For some, finding a life calling can be a long winding road, while others come to college with a clear vision for their future. For Andrew ’04 and Stephanie Vercio Larson ’03, college was a little bit of both.
Now Andrew practices marriage and family counseling at his own practice in Hutchinson, Minn., while Stephanie works as an accountant at Hutchinson Technology. For this couple, Union’s homelike atmosphere, academics and sports programs combined to not only help them choose Union as their college, but also as the jumping-off place from where they built their future.
Where to attend college was never a question for Andrew or Stephanie. “I knew I was going to Union by my freshman year of high school,” Andrew said. “My sister went to Union. The first time I visited her, I went into College View Church and I was sold immediately.”
Stephanie grew up in Kansas, but spent a lot of time in Lincoln during the summers. Her mother grew up in Lincoln and her grandparents lived there. “It was a second home to me,” she said. “My family are all Union College alumni. It wasn’t expected that I’d go to Union, but I knew I wanted to. It had a familiar feel, and it was always part of my plan.”
A Calling, Not Just a Career
Early on, Andrew knew he wanted to pursue a career in counseling or therapy, and his time at Union helped him refine that goal. Likewise, Stephanie took a practical approach to college. “I knew I wanted a degree in a field where I could get a good job and have stability, so I took business.”
She said that Barry Forbes, business professor and chair of the Division of Business and Computer Science, was the cornerstone in helping her define her professional journey.
“Barry never made me feel stupid, no matter how dumb my thought processes might have been when I went to talk to him,” she said. “He never even shook his head. Instead, he has a gift of hearing gibberish, rephrasing it intelligently and making you feel good about it—like you’re on the right path. He’s a nurturer. He can see things about people that they can’t see about themselves.”
For Andrew, Dr. Trudy Holmes-Caines, Professor of Psychology, “helped me understand that I was a people-person, and she made it clear to me that she believed I was going to do something in life that would be impactful. She gave me a sense of confidence. I wasn’t the most academically-minded when I entered college, but I learned through Trudy and other teachers that I could succeed.”
Finding a Calling on the Court
Sports—specifically basketball—played a large part in both Stephanie’s and Andrew’s college experience. Both had played in high school and had come to Union for high school basketball tournaments. So when it was their turn to join Union’s varsity teams, they jumped in, eager to be part of a group of like-minded athletes.
“It was fun being surrounded by people who were as passionate about sports as we were,” Stephanie said. “Most of us were the best or only players at our academies. But it’s more fun to be competitive if you’re not the most competitive or most athletic one in the school. Being on Union’s basketball team was amazing—we could share that experience. It wasn’t just me who showed up for late night games and practices, it was a whole team of people who shared that passion.”
It wasn’t all fun and games. The pair say participating in college sports helped them improve their time management skills and sense of what’s most important, and helped them fine-tune the path their lives were taking.
“Basketball provided me with the opportunity to learn to be structured with my time while going to school and working. I’m still friends with many guys from the team, and we’ll probably still be friends when we’re old and greyer,” laughed Andrew. “We’re close because we learned those life lessons together. Not just success—sometimes failure or how to handle incidents that weren’t fair. The sports program provided us a chance to learn that.”
“For me, basketball was about finding a feat I excelled at,” Stephanie said. “Everyone has hobbies, and basketball was ours.”
Andrew agreed. “Basketball was a major portion of my life in college, if not my whole world at times. I knew I wasn’t going to play for another college or in the pros, but we had a great amount of athletic talent on our teams at the time. For a small Bible college, we were very competitive. It was an exciting time to be part of Union College athletics.”
Answering Life’s Call Together
Andrew and Stephanie sat by each other in a religion class their freshman year, but neither was ready for a relationship, so friendship blossomed. “There was a maturing process that needed to happen before we were ready to be in a relationship,” said Stephanie. “By our junior year, we were both on the same page.”
After his junior year of college, Andrew served for a year as assistant boys’ dean at Dakota Adventist Academy. It was a year of surprise blessings, despite being separated from Stephanie by 650 miles. By then, Andrew knew he was going to ask Stephanie to marry him. When he returned to Union for his senior year, he became the head men’s resident assistant and served on Deans’ Council. Stephanie had graduated the year before, but she got a job in Lincoln so she could be near Andrew.
They married July 11, 2004. That summer, the couple moved to Minnesota, where Andrew began serving as boys’ dean and PE teacher at Maplewood Academy. At the same time, he started a master’s program in marriage and family counseling, and Stephanie accepted a job with a local technology company and worked toward a master’s in business administration. While it was busy, and even stressful and challenging at times, the Larsons said the path they took drew them closer as a couple in many ways.
It also provided them an outlet for their shared passion for giving back. “We felt strongly that we were called to work at an Adventist academy,” Andrew said. “It wasn’t just a job. It was a lifestyle and a commitment. It was our mission field. I was ecstatic about serving and giving back to my alma mater.”
Stephanie has been with Hutchinson Technology for more than eight years, and in that time has earned an MBA and certifications as a Certified Internal Auditor and Certified Public Accountant.
As much as he loved being a dean at the academy level, Andrew embarked on his long-range plan. After completing his master’s degree and passing state and national exams to become a licensed marriage and family therapist, he opened his own practice, NorthStar Counseling Center, in Hutchinson, Minn., where he currently serves as clinical supervisor. The practice has five other mental health professionals and three employees, and specializes in individual, couples and family therapy.
Andrew and Stephanie agree that their education and professional experience were perfect complements to each other and to their business venture. Andrew says Stephanie’s background in business was helpful in setting up the practice, and Stephanie jokes that she was able to use Andrew’s therapist skills during the stressful times. “We learned everything together along the way, and it was helpful to have each other through the process,” she said. “We can honestly say we built this together.”
Together, they’ve also built a thriving young family. Sons A.J. and Scott were born in 2011 and 2013, and they keep Andrew and Stephanie on their toes. “In the true spirit of Union, they are little squirrels,” Stephanie laughed.
The couple still play basketball together two times a week at the local rec center. Stephanie says they also like to watch sports together, but between their busy lives and active little boys, they never get to watch a full game. “It’s more like five minutes at a time,” she admitted.
Their life successes have also enabled them to share their wealth with others—both in monetary and other ways. “We live our life according to the idea that we should give back that which was given to us,” Andrew said. “We went back to Maplewood Academy to serve after graduation, and we have the opportunity to be supportive to Union now. The generations before us have pulled a lot of weight, but now we’re reaching the place where we can start to give back. We feel indebted to Union in a positive way.”
More than a decade has passed since the Larsons graduated from Union, but the couple still fondly recalls their days as students and athletes. “Union taught me about balance and priorities, and I learned how to be successful in my family, job, spiritual life, relationships, and service-oriented aspects,” said Stephanie.
They recall a statement on a bumper sticker designed by one of their professors, Chris Blake—Union makes better lovers. “If there’s one thing that summarizes everything we experienced at and took away from Union, it’s love,” said Andrew. “Love, people and relationships are the most important things in life. If love isn’t there, you must create it. That is our calling, and it was solidified in me going into my adult years. It’s the love you have for people—including my teachers, fellow athletes and academic friends.”
By Lauren Bongard Schwarz