Photography by Jonathan Kirn; art direction by Karen Parr.

It’s less common these days for college students to choose to become teachers or other educators. But when they do, amazing things often happen.

Undergraduates who enroll in Marquette University’s College of Education are remarkable people.

They are not making the same choice as most of their friends. They are choosing to do something extraordinary with their lives:

The career they pursue is a calling — an ongoing opportunity to help others overcome obstacles and dream new dreams, even in the midst of trying circumstances. They are part of a program — and a college community — defined by its rigor, its compassion and its commitment to social justice. A college with a soul, as dean Dr. Bill Henk describes it.

None of this is to say that there are not also plenty of sensible reasons to enroll in the college. Consider these four, for instance.

Yet the value of study in the College of Education can’t be understood in purely objective terms. Students find themselves here — academically, personally and spiritually — through a sense of mission that comes to define them. And, for each student, this discovery process involves a journey that is uniquely theirs, as the following stories reveal.

Lauren Gilbert, Senior

When her mother grew seriously ill with Crohn’s disease, Lauren Gilbert became her chief caregiver and her family’s domestic lifeline. She had to drop one of three advanced-placement courses she was taking as a senior at Evanston (Ill.) Township High School, but she still clung to hopes of attending college the next fall. During those days, her mother pushed for one university over the others: Marquette.

On January 18, a day after her mom lost her battle with the disease, Lauren received a letter from Marquette announcing her admission to the College of Education. “It was like a divine signal,” she says. “It was a clear message that Marquette was the place to go.”

Gilbert knew that if college was for her, she’d find a way to make it work, despite what any naysayers had to say. When she learned of a campus scholarship competition, a few teachers at Evanston covered her train fare. She arrived in Milwaukee wondering, “Which way is Marquette?” Trusting her instincts, she arrived on campus at 8 a.m., saying to herself: “God led me to Marquette today.”

She noticed just a few fellow African-Americans students vying for scholarships that morning and learned many competitors were class presidents or other school leaders. “Maybe I won’t get this scholarship,” she thought. Yet her interview impressed the college’s licensure director. “She found my drive to go to school, despite everything that had happened to me, very commendable, so they ended up giving me one of the five scholarships out of the 100 or more people who came. … For me, that was pure God.”

The subsequent almost four years — she plans to graduate in May with a degree in secondary education — were a period of great discoveries. Starting with a tender interest in elementary education, she soon shifted her focus to high school, aiming to impact students during a make-or-break time in their lives. Fieldwork starting as a freshman helped her explore her options.

Gilbert didn’t shrink from hard lessons during her time here. As a pre-service teacher in Milwaukee high schools and two jobs preparing teens for college, she sometimes differed with fellow teachers about the best approach to take with students of color. Some veterans were too quick to write off reluctant students, Gilbert thought. She was too forgiving, she sometimes heard. With the help of an African-American cooperating teacher at one high school, she grew confident in her own approach, requiring accountability while lavishing students with care. She calls it “love bombing.”

Restless for more from Marquette and its students — more diversity, more empathy — Gilbert lights up when discussing the warmth she has felt from college faculty and staff. It started at the scholarship competition, when Dr. Sharon Chubbuck spotted her alone at lunch and sat with her. Later, she appreciated how faculty members such as Rev. Jeffrey LaBelle, S.J., admiringly repeated points she’d made in class. “I really feel like they care about me being a student of color pursuing education,” she says.

The strongest support came when she felt most tested. As a junior, Gilbert became an Alliance of Black School Educators chapter president. On top of academic work, she had meetings to schedule, emails to send, events to promote, yet she had never owned her own computer. She began most days, and ended most nights, trudging to and from the library to use a university computer.

Just before Christmas, she was asked to report to the college offices. “Did I do something?” she wondered. Waiting for her was an envelope and a note from anonymous faculty members. “It said, “A couple of us heard you had a need. Here’s some money for a laptop.’ I just started bawling,” she recalls. “I definitely feel like the College of Education never let go of my hand. They were always that family for me.”

There was one more twist in Gilbert’s Marquette journey, a decision stemming from her work helping first-generation teens prepare for college. She has seen how they can struggle adjusting to the college environment if they don’t find the right support systems. Believing her greatest impact may be felt as a tutor, adviser or ministry coordinator to these students, she’s planning to enroll in the fall in a graduate program in college student personnel. The location of that program would make her mother happy. “I’m going to stay at Marquette for my master’s,” she reports, laughing. “I’m staying here because I like it that much.”— STEPHEN FILMANOWICZ

Caitlin Hauerwas, Ed ’15

At Christmastime every year, Caitlin Hauerwas’ parents would pose an age-old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

She never wavered. “Since kindergarten, every single year I said that I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve always had a passion.”

From sixth grade through high school, she even held weekend preschool sessions in her basement for local kids ages 3 to 6, planning her own lessons and amassing an impressive collection of teaching magazines.

When it came time to pursue a teaching career at Marquette, Hauerwas hit the ground running, immersing herself in the many teaching experiences the college had to offer.

During senior year, Hauerwas secured a paid internship, where she gained experience well beyond typical student teaching and taught every lesson each day for weeks on end, rather than one lesson weekly.

Now that she’s a full-time first-grade teacher in Menasha, Wis., Hauerwas is not the only one confident in her teaching preparation. Colleagues responsible for teacher training sessions in the district have said: “You’ve done this in college; we’ve seen it in your practice. We don’t really think that you need to go to this training because you have such a strong foundation.”

Hauerwas’ enthusiasm for the role she plays in children’s lives now shines through, along with her belief that the College of Education helped her make the most of her ambitions. “I felt so prepared and so excited and so ready to start my life as a teacher,” she says, reflecting on her feelings at Commencement. “I was just so thankful that I chose Marquette and a teaching career.” — MEGAN KNOWLES

Maggie Jordan, Ed ’15

Maggie Jordan experienced a fair number of tests on her journey from being the one sitting in the desks to the one standing in front of the room.

She knew what she wanted out of college, even as a freshman. “I was one of those few freshmen who stayed on the course of education through my whole four years,” she says. Those years convinced her that teaching is the most challenging career around, but they also gave her the wherewithal to face those challenges and find more satisfaction than she could have imagined.

Dr. Sharon Chubbuck, associate professor of education, and Mary Carlson, clinical instructor, were her lifelines. “If I didn’t have them as teachers, I don’t know if I would be where I am now,” she says. “They helped me through an unbelievable amount of tears.”

And the pair was far from the only ones providing support. Assigned to create a lesson plan during her freshman year, Jordan stumbled. “I didn’t even list any objectives,” she remembers. “I thought my world was over.”

As Jordan walked out of the building sobbing, a custodian noticed and asked, “Is everything ok?”

“No,” Jordan admitted.

“What are you trying to be?” he asked.

When Jordan shared her goal to be a teacher, he said, “Something tells me you’ll be all right.” She never forgot the story.

Her junior-year study abroad experience in Cape Town, where she taught an eighth-grade class, and student teaching in Milwaukee hooked her on urban education. Starting her senior year, her time at Messmer — a Milwaukee Catholic high school where most students enroll through the income-qualified state voucher program — convinced her that it was the particular urban school where she was being called. “I fell in love with Messmer,” Jordan recalls. “I’d even joke that I’d take a job not even related to teaching just to have my foot in the door.”

By the time a coveted full-time offer did arrive, Marquette faculty members and cooperating teachers J.J. Armstrong and Katie Schumacher at Messmer had helped equip Jordan with tools she needed to go it alone. As fate would have it, during the last week of her senior year, Jordan ran into the same custodian, whom she had not seen since freshman year. She thanked him for the encouragement that helped keep her on course.

Still, jitters set in a week before Jordan’s debut as a full-time teacher. A final last-minute talk with Carlson and Chubbuck eased her “off the ledge,” she says. “Without them, who knows? I might have thrown in the towel.”

Now thriving with a classroom of her own, she knows she has come a long way in the past few years. “In college, you’re responsible for yourself and your grades, but, then, once you’re the actual teacher, you’re responsible for 26 kids looking at you and you think, ‘Shoot, am I doing OK?’ ”

Her strategy for channeling confidence in the front of the classroom? “You just go. You just can’t look back. You just go,” she says. — LAUREN BROWN

Bill Waychunas, Arts ’09

Based on his aptitude for science and math, Bill Waychunas considered going into engineering, until a high school course in architecture and engineering bored him and made him fear a life confined to a cubicle.

Sorting things out around the same time he was getting serious about applying to college, he enrolled in an Invitation to Teach course. While working in a sixth-grade classroom, a light bulb went on. “I can vividly remember racing home after school and erasing the box on my Marquette application that said engineering and checking the boxes for history and secondary education.”

Since then, that small spark has exploded into a passion for urban education that led Waychunas to help the Noble Network of Chicago establish in 2012 a new charter high school, Baker College Prep.

This isn’t to say, though, that he didn’t second-guess his decision. Arriving at Marquette, Waychunas still wavered. “I was giving teaching a try to see if it was something that I truly loved,” he recalls, which made him grateful that the college’s program gave him meaningful classroom time earlier than others he had considered. Teaching turned out to be a fine fit and urban education an even better one. Moved by the startling obstacles faced by students in high-poverty schools, he extended by an additional semester his freshman year field placement as a tutor at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission.

An immersion trip to New York with the Center for Urban Education was equally influential. “I had the chance to see with my own eyes that it was possible to provide a high-quality education in even the most challenging of settings. After this, I was hooked and knew that my fate lay in the schools of underserved urban communities.“

Nevertheless, as he was teaching in a Las Vegas high school a few years after graduation, he felt a sense of “built-up frustration,” a sense his school wasn’t doing enough to promote success in its students. When he and his wife, Natalie Shane, Arts ’09, decided to move back to the Midwest, he Googled “best charter school in Chicago.” That led him to the Noble Network and the opportunity to help its leaders bring its high-performing model to Chicago’s impoverished far south side.

Waychunas finds lessons from his experience to share with students moving into their field placements and first teaching jobs. “Find the places that are making it happen. Nothing is more powerful than that,” he notes. “The bottom line is that teachers change lives. I’ve been lucky to have some outstanding teachers who ignited in me a passion for learning that still burns brightly to this day. Maybe someday, some students will say the same things about me.” — CALLEY HOSTAD

Adapted for Medium from the 2016 issue of Marquette University’s Education magazine.