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.”