Joelle Hackney is back at EMU after graduating in 2007 with a degree in international agriculture and sociology and in 2010 with a master’s degree in conflict transformation with a focus on development. After working and gaining clarity on her future career path, Hackney is back at EMU pursuing a master's degree in biomedicine. "It's funny the way things work out," says Hackney. Photo by Jon Styer.

Succumbing to EMU’s Magnetism, Once, Twice, Thrice

If Joelle Hackney had had her way when she was 18, she would have started college 2,400 miles from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), at Humboldt State in Arcata, California. But by the summer after her 2001 graduation from Stuart’s Draft High School in Augusta County, Va., Humboldt’s steep tuition and other logistical considerations forced her to put that dream on hold.

In the meantime, Hackney’s family encouraged her to consider EMU. Her mother, Marian Driver Hackney, was a 1970 graduate. Her grandmother, Virginia Weaver Driver (EMS ’35), was an even stronger advocate. Driver called herself EMU’s “twin,” having been born in 1917, the same year Eastern Mennonite School opened (her childhood home was the Weaver House, now occupied by offices of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding).

Hackney also had a few older cousins studying at EMU, and so by the fall of 2001 she was moving into a dorm room in Roselawn. California still beckoned, though. Hackney figured she would transfer after the year was over. But “I had some really awesome friends and they talked me into staying.”

First, Focusing on Water Quality

Hackney graduated in 2007 (on the six-year plan, thanks to some time off, switching majors, working, etc.) with a degree in international agriculture and sociology. Living in Staunton, Virginia, she worked as a field conservation technician for the Headwaters Soil and Water Conservation District. She spent most of her time focused on water quality and stream protection, and along the way, decided that her next move would be to study public health.

Soon, she began looking at graduate programs, but struggled to find one that felt like a match. She wanted something broad, something that would accommodate her to interests in environmental issues and social justice. Hackney turned to Google, typing all these things in one jumbled, run-on query, just to see what would happen.

She laughed at what bubbled up: a link to the website of EMU’s master’s program in conflict transformation. Probably not what she was looking for, she thought at first. As she started reading more, though, a strange realization set in. It looked as if the curriculum and faculty would support and encourage the holistic approach to studying public health that she wanted.

“It very, very surprisingly felt like clearly the right fit for me, even though I’d never planned to come back to EMU,” Hackney says.

And so, in 2008, she was back at EMU as a graduate student at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, working on her master’s in conflict transformation with a focus on development.

Next, Addressing Coal Mining

During her final semester, she fulfilled a practicum requirement by spending two and half months in Mingo County, WVa., with an environmental and public health organization called the Sludge Safety Project. Hackney worked with the group in a number of areas, including research, community organizing and advocacy on behalf of communities affected by groundwater contamination from coal mining waste.

Hackney loved her grad program, but going into her practicum she wasn’t exactly sure what would come after she graduated in the spring of 2010 – specifically, how or where she’d apply what she had been studying.

In West Virginia, she worked beside several medical students who shared her commitment to social justice and environmental advocacy. Physicians don’t have to be confined to clinics and hospitals, she realized. Then followed the “aha” moment, there in the decaying hills of West Virginia coal country, the threads of the past decade all coming together. Hackney decided to become a medical doctor.

Back home in Staunton, she picked up CNA and EMT certifications and started working at the Augusta Medical Center. With her sights turned to medical school, Hackney contacted Dr. Roman Miller, one of her biology professors from her undergraduate days during EMU Act I, for some guidance.

As she and Miller corresponded, he mentioned that EMU was planning to launch a new graduate program in biomedicine that would prepare students with college degrees in other fields to enter medical school. And yet again, amazingly, completely unexpectedly, Hackney’s evolving life plans had pointing her back to Harrisonburg, 30 miles north of Staunton. The timing, the closeness to home, the small class size, the familiarity, it just made sense.

Now, Transitioning to Medicine

Now in her first semester of the program, Hackney hopes this third stint at EMU will be her shortest. She plans to earn a one-year certificate, before taking the MCAT next spring and applying to medical schools next summer. If all goes according to current plan (always subject to change, Hackney avers), she’ll start med school in the fall of 2014.

Approaching the halfway point of her first semester of Act III at EMU, Hackney is studying organic chemistry, physics, developmental biology and taking a biomedicine seminar. Back in a science lab for the first time in seven years, she finds the work difficult, sometimes overwhelming, and thoroughly enjoyable.

“It’s funny the way things work out,” Hackney says, looking back on the unexpected ways she ended up at EMU, and once again, and then yet again.

It all makes sense in retrospect, each step building on the last, nonlinear but still connected way points on a route that continues to unfold.