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Steps Out of 'Comfort Zone' lead Nathan Hershberger to Young Alum Award 2018

September 25, 2018
By Jim Bishop with Andrea Schrock Wenger

Pushing himself to study, serve, learn and work outside his comfort zone – something Eastern Mennonite School (EMS) encourages of students – is a key reason that Nathan J. Hershberger ’08 has been named EMS Young Alumnus of the Year 2018.

“Nathan embodies what we hope our students and alumni do,” notes Diana Suter ’70 Berkshire, of the awards committee. “He embraces  the ‘other,’ different ways of living and new experiences, making himself vulnerable while offering his unique gifts.”

Nathan Hershberger '08, Young Alum of the Year
2018, with his wife Katilin Heatwole and Leo on the
roof of their house in Ankawa, Iraq.
Photo by Joel Carillett.

Traveling internationally, living in Iraq, and studying various cultures and religions all feels natural to Hershberger, thanks to a lifelong exposure to the broader world.

Nathan, 28, was born in Managua, Nicaragua,to Jim and Ann Graber Hershberger, who spent a combined total of 17 years in mission-service work in Central America. The family moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1990. Sisters Sara ‘03 and Rachel ‘04 are school alumni.

After attending EMS grade six through 12, Nathan earned a degree in history, philosophy and theology from Eastern Mennonite University in 2012. A semester in the Middle East,  led by long-time cross-cultural leaders, Linford and Janet Stutzman, helped stir interests in that region longer-term.

While in college, Nathan married Kaitlin Heatwole from Christiansburg, Va. After graduating from EMU, he earned a master's degree in religious studies in 2014  at University of Virginia. From there, the couple was off to Ankawa, Iraq, for a three-year assignment with Mennonite Central Committee. Son Leo, now 2, was born there.

“I don’t think we could have asked for a more incredible cross-cultural experience, living among people who spoke three different languages – Arabic, Kurdish and Aramaic – in this northern Iraqi setting,” Nathan noted.

Kaitlin, Leo, and Nathan along with the seminarians he
taught at St. Peter's Seminary in Ankawa, Iraq, 2017.
Courtesy photo.

Nathan spent much of his time working with two church-related organizations – St. Peter’s, a K-12 school, teaching English and at Mar Qar Dakh School, where he taught 11th and 12th grade history. Kaitlin was program coordinator with a local pastors’ organization that planned projects for people displaced by violence caused by the militant group ISIS.

The food, geography and customs of the region “were amazing,” notes Hershberger. The couple appreciated worshipping and experiencing the liturgy, history and music of a large Chaldean Catholic Church. Professionally, it was also a growing time. “This was my first real teaching experience, but I quickly felt a strong connection with my students,” Nathan stated.

At the same time, he said, he and Kaitlin sometimes struggled with their role in Iraq. “Was I useful?” he wondered. “Living and working in the midst of people facing major problems made it difficult to connect and build relationships, though eventually we definitely made many friends,” he said.

Now Nathan is in a doctoral program in theology at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and Kaitlin is working on a master’s degree in city and regional planning at University of North Carolina. Long term, Nathan sees himself “teaching on any level.”

“EMHS’ emphasis on international service helped push me in the direction of living overseas and helping people,” he says. That exposure, along with school’s “Anabaptist emphasis on being ‘the people of God,’ and trying to live at peace with  each other, locally and beyond,” had a significant impact, Nathan says.

As part of Homecoming Weekend activities, Nathan will be recognized with the Young Alumnus award and speak in chapel at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 19. The public is welcome. In addition, Nathan will speak in classes and catch up with former teachers who were mentors and key in his journey.

His counsel to current students: “Take it easy, focus on exploring areas of interest and where they might take you. Push out of your comfort zone.” Nathan definitely practices what he preaches.

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