It’s said that when you love something, set it free, and if it comes back, it was meant to be. This is the case for many Hillsdale alumni who come back to work at their alma mater, proving true their love for the white and blue.
Blake Faulkner, Jason Gehrke, and Tim Polelle are three recent alumni who decided to use their education to pour into the school that formed them. Faulkner teaches rhetoric and public address, Gehrke teaches history, and Polelle teaches fifth grade at Hillsdale Academy.
“I learned to love learning at Hillsdale,” Gehrke said. “I made the most enduring friendships here, and Hillsdale became for me a kind of second home.”
Faulkner graduated in 2012, and also went on to complete his masters in 2015 and doctorate in communications in 2021. While getting his Master of Arts in biblical studies at Cincinnati Christian University, he preached at a small church for three years. There he fell in love with Sunday school, and subsequently reevaluated his career path.
“Turns out pastoring is not mostly teaching. There are a lot of other things, which are important, but not what I wanted to do,” he said. “What I figured out was that I liked bridging the gap between myself and the audience and whatever material we were doing. That’s what I really liked.”
Gehrke graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 2007. He earned a master’s in religion in 2010 and a PhD in Religious Studies with specialization in Ancient Christianity in 2017. After meeting his wife at Hillsdale, the two went on to travel and Gehrke studied all over: Concordia Theological Seminary in Indiana, University of Cambridge in England, and Strasbourg University in France, to name a few. Gehrke also taught at Valparaiso University from 2017 to 2019.
“Every institution is specific, and each has a character that reflects its traditions that made it,” he said. “For other schools, their charters can be antiquated, historical relics, but here it’s still effective in ordering our ultimate purpose.”
Pollele graduated from Hillsdale College in 2019 with a double major in history and philosophy and a minor in Spanish. He went on to work within Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative. He taught fifth grade for two years in Idaho before coming back this year to teach fourth grade at Hillsdale Academy.
“Everyone here is pretty focused, and you can bet some of them are thinking big thoughts, right?” Polelle said. “So, similarly, even in elementary school, the kids have a sense that this is a place for real learning, basically, that they can begin to reflect and think in a way they haven’t really done before.”
Even with their advanced degrees and experiences, these men still recall stories and details from their time as a Hillsdale student. Gehrke reminisced on “romanticizing the good old days when the ceilings fell down and the water leaked,” in the old Kresge building that was torn down, and when Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn sat with him during one lunch hour.
“We were in Saga,” Gehrke said. “I saw this man who looked older than me. He was holding his tray like he was looking for a place to sit, so I invited this ‘visitor’ to sit down. I asked who he was and he said, ‘The president.’ I thought he meant the president of the United States.”
Another lasting tradition is the swing dance club, which Faulkner attended from sophomore year until he graduated. In addition to cultivating a love for the art of swing dancing, “the big justification for going was that it was two-thirds girls and one-third guys.”
Polelle managed the GOAL program during his time as a student after working with the humane society for most of his undergrad years and plans on going back sometime in the future.
“It was just really pleasant to be around a bunch of animals,” Polelle said. “It was much like teaching, you know, just happy little creatures, and you take care of them, and it’s pretty simple and straightforward.”
When Faulkner was a freshman, the Grewcock Student Union was brand new. Polelle walked the quad for years while Christ Chapel was still under construction. Gehrke was a part of the first generation to try out Lane and Kendall halls. Life on top of the hill has expanded, while life within the classrooms has remained consistent, he said.
“In terms of identity, even in terms of a lot of faculty, I’d say Hillsdale hasn’t changed, which is kind of its strength,” Faulkner said. “Even the students, you know? Obviously, there are different people here because every four years that changes, but even when I’m teaching I can recognize a lot of cultural similarities. I can’t say it’s changed in the most important ways.”