posted Oct 12, 2010 in ALUMNI
A farmer who helped a Sudanese family immigrate to the United States. A consultant who helps pharmaceutical and medical companies ensure their products are safe and compliant. A national youth leader in the Church of the Brethren. The recipients of this year’s Young Alumni Award have all changed the world for the better in their own significant ways.
This annual award honors three accomplished McPherson College alumni who have graduated within the last 30 years. This year’s recipients are Paul Neher ’80, Wylene Gaeddert Lengel ’80, and Rebecca Ullom ’00.
Paul Neher had just barely started grade school when he knew what he wanted to do with his life – go to McPherson College, study agriculture and farm.
“McPherson College has always been a part of my life,” he said.
After graduating in 1980, Neher became co-owner of Neher Acres in Iowa, raising Yorkshire hogs. Neher said his favorite part of raising hogs was farrowing, when the baby piglets are born. It certainly isn’t a clock-in factory job, Neher said. Sometimes, the plans for a day bear little resemblance to the actual day. “There’s always something new and different that comes up,” Neher adds. “Each day is not the same.”
Currently, the Nehers are renting out the hog farm while continuing to work the crop land, giving them more time for family and participating in their local church, the Ivester Church of the Brethren. For about the last decade, Neher has also set aside a pumpkin patch for children’s 4-H projects.
With as much passion as Neher has for raising animals on the farm, he’s even more interested in helping to raise good children and families. He and his wife, Ronda ‘83, have two biological children, five adopted children and have been foster parents for more than two decades.
After traveling to Africa with their oldest adopted son, who is African-American, they learned of a Sudanese family’s desire to immigrate to the U.S. The Neher family then opened their doors in 2004 to the Sudanese family of eight.
“You always read about these situations in the world, but there’s still some distance between that and yourself,” Neher said, adding, “I think meeting the family made it more of a personal thing.”
For Neher, the question of whether they should help children and families in need was never much of a question at all. “We thought that we had the tools to help kids in need,” he said, “and we were willing to do that.”
Wylene Lengel had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up, just that she had a useful knack. “My skills are in figuring things out,” she said. “I love to solve problems.”
Lengel earned a chemistry degree from McPherson College. She then took that skill and desire to solve problems down a path that began as an analytical chemist. The journey continued with a variety of quality assurance jobs in companies across the nation: Kansas, Indiana, Washington, Rhode Island and California.
That path eventually led Lengel to a career as a consultant with Clarkston Consulting in California. She advises life sciences companies in the areas of pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device manufacturing. These companies have to make sure that their products are safe and compliant with government regulations. Lengel helps create the systems and procedures to help companies meet these needs. In short, she finds solutions for businesses.
Lengel said she didn’t expect to become a consultant, thinking that consultants just told others what to do. But Lengel immerses herself in solving problems – a “hands-on” consultant. “I want to make sure that I listen to what they really need and provide an answer that will work for their culture, their business,” she said.
Once on a run, a man training for a triathlon asked what she was training for. Lengel simply said, “Life.”
Lengel hopes current students won’t lock themselves into thinking they can do only one thing in their lives. “There’s a lot in the world that they haven’t experienced,” she said, “and there’s no way of knowing what they’ll end up doing.“
“Life is an adventure,” Lengel concludes, “and you just have to go for it.”
Young people are busy, under pressure and moving faster than ever, Becky Ullom said. She tries to help them take a step back.
Our culture pushes youth to make adult decisions earlier and earlier,” she said. “I just think it’s important to help them focus on a different perspective than is offered through school or activities or friends. We need to pay attention to God’s presence and how we are growing as people of faith.”
Ever since graduating with an English degree, Ullom’s work has involved young people and teaching. She began with a year of volunteering through Brethren Volunteer Service as the 2002 National Youth Conference coordinator in the Church of the Brethren Youth/Young Adult Ministry office in Elgin, Ill.
After a year of teaching English at McPherson High School, Ullom returned to Elgin to serve as the National Young Adult Conference coordinator, then as the director of identity and relations and now as the director of youth and young adult ministry. Her job now focuses on planning spiritual formation events and programs on a national level, including National Youth Conference. She said those national conferences provide youth and young adults the opportunity to fellowship with other Brethren and be encouraged in their faith.
Ullom said she tries to get young people to consider what they believe and what difference those beliefs make to their lives and the communities. Walking with youth and young adults as they turn beliefs into a way of living is one of the most gratifying aspects of her work.
“Young people have a stake in what this world is like,” Ullom comments. “And it’s not just when they grow up. God calls people of all ages to share the gospel now through our everyday lives.”
She said it is helpful for youth to spend time interacting with the larger Christian community. Those people are simultaneously familiar and new, Ullom said, and are able to challenge youth to grow and act in a different way.
“It’s too easy for young people to feel like their lives are without meaning or relevance,” Ullom said. “I take seriously my role as part of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ surrounding young people with love and care, helping them embrace their identity as beloved children of God.”
“I love being around for the ‘ah-ha’ moments,” she continued, “the moments when faith deepens and lives begin to change. It does matter. They do matter. Their choices matter and they’re a part of a larger whole. My goal is to empower youth and young adults to live the lives God calls them to live.”