional research laboratory. “It was a unique experience that solidified my love for chemistry,” Nikki says.
To support her sister, she operated the sound board and lights for the theater department. “The job was tough and the manual labor was intense, but it was an honor seeing my sister shine on stage.” Participating in Europe Semester in 2013 took her outside her comfort zone. “It pushed me in ways I never knew were possible,” she says. “It helped me form relationships that will be lifelong.”
Nikki served on the Potter’s Clay medical/dental teams for three years. “Being exposed to so many wonderful doctors, dentists, classmates, patients, care-giving experiences and procedures inspired my love for medical and spiritual healing,” she says. “It made the stress and hardships of pursuing a pre-med track worthwhile and pushed me toward my longtime goal of becoming a doctor.” She met Dr. Stephen Brooks, a surgeon from Massachusetts, through Potter’s Clay, and he invited her to Cape Cod to shadow him at his practice. She decided to go although she’d nearly given up her dream of being a doctor after receiving her first round of MCAT scores. Watching him convinced her of her calling. “If God had stirred up this love and passion for medicine within me, I knew I shouldn’t give up just yet,” she says.
Nikki works as a laboratory assistant at Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital. “I got a job at such a prestigious hospital laboratory because of my experience and jobs at Westmont,” she says. She returns to Westmont in the fall as a general chemistry lab instructor and will apply to medical schools for fall 2016.
RACHEL HARRIL, a first-generation college graduate, sought to deepen her understand- ing of diversity issues and share her conclusions with the Westmont community and with local students she mentored. After serving as president of the Black Student Union for a year, she continued to learn about culture and race by studying with Westmont in Mexico and Westmont in San Francisco.
“As BSU president my sophomore year, I created a safe space to talk about challenges that black students face in society at large and in a predominantly white environment,” she says. “As a biracial student, I wanted to make it an inclusive space, where non-black students felt comfortable entering into the conversation with black students. I gained a deeper understanding of the multifaceted challenges regarding race and the importance of dialogue to move forward together.” During her semester in Mexico, Rachel lived near downtown Querétaro, explored the city, and gained a greater appreciation for its people and culture. “I discovered how much I enjoy learning outside of the classroom—and how much I enjoy being alone yet surrounded by others,” she says.
Rachel served others in many capacities during her college years: working on the Orientation team that welcomes new students, encouraging underserved high school students to attend college as a Liberal Arts Ambassador, tutoring youth through the California Student Opportunity and Access Program, serving on student panels on campus to discuss diversity, and interning with the Westmont admissions counselor for diversity and a high school guidance counselor.
“Meeting with children from similar backgrounds as mine—students of color from lower-income families who would be first-generation college students— allowed me to experience what being on the giving end of mentorship was like,” she says. “It was rewarding, and I grew personally in a lot of relational capacities.” She spent her last college semester at Westmont in San Francisco as an intern at a digital lifestyle magazine, deliberateLIFE. “I helped create content and experiences to inspire people to live well and do good,” she says. “We started a dinner discussion series called Deliberate Discourse, which brings people around the table to talk offline about social challenges, such as race and gender equality. ” She also discovered an affinity for event planning and marketing. “It’s an environment where I thrive,” she says. “Wherever I am, I know I’ll be given the opportunity to love others appropriately through wise and eloquent speech.”
MACKENZIE HOLMAN followed her parents’ example when she enrolled at Westmont. Rick ’88 and Jill Hatfield ’89 Holman met as students and got married while Jill finished her final semester. Mackenzie’s twin sister, Morgan, also graduated from Westmont.
“We traveled to Santa Barbara and the college many times during our childhood to visit their old friends and teachers,” she says. “When we had to make a decision about college, Westmont seemed the natural and familiar option. It was also a place centered on understanding and engaging with Christ and his big, beautiful world.”
Mackenzie enjoys music, art, gardening, cooking and sports, but she settled comfortably into her sociology major. “The nature of the study is trying on other people’s shoes and walking in t heir footsteps for a while,” she says. “Sociology fit me because I like to listen to people’s stories. I find it fascinating how social forces influence and pressure us into making individual decisions.” She continued listening to others as she studied with Westmont in Istanbul. She stays in contact with Turkish friends she met there, with whom she discussed Islam and Jesus. The semester included visits to mosques, worship in an Armenian Orthodox church and community engagement projects that led her to the homes of refugees. “They served Arabic coffee and told stories of fleeing their homes in Syria and Nigeria,” she says. “These were beautiful stories from people who had seen death and destruction and felt sorrow and pain but wanted to bless us by welcoming us into their dirty, makeshift apartments, serving us coffee, and laughing with us.”
At Westmont, Mackenzie played classical guitar and sang in the women’s chorale. She learned to sail with the college sailing club, enjoying the movement of the wind. “My mind could be clear, focused and free when I sailed,” she says. “It’s an amazing thing to be at the mercy of the sea in a boat powered only by the wind.” Mackenzie hopes to work wit h a missionary in Strasbourg, France, where a friend’s aunt serves. “This opportunity came as a total surprise and a gift from God,” she says. “I would love to help her while learning French and serving people. “God met and sought me out through Westmont, my professors, Istanbul semester and my peers,” she says. “I’m grateful for learning more about God and how to care about and pray for the people of the world.”
SOPHIA MEULENBERG graduated summa cum laude with a degree in political science and won the Faculty Scholarship Award for the highest cumulative GPA: 4.0. “I’ve always been driven by an inherent desire to do my best,” she says.
The busy student sang in women’s chorale and the college choir, wrote for the Horizon, directed Emmaus Road and played on the women’s tennis team. She served as a resident assistant, co-president and founder of the Westmont Democrat Club, Phi Kappa Phi vice president, and research assistant for the political science department. “These activities helped me see the many avenues God uses to speak to different people,” she says.
Earning a prestigious Monroe Scholarship convinced her God was calling her to Westmont. “I wouldn’t trade my time at Westmont for anything,” she says.
Traveling with Europe Semester increased her confidence and helped her “forge friendships that are refining me as a person, an academic and a Christian.” Spending a week in New York City with the Model UN course exposed her to stu- dents from all over the world and increased her interest in working in global politics. An internship in Brussels placed her at the European branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank. “I worked with former diplomats and EU officials researching and writing about EU politics,” she says. “I learned I could do t he kind of work I’d always wanted to do.
“My political science education at Westmont has equipped me incredibly well, and the study and practice of politics on the international level has made me more excited to work in that setting.” She’ll spend the fall with a Christian organization in Swaziland, Africa, assisting in international development work that meets both physical and spiritual needs. She plans to serve in the Peace Corps to gain experience and understanding before enrolling in graduate school. “Ultimately, I want to work for the U.S. State Department as a foreign service officer or in D.C. as a political analyst for an organization,” she says. “Westmont has deepened my faith and given me new insight into what it means to trust God in everything. Studying, serving and living for four years surrounded by people who love God on a campus that continuously points to God introduced me again and again to the magnificent, loving and incomprehensible God I serve.”
ELIZABETH SIMONEIT graduated with degrees in Spanish and chemistry and won the Kenneth Monroe Award for academic achievement, campus leadership and impact on fellow students. She traveled often to Mexico, serving with Juntos and Potter’s Clay three times each. As a member of the medical/dental team, she shadowed physicians and helped translate for them. “One doctor took me under his wing, explaining what he was doing and encouraging me to try it myself—and explain it myself,” she says. “I want to be a doctor who cares for others and helps them heal—and I want to conduct conversations in both languages.”
Elizabeth, who started studying Spanish in seventh grade, felt an instant bond with Spanish professor Mary Docter. “I have so much respect for her and the way she cherishes the Spanish language and communicates her passion for it,” she says. After a sophomore year laden with pre-med courses, Elizabeth participated in Westmont in Mexico with Docter. “It was a wonderful time to recalibrate and ask difficult questions about myself,” she says. “I considered the implications of Mexican history, writers, artists and revolutionaries and how they’ve shaped their country. I’ve always been an independent person who wasn’t strong on forming strong relationships or trusting other people, but in Mexico, I had to rely on others and learn to trust. The culture is more relational, and the openness and hospitality I encountered helped me see the importance of relationships.”
Elizabeth began to understand God as a relational being who truly loves people for who they are. “You can’t earn His love,” she says. “That’s how I’ve treated all my relationships in the past. I’m a different Christian now.”
She enjoys being challenged to think in different ways and consider a variety of perspectives. She loved both her majors and says that studying a foreign language helped her absorb chemistry.
Despite being accepted to three medical schools, Elizabeth will postpone attending the University of South Florida College of Medicine and return to Querétaro to teach English.
She chose South Florida because of its excellent curriculum and track for health disparities. “I’d be able to volunteer in communities where doctors aren’t easily accessible,” she says. “The community there reminded me of Westmont: very supportive, loving and welcoming. I learn best in that kind of environment.”
BEN WEST says Westmont taught him to step outside what is comfortable and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. He came to Westmont intending to major in biology and go to medical school. He followed that plan and earned the Faculty Scholarship Award for a perfect 4.0 GPA.
He first encountered uncertainty his freshman year when he participated in Potter’s Clay and experienced the frustra- tion of a language barrier. “That’s when I realized I love Mexican culture,” he says. “The place and the people are so welcoming, friendly and hospitable.”
Busy with his biology major, he took only a year of Spanish before studying abroad with Westmont in Mexico as a junior. His limited fluency meant he had to work hard to become more proficient in Spanish, and he quickly advanced in his studies with Mexican professors.
When he returned to Ensenada with the medical/dental team his junior and senior years, he could finally communicate with people and develop relationships. “It was so rewarding to come back and see the fruits of all my labor,” he says.
Ben’s father, an obstetrician and gynecologist, his brother, Jake ’14, and sister, Katie ’18, all joined him at Potter’s Clay this year. “It’s been amazing for it to become a family experience,” he says.
Ben conducted two biology research projects as a student, one on blood glucose levels in garter snakes with Professor Amanda Sparkman and another on inflamed joints in mice with Professor Eileen McQuade and his brother, Jake.
While Ben focused on a cellular and molecular biology path, he learned ecology and conservation from Sparkman. “We caught more than 100 snakes and a lot of lizards at Santa Cruz Island, Eagle Lake in Northern California and Santa Monica,” he says. “I enjoyed watching Dr. Sparkman in her element and seeing how passionate she was about caring for the animals and conserving their habitat.”
Ben joins his brother at Loma Linda University’s School of Medicine in the fall. “I’ve loved the community and the fr iendships I’ve made at Westmont,” he says. “I’ve been pleased with the aca- demic training and the extracurricular opportunities. I’ve had the ability to work with professors, learn from them directly, do research with them and get to know them, and they have invested in me.”