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After leaving a large state school as a Division I athlete, Dan Nafziger found his niche athletically and academically at EMU

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A decade ago, Dan Nafziger never imagined he would be trying to convince anybody to come to Eastern Mennonite University as an enthusiastic admissions counselor.

When Nafziger graduated from Harrisonburg High School in 2009, the track standout had other things on his mind than attending the small university where his father was vice president of student life. EMU was always on the radar, but Nafziger said he felt more pressure than desire to attend. Instead, he looked to the myriad of Virginia colleges which had offered him track scholarships before finally accepting a partial scholarship to attend George Mason University, a Division I school in the suburbs of Washington D.C.

Nafziger remembers this decision as being based on pride. The scholarship proved that he was able to compete at the highest level, and the school’s distance from Harrisonburg was a way of showing that he was moving past his hometown.

As Nafziger soon realized though, pride was not the best way to choose a school. In his first year, Nafziger said that he only talked to one teacher and that was during his transitions class. He trooped through a succession of lecture halls with hundreds of people and impersonal experiences.

Nafziger felt anonymous. He had friends on the track team, but felt that the sprawling institution – 33,197 total students spread over 806 acres in four locations in Northern Virginia – made him a mere number. In addition, Nafziger felt that the professors didn’t care about the undergraduates. “They were there for their research,” he said. “It might have been different if I was a graduate student, but as an undergraduate I did not feel that I had their attention.”

The questions that had begun to surface during the year were exacerbated when Nafziger suffered a stress fracture to his back during the winter. At this point, injured and with his future as a runner in doubt, Nafziger began to look at other schools – this time looking for something else: community. “I wasn’t saying ‘community’ that much,” he said, referring to his time before entering George Mason. “But [now] I wanted a community.”

Nafziger came to visit EMU’s campus, having never officially done a campus visit after high school. What he found surprised him. Nafziger was stunned that associate professor of biology Greta Ann Herin, took time out of her day to meet with him. He also realized that he had mistakenly assumed that attending EMU would be like an extension of his high school experience. “The campus seemed self-contained. It was not like the Harrisonburg that I knew; it was different when I got on campus.”

After deciding to transfer to EMU for his sophomore year, Nafziger found his niche athletically and academically. Still a standout runner, Nafziger immediately made an impact on the cross country and track teams, setting school records in the 1000 meter and 1600 meter races, as well as being awarded first state all academic and conference academic honor multiple times. At EMU however, Nafziger was not on a track scholarship, so he pursued running voluntarily instead of as an obligation. “I still loved running, but now I had the freedom not to run. It was my choice, not my identity.”

In addition to athletic success, at EMU, Nafziger found old friends and made new ones, and enjoyed the support of faculty. With caring mentors, he explored his options, changing his major twice before graduating with a B.A. focused on counseling with a minor in biology.

Following graduation in 2013, Nafziger began working with troubled youth. After a few months, though, Nafziger found himself missing the EMU community. “Where can I do the most amount of good?” he asked himself.

For Nafziger, the answer was back at his alma mater. “I was a transfer, an athlete, a team captain, and I changed majors. I can speak to a lot of experiences” – including the benefits of a smaller school.

“Dan cares about people,” said Luke Hartman, vice president of admissions and Nafziger’s supervisor. “He demonstrates an incredible balance between deep compassion and competitiveness.”

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