A transformational transition
By: Richard Aguirre
: this article features extended content, exclusive to the Bulletin online.



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On the surface, there is little in common between the joyful college president from California, the dedicated assistant professor of American Sign Language from central Indiana and the young Goshen student who loves music and performance.

But as “first-years” at Goshen College, Jim Brenneman, Julie White Armstrong and James L. Green shared remarkably similar experiences, struggles and successes after arriving on campus last summer for the 2006-2007 academic year.

A few days after the 2007 commencement, they met on a sunny afternoon and spoke about the delights, surprises and challenges of the year, how they view their roles on campus and how Goshen College has enriched their lives and deepened their faith.

Question: What was your first day like at Goshen College?

James Green: Well, we all met in the Church-Chapel and there was a sense of excitement seeing everyone that we would be spending the year with and the next four years. It was just a lot of excitement. Going to classes there was no worry about, “Wow, we’d have to do all this work.” It was just like, “I’m in college now and this is so much fun.” And then we got to work and it was still fun — just a little harder.

Q: Was it different to be on campus as a student than as a visitor?

James: It was a lot different, especially having connections. I’d walked through campus to my best friend’s house just not knowing anyone. There was no sense of connection. But now that I’m here it’s so community based and the campus is a lot more homey. You can say “Hi” and smile at anyone and they’ll smile back.

Julie Armstrong: It’s interesting that you talk about familiarity or feeling community. That’s one of the things I think, jumping ahead, that’s changed for me. I don’t come from a Mennonite background so the Mennonite component was new to me, along with everything else being new and I moved and pulled up my life and my husband’s life to come here.

This is my first time to live away from home, which is central Indiana; six generations in the same county when I moved away. I was one of the first to move away, so coming here I just remembered that nothing looked familiar and I wanted familiarity. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that, but now it’s familiar to me and it feels different than when I first got here. I couldn’t distinguish the buildings from each other.

Now I know faces and I know people. That familiarity feels good and the establishment of community, as James said. I remember feeling like the outside person. I’m not Mennonite; I’m new, but I don’t feel that way any more. I feel very much a part of the community experience. People really work at establishing that community; I know our department does. I really feel a part of what happens here.

Q: What was your first day like?

Julie: My first day here or my first day of teaching? I was here over the summer. I started in July.

Q: Do you have distinct memories of your first day here or your first day of teaching?

Julie: Oh yeah, because I had an agenda over the summer to pass my comprehensive exams. So I got here during the summer and I was pretty focused on that and then once I got that out of the way, I remember then moving into my office and making it my own.

And then of course, teaching, this was my first full-time job so I was very excited and apprehensive. I didn’t know the students. I was just nervous about teaching and wondering if I was going to do it right. I wondered if they were going to like me and if I was going to like them — just a lot of questions, I think.

Q: Jim, it must have been odd for you too, right?

Jim: I actually had been appointed (president) in February and had six months living away from campus and just coming on campus every now and then. But it was about July 6, something like that, my first day sitting in the chair in my office. And I just kind of sat there and thought, “I should do something presidential” (laughs).

And the reason is, I was going to call one of my friends, who’s in Arizona because he was one of my interns at one point and one of the first things he did when he got in his office, as a pastor, he sat in his office and said, “I’ve got to call Jim and say ‘Now what do I do?’” I thought of that and said who can I call and say, “Now what do I do?”

It was like my experience when I got married or engaged, let’s say. Engagement was good because you start using “we” language or you say “my wife” and it doesn’t sound right. Or maybe the first couple of weeks after Quinn was born, we were saying “Quinn” to this little creature. It has to grow on you. So I was having that same kind of déjà vu experience walking up and having to say to myself, “You’re the president.”

Q: Did you have a chance to wrap yourself up in that new identity of president after February or did it not hit until after you arrived?

Jim: It didn’t hit me until after I arrived. Like, I’ll be sitting at one of these great concerts at Sauder (concert hall), I’m often very much overwhelmed by the experience, and then there will be this sort of out of body experience and I’ll realize I’m the president of this place; what an honor. That adds to the emotion of the event.