Union employees help students feel at home

For many Union College students, finding ways to make Union a home keeps them coming back each year to graduate. But for Nathan Huggins, finding a place like home is what brought him to Union.

Stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nathan wanted to spend the Sabbath hours with people who shared his new faith. He had recently started attending an Omaha area Adventist church, but his search for a Friday evening vespers service led him to make the drive to Lincoln.

Looking for the service, he wandered into the Ortner Center. “I ended up meeting Crista Nazario, an IRR student who was working at the desk,” he explained. “It was funny because her family planned to go see the Glass Cathedral near Omaha. Even though we just met, she basically invited me to go with them. I hung out with them that whole night and then later kept going back to their house.”

Huggins ended up enrolling at Union 14 months later and has continued to maintain a close relationship with the Nazarios. “They’re kind of like parents to me,” said the senior International Rescue and Relief major. “Just to be able to talk to people outside of school and get advice is really helpful. I hardly ever get to go home to see family, so having someone to visit and a house to goto is really nice. It’s something that I think everybody needs.”

Steve Nazario, director of visual communication at Union, and his family are notorious for welcoming students into their home. They are one of many Union employees who go out of their way to help students feel comfortable. “With Steve, it’s like family,” said Caleb White, junior theology major. “Their place is basically a home away from home.”

Many staff find it fulfilling to entertain students and see it as a part of their Union experience. “The joy of being at Union College is the interaction with students,” said Sharon Russell, conference and guest services coordinator. “It’s important for them to feel welcomed.”

Russell believes generosity to others is a calling from God. “One Sabbath morning, after we moved to Lincoln, my husband, Dr. Russell, had gone for a bike ride with Dr. Smith, then Union’s president,” she recounted. “When we were about to leave for Sabbath School he said he had invited the Smiths over for lunch. I simply lost it because he hadn’t asked first and we were just going to have FriChik for lunch. It was a no-no in our house to not go to Sabbath School, so we left anyway and I couldn’t plan anything more. Cherie, Dr. Smith’s wife, gave the sermon that day and it was all about hospitality and opening your home with what you had. That was quite a clear message from God.”

Russell has made it her personal mission to invite students over for Thanksgiving if they have to work or have no place to go. She also hosts all the graduating students who have worked for her and their extended families during graduation weekend. “God has given me the nicest home that I have ever lived in and I want to share it with others,” she said. “There are all kinds of things you learn from having people around. Mealtime is a sacred time when you really get to know each other.”

Union employees find they are equally blessed by the students who visit. “Ellen and I benefit so much ourselves just being able to hang around such bright young people,” said Frankie Rose, assistant professor of biology. “We sometimes get stressed when it’s just us for weeks on end, but having students come over is a break. There’s energy in college students that you don’t get elsewhere.”

The Roses frequently open their home for students and division events. The relationships are so relaxed that students have taken to calling them and inviting themselves over for games or a movie. “I think it shows just how much they care about us as individuals,” said Rachel Fernando, second year PA student. “We’re not just a grade on a paper, we’re people they like to have around. It honestly makes you want to try harder in their classes when you know the teacher and think of them more as someone you want to make proud.”

“Part of the wonderful thing about being at Union is that I learn a lot from students—sometimes even more than they learn from me,” said Rose. “We rub off on each other on a moment-by-moment basis and I think having students over has had a positive impact on my own spiritual journey, as well as in other aspects of my life.”

Probably the most famous of Union’s generous hosts are Buell and Kathy Fogg, who religiously welcome students into their home for fresh cinnamon rolls every Friday night. “When Kathy and I attended Union, we would go to vespers, but then there was not a lot to do afterwards,” recalled Fogg, Union’s associate chaplain. “We always thought it’d be cool to go into a house and interact with friends outside of the dorm, so we decided to provide that. We want to give kids a venue where they can have meaningful conversations and enjoy the Sabbath hours with friends.”

Kathy gets busy on Friday afternoons to make up to twelve dozen cinnamon rolls for as many as 100 students. “To have people call us years later and say ‘oh, I remember those rolls’ makes it all worth it,” said Fogg. “We get tired just like everyone else, but I think it makes a major difference to students to know there are staff members who care and will give of their time and money. Many of the kids thank us and some say ‘we’ve been waiting for this all week.’”

The hard work of faculty and staff to incorporate students into their lives does not go unappreciated. “It’s very supporting and comforting to have that place to go, kind of a safe haven,” said Huggins. “It just shows they’re very sacrificial for kids at school.”

“I love that about Union,” said Fernando. “When I come back [from a break or summer vacation] I feel like I’m home. I see all these people who look like family. It makes it easier to leave home because I feel like I’m going to a second home.”