For many, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) is the obvious choice. Maybe they’re already settled in the Shenandoah. Maybe their parents call EMU their alma mater. Perhaps they’re looking for an upright, clean-living husband or wife. But the choice wasn’t so obvious for me.
I am the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, born and raised in Philadelphia. Yes, I belong to a Mennonite church, but it’s one recently planted in a working class area of Philly – housed in a former health clinic surrounded by chain-link fence, immersed in the sights and sounds of the city, quite unlike the more common scenic Mennonite churches.
I wanted a college that somewhat resembled my high school in size, which held under 600 students, a rarity in the city. My parents wanted me to attend a school with positive Mennonite ties, and I wanted to go somewhere far away, to a place that was new and different. So, EMU it was.
My story is not too different from two other current students from Philly at EMU, or from an older alumnus who was raised in Philadelphia and returned to work there as a physician. For all four of us, coming to EMU was a jolt, what with the cultural and geographic differences, but we emerged with a deep appreciation for the values and lifestyle of EMU’s semi-rural setting.
Jolt of Quiet Lifestyle
Christian Parks, a junior, said he wanted a place where he could continue his Christian education, at a college vastly different than his home city. “I love being in the Shenandoah [Valley], with all the connections and proximity to nature we have here.”
Freshman Shawn Treichel came to EMU with similar intentions. Treichel wanted a smaller school setting to counter the “crazy city” he had called home off and on for many years. Treichel added that the happiness of Shenandoah residents, as well as their care for their town, was what made him feel most at home.
Sure, both students could easily name the things they missed while at school, such as reliable public transportation, the plethora of convenience stores, reading on the bus, the sounds of trains. But after the difficult initial transition, they said EMU instilled a sense of belonging, giving them an appreciation for its one-of-a-kind feel. Parks and Treichel agreed they wanted to continue living in small, community-centered towns that feel welcoming, though neither has settled on a future career. Parks is majoring in philosophy and theology, and Treichel is a computer science major.
Timothy Leaman came to EMU, thinking he would never return to live in Philadelphia. Encouraged by his parents, Leaman, a 1993 graduate who is now a medical doctor, chose EMU for its well-known pre-med program with the hope of doing medical missions overseas after graduating, far from his hometown.
Leaman’s transition to EMU was less intimidating than it might be for the typical city-soaked teenager – he was familiar with rural Mennonite life from visiting relatives.
Urban Pace Missed
Spring break service trips to New York, however, made Leaman yearn for the city. “It was like coming home,” he said. “I realized how much I missed having relationships with people from a range of racial backgrounds and experiences. I missed the liveliness and pace of energy of the urban life and experience.”
After graduating, Leaman took time to lead a group with Eastern Mennonite Missions to Mexico. While there, he felt the call to get his medical degree, and to do this in Philadelphia. He is now a supervising doctor at Ezperanza Health Center, which provides everything from counseling to dental care for those facing the largest barriers towards better health.
Leaman credits his time in bucolic Harrisonburg, where his professors at EMU encouraged him to pursue leadership roles, starting in Mexico and moving back to medical school and serving the population of his old neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Safety, Comfort in Harrisonburg
If you are from an area where there are more people than trees, you will understand when I say that EMU can be like stepping into a new world, a new culture. In Philadelphia, my everyday was skyscrapers, ever-constant sounds, and bustling activity. Meanwhile EMU, surrounded by hills, farmland, and winding roads, can often feel wide, silent, even humdrum.
No amount of previous experiences in rural locations could prepare a city kid for living in the country eight months out of the year. And yet, Harrisonburg, among many things, emits a sense of safety and comfort that is almost ungraspable in the city, creating a sense of welcome despite the unfamiliarity.
For me – and it seems for my three fellow Philadelphians – EMU is a place unlike any other. It builds up future leaders, whether they know it when they graduate or not, and creates a sense of community that begs to be repeated. Myself, I hope to bring the best of EMU back to Philadelphia, where I plan to re-settle after my EMU sojourn is over.
The transition here may be difficult for some, what with the tallest building in the valley being a feed mill, and the only train in town screaming its early arrival each morning. Yet, the challenges faced in the difficulty are what make EMU worth each step to class, each quiet day, and each breath of fresh mountain air.