Dustin Kelley graduated in 2011 with majors in history and religion. He now lives in Vancouver with his wife KaraLeigh and works as an archives librarian.
Sharing memories from my time at Walla Walla University is easy. It is the selection process that is tough. Do I write about softball intramurals, working with The Collegian, my study group at Peterson Memorial Library, or even weekend road trips? While these would all be worthwhile, I am going to share a story which says why I am most grateful for my WWU education.
Spirituality has always been important to me, but after returning from my time as a student missionary, I was having trouble feeling a connection to God. That did not sit well with me, but as one of my majors was religion, I also felt uncomfortable sharing this with friends and professors. What would they think of me? Would I be supported or judged? So, I waited and wore a mask. And the longer I internalized my struggles and growing doubts, the more discouraged I became.
Alden Thompson was one of my advisors. During one of our quarterly check-ins, he sensed that something was amiss without my ever saying anything. He gently asked, “Dustin, what’s wrong?” I replied, “nothing.” He asked the same question again, ensuing a back-and-forth exchange which at the time felt like it went on for hours. I felt seen, but also unsure if I could be vulnerable with this man I saw as a spiritual giant. Finally, I broke down in tears and told him what was going on. He invited me to meet with him regularly, to bring him questions, to sit together with where I was at.
One class Dr. Thompson encouraged me to take was Spiritual Discipleship with Jon Dybdahl. The entire class was impactful, one of my favorites at WWU. Dr. Dybdahl emailed me and asked to meet. He had sensed something was happening while engaging with my assignments, and he asked me about my spiritual journey. He also listened to me and even affirmed me for continuing to search. He assigned me a non-class task which made a lasting impact. He asked me to be vulnerable with three trusted professors (narrowing to three was a challenge), and ask them about their own journeys. He wanted me to see that I was not alone and that part of life is engaging with spiritual challenges. Cue in Terrie Aamodt, Monty Buell, and Loren Dickinson. Each of these mentors shared their own stories and listened to me. In fact, by even asking the question, it opened up a different dynamic to our academic relationship.
The meetings with Dr. Thompson continued for over a year, until I graduated. I was sometimes stubborn, not always appreciating the magnitude of the opportunity I was being given.
This was not a quick “fix.” Today, I am grateful even for my doubts—it reminds me to be loving and acknowledge how others are feeling, but even more so for the support I received from trusted professors who, instead of judging me, listened attentively and affirmed my searching, and provided me a safe place to question and grow closer to God.