Courtesy Aaron Petersen

Through the years, Hillsdale has served as a home away from home for thou­sands of stu­dents, but the expression takes on special meaning to some who have con­tinued their time at Hillsdale College post-grad­u­ation. 

Whether it be as a pro­fessor, admin­is­trator, or any of the countless faculty roles within the Hillsdale College com­munity, many former stu­dents find their place as employees of the college. Such high retention for Hillsdale faculty is largely because of the college’s unique mission and the com­munity it fosters, which many didn’t realize until years after their grad­u­ation according to some of those who have stayed. 

Dean of Men Aaron Petersen ’96 said Hillsdale is an insti­tution like no other, with its dis­tinct embrace of an extensive liberal arts cur­riculum, stringent honor code, and uncom­pro­mising mission statement. 

After grad­u­ating from Hillsdale in the ’90s with a degree in biology coupled with a Christian studies minor, Petersen worked in business for a few years before real­izing his passion for teaching. He always knew his passion was to “cul­tivate mind, body, and soul” he said, but it took him a few years to under­stand specif­i­cally how he would be called to fulfill it. 

When a teaching job opened at his high school alma mater, Grand Rapids’ Catholic Central, Petersen began his work as a science teacher while earning his way toward a master’s degree in edu­cation from Aquinas College. It was during this time that his now-pre­de­cessor reached out to encourage him to con­sider the role of Hillsdale’s dean of men. 

Although Petersen said part of his decision to return was due to a certain love and affection for his edu­cation, it was Pres­ident of Hillsdale College Larry P. Arnn and his vision for the direction of the college that proved most influ­ential. 

“What I heard in Dr. Arnn was the intel­ligent and pas­sionate expla­nation of the college’s pur­poses, and how the College could impact its stu­dents and our country.”

Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy and Religion Lee Cole said there’s a “fuzzy feeling” all college grad­uates know when remem­bering their alma mater, but Hillsdale sets itself apart as a unique place to work because of its dis­tinct mission. 

“We all rec­ognize that Hillsdale is doing some­thing pretty rare within the con­fines of the con­tem­porary academy,” Cole said. “You’re shaped by a par­ticular vision of the human being and a par­ticular mission here, and so it’s inevitable we stay the course here, and that you have a kind of com­mitment to that vision.”

After six years spent earning his doc­torate degree in phi­losophy at Vil­lanova Uni­versity and one year as a graduate fellow at the Uni­versity of Notre Dame, Cole returned to Hillsdale for his first teaching position in the phi­losophy department. 

Senior Director of Admis­sions Zachary Miller ’11 said he chose to work for the college imme­di­ately after grad­u­ation, drawn by the sense of com­munity Hillsdale offered during his college years. Like Petersen, Miller said the unique atmos­phere is a tes­tament to Arnn’s work over the last two decades.

“I think a lot of folks who would come through here work here because they love the insti­tution and what it stands for,” Miller said. “And the culture is a credit to Dr. Arnn and what he’s built here, and the many people who day in and day out are making things happen. It’s just a place where people support each other, and that’s not a guar­antee at every place of employment across the country. So to find some­thing like Hillsdale is pretty special.

Although Miller dis­covered his vocation earlier on in life than Petersen, Miller also didn’t envision himself working for the college while still a student. When the position opened upon grad­u­ation, however, Miller said he knew it was where he ought to work because of the strong level of com­munity the college fosters. 

In and out of the classroom, Miller said he was attracted to the people who make up the college, who are willing to sac­rifice and pitch in where needed. He empha­sized that the same culture of care and ded­i­cation has endured from his days as a student through his time as a faculty member. 

“It’s a special place, and that’s no dif­ferent when you’re on staff. I realized very early on in my staff career here that folks care about the mission of the college and they care about each other, and I want to work in a place like that,” Miller said. “The culture is no dif­ferent than what you’ll find in a classroom.”

Miller said he’s observed the trend in many instances of stu­dents whose career goals don’t nec­es­sarily entail serving as a higher edu­cation admin­is­trator, but, due to their fondness for their college expe­rience, choose to work as one anyway. 

Director of Student Activ­ities Zane Mabry ’20 had  almost fin­ished his under­graduate studies this past spring when the oppor­tunity to stay on campus pre­sented itself. As an eco­nomics major, the position wasn’t one Mabry had envi­sioned as a natural career path. The town and com­munity of Hillsdale drew him in. 

“It wasn’t some­thing that was super ingrained for a while, but I really loved living in Hillsdale so I def­i­nitely wanted to stick around if I could,” Mabry said. “There’s just so many good con­nec­tions I have here like in the com­munity with pro­fessors and stu­dents.”

Petersen said it’s a natural fit for alumni, as the type of under­graduate edu­cation Hillsdale stu­dents expe­rience is so unique that stu­dents who desire the same type of post-graduate expe­rience often find it right at home. Retention, he said, is mutually ben­e­ficial as the new faculty have been acquainted with the mission. 

“When we interview someone who both under­stands the nuances of our mission and the culture, and they also have the tools we’re looking for, that’s a great advantage to us.”