Gifts “blossomed” through undergraduate studies
By Myra Holmes
This month hundreds of students will graduate from our U.S. Mennonite Brethren schools—Fresno Pacific University in California and Tabor College in Kansas. FPU graduate Allison Ens is an example of the kinds of students and future leaders who are shaped by our USMB schools.
By all accounts, Allison Ens arrived at Fresno Pacific University (FPU) as a leader and high achiever. But her time as an undergraduate student at the Mennonite Brethren-owned university in Fresno, Calif., has provided fertile ground for growth, and her gifts have “blossomed,” to use the words of one professor. Now, as she looks beyond graduation, she looks for ways to use all her gifts to make a difference.
Ens grew up in Olathe, Kan., and attended Community Bible Church, a USMB congregation in Olathe. She first learned about FPU through her participation in Ministry Quest (MQ), a leadership development program for high school students that was then operated by the MB seminary, part of FPU. Part of the MQ experience was a retreat held on the FPU campus. Impressed by the sense of community she observed, Ens added FPU to her list of potential schools.
Then she was awarded the university’s prestigious, full-tuition Paragon Scholarship, which tipped the scale decidedly in favor of FPU. But Ens says the school was a good fit in ways that go far beyond their generosity. FPU helped shape her academically, musically, emotionally and spiritually.
Learning to live the music
Ens is an accomplished cellist, and at one point imagined music would figure prominently in her future. “Cello is a huge part of my identity,” she says.
But FPU has a relatively small instrumental music program, which meant music became an extra-curricular activity rather than the centerpiece of her studies. She played with the Pacific Orchestra and the university’s string quartet and studied privately with Dieter Wulfhorst, cellist and associate professor of music. She has been particularly influenced by the way Wulfhorst “lives music.”
Ens has likewise learned to incorporate music into her life in a more holistic way. Although she arrived with a competitive mindset, music has become for her a “lens” through which she sees the world. “What has always been a huge part of me has become even more woven into the fabric of who I am,” she says.
Wulfhorst says Ens has continued to develop musically at FPU, but also has developed as a person. “For me—for each of the faculty at FPU—it’s more important that students develop as human beings rather than just as cellists and musicians,” he says.
Music will continue to be part of her life after graduation; she plans to continue lessons with Wulfhorst and has a contract to play with the Tulare County Symphony, which, she notes, fulfills a lifelong dream.
Discovering a new passion
Ens is also gifted academically, and FPU has provided the greenhouse to explore and refine her academic interests.
As a freshman, Ens found a new passion in living biblical Hebrew. “Hebrew has been the academic equivalent of music,” she says. “It has completely changed my perspective of the Bible. Completely changed it.”
FPU’s living biblical Hebrew program uses a unique, full-immersion approach to learning the language and to understanding the intent of the Scripture. “It makes the beauty of the text come out,” says Brian Schultz, assistant professor of biblical and religious studies.
This required a new skill set for Ens. Rather than attacking Scripture with an analytical mindset, she had to observe and absorb—“to be carried along with the music,” as Schultz says.
Ens says that immersive approach has spilled over into other areas of her life, like her devotional life and even her music. And just as she learned to relax into an incomplete understanding of Scripture, she is learning to be less driven and more comfortable with what she calls “the tension of promise and fulfillment” that characterizes so much of life.
Her introduction to a new way of looking at the Bible led her to declare a major in biblical and religious studies. “It makes sense,” she says. “This is one thing I’ve never wavered on.”
Finding support through struggle
Ens’ growth hasn’t been an easy journey. Far from home, adjusting to college life and struggling to understand health issues that manifested under that stress, Ens needed more than strong academics and extra-curricular opportunities, especially early on. That’s when nurturing relationships at FPU made the difference.
People at FPU—from professors to student life staff to friends—offered counsel and pastoral care, extended hospitality, made sure she got the medical help she needed and generally helped her “process life,” as she says. “They kept tabs on me. They want me to succeed.”
Greg Camp, professor of biblical and religious studies who also served as her advisor for a time, points out that a smaller campus like FPU affords more points of contact for students and therefore fewer opportunities for students to “fall through the cracks.”
Ens says, “I’ve had the chance to figure out how to live life in a healthier, more holistic manner.”
Ens arrived at FPU with a solid Christian faith, but says working toward a biblical studies degree has been a catalyst for “exponential growth.”
She first made a commitment to Christ at a young age, then continued to process questions of faith as she participated in high school youth group. Russ Friesen, youth pastor at Community Bible Church, says Ens was a leader in the group and always keenly interested in apologetics, world religions and the distinctives of Christianity.
Like music and Hebrew, faith has become less of an analytic exercise for her and more of a whole-life commitment. Wulfhorst says, “She’s not just talking; she’s living it.”
Camp suggests that Ens’ world has expanded. Faced with urban poverty issues in Fresno that are “a world apart” from her Kansas upbringing, she’s been challenged to apply her faith in new ways as she looks beyond graduation.
Ens says she would like to explore how her gifts might intersect with those issues of poverty and justice in the Fresno area, perhaps through an intentional internship experience. Graduate school could be in her future, but again, with an eye toward applying knowledge in a way that genuinely helps people.
“At the end of the day, I really want to know how this knowledge helps people,” she says. “I love studying; I love language; I love the Bible; and I really love people. So I want to work toward how all of this can fit together and work toward a larger goal.”