Art by Whitney Powell | Powell sketched math symbols representing the pursuit of education. Some people, such as Pepperdine alumna Emily Willis (‘21), chose a nontraditional path for their education.
When considering important moments in education, many people think of graduations, aced midterms or college acceptances.
For some, however, the most important educational milestones are nontraditional, or part of their calling. Education takes many forms and means different things to different people, but plays an important role in everyone’s lives.
“There’s so many different kinds of education,” Pepperdine alumna Emily Willis said. “Like the Taekwondo education that I’ve gotten in the past year or two, that are just as important at teaching you incredibly essential life skills that will form you and shape who you are for the rest of your life.”
More than one kind of education
After graduating from Pepperdine in 2021 with degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics, Willis said she enrolled in a graduate program at Rice University in Houston, where she studied electrical and computer engineering.
“I’ve always been very passionate about education, and I’ve always had this kind of insatiable love for learning,” Willis said.
Willis said she studied artificial intelligence at Pepperdine and saw how it can be used to help people in healthcare, leading her to start graduate school with the hope of one day researching AI and how it can benefit the healthcare industry.
However, after one semester at Rice, she decided to leave the program.
“Through it all, I was miserable,” Willis said. “I wasn’t doing something I was passionate about. What brought me to Rice was my passion for helping people, and I think in the bigger picture I wasn’t helping people in the way I wanted.”
During her remote senior year at Pepperdine, Willis rediscovered an old passion: Taekwondo. She said she studied Taekwondo as a child and had to stop just before receiving her black belt.
“I enrolled at 21, and I finished my black belt,” Willis said. “So I’m really glad I did that because it obviously happened for a reason.”
When she left Rice, Willis said she decided to consider jobs using her specialized martial arts background and found the perfect opportunity at a Taekwondo school, working with their sales and marketing team.
Learning a skill like Taekwondo is not ‘education’ in the most traditional sense, but Willis said she’s learned just as much from her athletic pursuits as her schooling.
“It’s a physical sport, so it’ll teach you physical fitness and everything, but the other things you gain from it, like confidence, self discipline, structure, all of those things, those are invaluable life skills,” Willis said. “I already had them kind of instilled in me as a child, but going back into it as an adult has been really, really fruitful and a really formative experience for me.”
She said she plans to use both her traditional and athletic education in her career moving forward.
“Who knows?” Willis said. “Maybe one day I’ll have a Taekwondo school of my own.”
While Willis’ nontraditional education has become her career, for first-year Nutritional Science major Gabe Kong, his nonacademic learning is simply part of who he is.
Kong has played the violin since he was 4 and said learning the instrument taught him many important life skills, such as quick thinking, social skills and how to overcome nerves and perform.
“Music has changed my life in so many ways,” Kong said.
Playing the violin has also given Kong opportunities to travel, make friends and perform for audiences around the world. He said the experiences he’s had and his music’s ability to affect someone is what makes his talent so meaningful.
“It’s not just about the music for me, it’s more about what I can accomplish through it,” Kong said.
While his musical education has been crucial, Kong also said he is deeply invested in his academic education. He’s a premed student and hopes to work in oncology, as he wants to help others and believes that becoming a doctor who focuses on cancer patients is the way to do it.
“It’s really tough so far to be on the premed track, but to me it’s worth it,” Kong said.
In high school, Kong said he always saw academic education as a means of getting into medical school and becoming a doctor. After almost a year at Pepperdine, however, he’s learned that education is more than just a GPA.
“I actually want to learn, and I’m taking these classes to learn and not just for a grade,” Kong said.
Education as a passion
English Professor Maire Mullins said she sees the value of education in how it empowers students to understand different discourses in the world and to handle future challenges in their lives and in society.
“Having a good solid education, I think, provides you with the foundation to be able to navigate those things in the coming decades,” Mullins said.
Mullins said she sees a change in students from their first year to graduation, which she credited to Pepperdine’s mission to educate through a Christian lens. She believes this is possible because of the university’s amazing faculty.
“We put students first,” Mullins said. “We care very deeply about our students and about nurturing that connectedness to our students. I see the way my colleagues do that every day and how much they care about their students, and it’s very striking.”
Adriana Baez, senior Liberal Arts for Education major, invests in education both as a student and a future teacher. Baez said she discovered her passion for teaching while working with elementary school students in an after-school program at her local YMCA.
“I just fell in love with working with them, and it didn’t even feel like work,” Baez said. “It was almost like I spoke their language.”
Baez is obtaining her teaching credential at Pepperdine. She said she’s currently doing her student teaching with a first-grade class, a task she said she feels capable of taking on.
“When I realized that this was my calling, I think I was like, ‘OK, it’s going to be work, but work worth doing and work that is needed,’” Baez said.
In addition to her calling as a teacher, Baez is a first-generation college student. She said being the first person in her family to attend college has taught her independence and made her resilient.
“It means a lot to me to be first gen, and it’s not the easiest journey ever and every first-gen story is different,” Baez said. “We add a lot to the community, and we bring a lot to the table.”
Baez is the education preparation student liaison to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, a role only one student in the state holds at a time, and she is the first Pepperdine student to ever do so. In this role, she serves as a representative for teacher education programs and their students. She said her love for education is rooted both in her background and her passion for teaching.
“Realizing the value of having an education, I think, is something a lot of first gens can resonate with and that’s definitely what made me want one,” Baez said.
Gina Duhovic, junior Liberal Arts for Education major, is also a future teacher. In fact, she founded the Future Teachers Club at Pepperdine in Fall 2021 and said she serves as the club’s president.
“It’s just here to unite future teachers and create a sense of community in our program because I feel like everybody knows of each other, but we don’t really get the chance to connect that often,” Duhovic said.
Duhovic is also a student teacher this semester, and said she experienced a milestone moment on the first day of her position when she helped a student who was struggling with a math problem.
“I walked him through it, and then he was able to do the next problem correctly,” Duhovic said. “I was so happy and so excited. And since then, I’ve just had more experiences like that when I go in for my hours.”
Experiences she had with education as a child made Duhovic passionate about supporting the next generation of students as they learn and grow. She said she wants to teach first or second grade to help students as they learn their most foundational skills, such as reading and writing.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t the best reader,” Duhovic said. “I think that affected me even in high school. So I think helping them understand reading and writing and things like that, from the beginning, will help them out in their future academic career.”
While the academic side of education is important, Duhovic said it is just as important to be aware of who students are as people.
“Knowing the person they are will help you look at their academics,” Duhovic said. “Knowing their home life might also help you out with things like, ‘Why didn’t they do their homework yesterday?’ or ‘Why are they sleepy in class today?’”
Willis, Kong, Baez and Duhovic said education is very important in their lives and continues to shape them. For Baez, education’s power makes it something she is willing to fight for.
“It’s a human right,” Baez said. “And no matter who you are, no matter the color of your skin, what religion you are, what you ate for breakfast, I think you deserve the right to be educated if you so choose.”
Contact Addison Whiten: firstname.lastname@example.org