Her back pain began sometime during her sophomore year of high school. It wasn’t too bad at first, nothing out of the ordinary. Aches and pains are part of a basketball player’s life, especially when that basketball player plays as long and hard as Hattie Berg had. The sport had been her life for as long as she could remember: rec leagues, summer leagues, summer camps and eventually on to the varsity team at Tabb High School in Yorktown, Va.
But this particular ache and pain grew so intense she lay awake crying at night. She hardly ate. Berg said nothing, though. She’d grown up in a military family, and it was in her DNA to tough things out. Besides, basketball was her life. She was just beginning to think about her college career. Taking time off for a sore back? Not an option.
Yes, she was stubborn back then, and she’s still stubborn now, she admits with an abashed smile. And no, she definitely wouldn’t recommend this course of non-treatment for others struggling with injury. That wasn’t the right way to handle things, but then again, it led to good things.
Her parents began to worry about the way she’d started to drag her right leg awkwardly behind her as a result of the worsening injury. They also noticed that she’d lost a lot of weight and, concerned about an eating disorder, they sat their daughter down for an intervention. Berg broke down and told them everything – how a little twinge, over the course of weeks and months, had devolved into such monstrous pain that she couldn’t sleep or eat.
End of basketball dreams
Diagnosis: two herniated discs. Berg underwent lumbar fusion surgery before her junior year of high school. She spent the summer working her way from a wheelchair to a walker to figuring out how to walk again on her own. A doctor-ordered ban on contact sports brought her basketball career to a sudden and crushing end.
Something of a spiritual crisis ensued. How could something that meant so much just be snatched from her like that? What sort of God lets that happen?
Berg gradually shifted her extracurricular focus to theater.
Before graduation, Berg and her classmates took a survey to help guide their college decisions – the sort of thing that tries to match someone’s interests and preferences with different schools’ characteristics. When the results came back, a strange word crossed Berg’s lips for the first time: Mennonite. She’d never heard of such a thing, nor had she heard of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). She didn’t think much of it, skeptical about this survey outcome.
But when she stumbled across an EMU booth at a college fair soon thereafter, she lined up a campus visit. When she came for an overnight stay, she caught a student-run Gonzo Theatre show, scoped out the theater department, and decided that the college placement survey had been right after all. EMU was the place for her.
Arriving on campus in the fall of 2011, Berg was ready for new, exciting challenges. But the first ones she encountered were not what she expected.
Military vs. pacifist orientations
Yorktown is very different place from EMU and the surrounding community. Berg lived a few minutes down the road from Langley Field. Her dad was in the Air Force, her boyfriend was (and is) in the Air Force, her cousins were in the military, and pretty much everyone around her growing up was connected in some way to the armed forces. Supporting the troops, individually and collectively, and the jobs they are asked to do was a given among practically everyone Berg had ever known.
She didn’t know that the American flag doesn’t fly on EMU’s campus, and she had no idea that the patriotic pins she wore on her backpack would invite criticism from her classmates. She would never have guessed that one of her professors would make disparaging remarks about the military.
All of this amounted to a huge shock. Berg had barely heard of Mennonites when she enrolled, and was completely ignorant of the centuries-long Mennonite tradition of pacifism. Early on, she didn’t always respond gently when her views were challenged. She had angry exchanges with some other students. She had angry exchanges with God. College was supposed to be the best four years of her life, right?
EMU had just magically bubbled up out of nowhere and had seemed so perfect. And yet, here she’d ended up, stretching herself to the financial limit to be at a school where she felt like an outcast and where people seemed unwilling to give her perspective a fair chance.
“That’s what I feel like EMU really struggles with,” Berg says. “People come in so whole-heartedly believing things, because of how they were raised, that when they meet somebody who believes differently, they’re like, ‘You’re wrong.’”
Stubbornly staying at EMU, eventually glad she did
She realized she was part of the problem – her first reaction to criticism of the military was figuring that the criticizers were wrong. She wanted to leave, but her stubborn streak kicked back in.
She thought about her great-grandmother, who’d died during Berg’s difficult first year at EMU, and who had always prayed that Berg would go to a Christian college. Berg stuck with it for her. She took a spiritual formation class, which included a one-on-one spiritual advisor, who proved a good listener as Berg struggled to find her place on campus.
Things gradually turned around. In the fall of 2012, Berg joined other students who set up a display of 200 pairs of empty boots, worn by Virginian soldiers killed in the past decade’s wars, to raise awareness of and respect for veterans’ issues. Berg began feeling empowered to take risks and to be more outspoken about her beliefs. She began developing a better ability to listen to others. She decided that she’d been led to EMU to make her different voice heard. She stuck with her interest in theater, appearing in three full-length productions on campus.
Looking back, all of it falls into place as part of God’s plan for her life, Berg says.
Berg says her thoughts about the military haven’t changed much since she came to EMU, but she has developed respect for different opinions. She hopes that the people with those different opinions can say the same from interacting with her.
‘What higher ed is all about’
“Hattie serves as an excellent example of what higher education is really all about,” says EMU’s vice-president for enrollment, Luke Hartman, who became a mentor of Berg’s. “Hattie came to EMU with a singular perspective and a strong inherited value base, and is now leaving with a deep and rich understanding of a multiplicity of viewpoints. She worked through the challenge of having her value base questioned and came out more knowledgeable, and more equipped to work, serve and lead in a 21st-century society. I could not be more proud of her today.”
Berg will graduate in April 2014 with degrees in theater and liberal arts and, at least as important, a new grasp on how to communicate better, how to live beside people who have very different ideas about the world, and how to not let those differences define or diminish one’s relationships.
“I love EMU,” Berg says. “I’ve struggled a lot being here and there were times when I thought I hated EMU. But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”