In the Bon Appétit Café, Alexis Zeiler spots the differences between when she started at Hillsdale College in the fall of 1998 and today — three weeks shy of when she’ll graduate with the class of 2018.
This, she points out, wasn’t here before. We also had way fewer options. In particular, she likes the expanded salad bar.
Zeiler was 17 when she started at Hillsdale (she skipped kindergarten). Finishing her bachelor’s degree of science in biology 20 years later, she says she fits in more boxes than the average senior.
“I’m a college student, I’m a ‘townie,’ I’m a widow, I’m a mom,” she said. “It’s kind of an interesting thing, being in the middle of all these groups, being a part of them.”
Zeiler left after her junior year, in 2001. She realized she couldn’t follow the family footsteps and become a doctor, and she couldn’t keep taking upper-level biology classes that pushed her toward that goal. She quit her job at Savarino’s, now Johnny T’s, one year later, and moved with her best friend, and now sister-in-law, Sarah, to Bowling Green, Ohio.
She sold insurance and helped Sarah with her master’s thesis until her family needed her at the family business, a full-service truck stop in Lansing, Michigan. She worked there from 2003 until her family closed the business in 2009, after raised fuel taxes drove them out of business.
It took Zeiler 12 years and the impetus her fiancé, Seth, to get her back to Hillsdale. Seth also encouraged her to finish her bachelor’s degree, but not put her life on hold to do so. She has taken one class a semester since 2014.
While at Hillsdale the first time around, Alexis dated Seth so he could practice talking to women — a favor to Sarah. Once it stopped being a test-run, however, Sarah broke them up when she whisked Alexis to Bowling Green. The two reconnected at Alexis’s 30th birthday party, and married at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church Hillsdale in 2013, the same year and the same church where Alexis converted to Catholicism.
Two years later, on Feb. 16, 2016, she was due any day with baby Charlie when Seth collapsed while they were timing contractions. He died of a heart attack in the hospital the next night, and Charlie was born Feb. 20.
While Kelly Cole met Zeiler in college, when they were resident assistants in Whitley Residence, it wasn’t until Alexis and Seth married and Alexis became pregnant did the two women start talking regularly. After Seth died, Cole stepped in, coordinating home visits for Zeiler.
Cole said the St. Anthony’s community rallied around Zeiler: praying rosaries, collecting freezer meals, giving financial contributions.
“It was a beautiful example of how the body of Christ works together to help someone,” Cole said. “She was ready to cry, I was ready to cry, the generosity of humankind is astounding even though you hope and pray you’re not in a situation like this, but people are called to help you because of your grief or misfortune.”
Since then, she’s juggled managing the Jonesville Dollar Tree full time (50 hours, including commute), a “paint-by-numbers” easy job that allows her to raise Charlie, 2, devoting three to five hours a week to school, and fulfilling church obligations, including planning and executing the yearly Greek Feast at St. Anthony’s.
“She’s given so much to St. Anthony’s with the Greek Feast and other ways she’s helped,” Cole said. After Seth died, Cole said, people learned that the woman behind the feast Easter 2016 was a 5-week postpartum, 5-week widow. People responded by volunteering with the feast, cleaning up her yard, and offering to hold Charlie so Zeiler could have quiet time after mass.
“The realness of her faith is completely undoubtable. I’ve talked to much older widows who cited her as inspiration for them to just keep going, saying how can they, who had 50 years with their husbands, be bitter when Alexis is not?”
Cole said Zeiler always does what she needs to do to the best of her abilities.
“I’m so inspired by her,” Cole said. “Alexis, are you really so real? I’m just so proud of her, but proud is the right word because I need to have contributed to her to be proud of her accomplishments, but it’s just amazing.”
Zeiler’s achievement became real when she saw the commencement program.
For Professor of Biology Frank Steiner, who is working with Zeiler on her senior project, getting back into her work was just a matter of jump-starting after being out of the scientific mode for so long.
“To pick up where she left off is a huge enough hurdle to overcome,” he said, adding that she did something not everyone would be able of because she was willing.
Part of that hurdle was overcoming a knowledge gap. For example, when she started in 1998, human genome sequencing was just developing. Now, she said, she can send a swab of saliva to 23andMe — a private biotechnology company — and get her genealogy data kit in a week.
“The advancement in technology between then and now is unbelievable,” she said.
So she had to play catch-up. In class, she had her phone, computer, and notepad open across two desks because she was constantly looking up words that “normal” students would know, which amounted to French or Greek to her. She starred, underlined, and highlighted concepts to look up after class.
Yet Steiner sees this as an advantage over current students, who lack Zeiler’s 20 years of historical perspective.
“She’s very astute, quick to pick up and see the significance and application,” he said. “Maybe a little bit quicker than others, and I think that’s partly to do with her life experience.”
For example, during her biology comps, she was 39 weeks pregnant. While she couldn’t fit in the folding desks, she could answer all the pregnancy questions.
“I got out of there and the other students were like, ‘Well, I wish I was pregnant because then I would know all the answers to all those pregnancy questions!’ I was like ‘No, because pregnancy brain is a real thing and that would make this so much harder than if I had taken this years ahead of time.’”
Cole said she hopes people don’t brush Zeiler off because she’s in her late 30s: “These students, do they have any idea what they could be learning from her? Do you know what a gem you have in your presence?”
One semester, all she took was bowling, to fulfill the notorious second P.E. credit of the early 2000s that forced many out to Hillside Lanes. Zeiler’s last English class was an independent study with Professor of English Lorraine Murphy, who let Alexis breastfeed during class.
“I don’t know how many professors would let me bring in my infant son and nurse him while we were talking about Great Books,” Zeiler said. “She’s fantastic.”
For her 12 elective credits, she opted to take hybrid in-class and online courses (Hillsdale doesn’t transfer online-only classes) at Jackson College, since they were $200 instead of $900.
“The difference between Jackson and Hillsdale is like high school and college,” Zeiler said, speculating that the 12-credits worth of work at Jackson College amounted to one Hillsdale class. But the amount of work and the caliber of students grew between the Hillsdale of the 1990s and now; she said the students here now are “a step above.”
But while she remembers bygone campus fixtures like the Kresge Hall between the library and Central Hall, and being able to drive up to Central Hall, one thing stays the same.
“The biggest thing that is the same is that every student at Hillsdale College wants to change the world,” Zeiler said. “Every single person that I’ve ever met that comes here has a big vision or big dream of how they’re going to impact the world, and that’s never changed.”
She’ll freely admit that she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, and that in the last month and a half, eight people have asked her if she will open a restaurant in Hillsdale.
While it’s not the right time to embark on such an all-consuming project, she knows for sure she’ll keep living in Hillsdale, in Seth’s grandparent’s house on the Zeiler Family Farm.
“Where I live was my husband’s happy place, his favorite place on earth,” she said. “That’s really the only way that [Charlie] is going to have a connection with his dad, is through similar memories to those of his father, and being around his father’s family. He’s got aunts and uncles that live on either side, his grandmother is right down the road. Every single neighbor knew my husband.”
She highlighted the “little things” in a small-town community, like when her neighbors moved an old playset their sons didn’t use anymore from their yard to hers for Charlie to use.
“I really want people to almost randomly go up to my son and tell him stories about his father, and if I move, I lose that,” she said. “I think those little pieces, those little stories, are how he’s going to have a good grasp of his dad.”
Cole said Zeiler has become a public witness.
“She’s just such an example of continuing to do the right thing, seek God’s will even when things don’t go at all the way you planned,” Cole said. “It’s a lesson anyone can take and learn from.”