There’s a swarm of people stacking crates outside a trailer as Caleb Shetler, junior international rescue and relief (IRR) major, double checks gear and directs other Union College students.
He’s a long way from his home in Ruckersville, Virginia, and about to go a lot further to Port Arthur, Texas. Seventy-two hours earlier Rick Young, the director of the IRR program, received a call from Adventist Community Services asking for assistance. Many homes were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. They could offer a dry church to sleep in, nothing more. Not a problem, Young assured. That’s all IRR majors need.
After three days of intense paperwork and planning, 20 international rescue and relief students, two nursing students, one student chaplain and two faculty are about to start a 14-hour road trip. Their team must be prepared to survive on what they bring in. There’s no guarantee of fresh water or food in an area wrecked by a Category 4 storm.
When crisis hits, every minute matters. Yet all too often helpful citizens rush into a disaster zone unprepared and end up needing to be rescued themselves. Training means doing things right, so you’re not a burden to the community you came to aid.
Fight like you train. Train like you fight.
After three years in the IRR program, Shetler knows the value of confidence backed up by experience in tough situations. As part of their curriculum, IRR students spend a semester in Nicaragua doing medical work. In rough conditions, with little food and sleep, students’ endurance is tested while opportunities to help are endless.
“In challenging situations—whether it’s repelling off a building or scuba diving rescue, or performing an IV on a little girl in Nicaragua—those opportunities that challenge you give you confidence and help you see that you’re capable of a lot more,” Shetler said.
And confidence matters. In moments of crisis, it can mean the difference between paralyzing hesitation or saving a life.
“The diversity and challenges you go through make the IRR degree outstanding,” Shetler said. “Even if you’re a pre-med student, you have to do the same requirements—not because rappelling off a roof makes you a better doctor—but what it does is push you out of your comfort zone and it gives you confidence.”
“There’s a quote we use in the fire service,” Shetler said. “‘Train like you fight, fight like you train.’ We want to train how we’re going to respond when we get a job in the real world.”
How Caleb found Union College
After graduating from high school, Shetler completed fire academy and EMT training to work at his local fire department and rescue squad. While he loved that year of training, he also felt called to earn a college education. But after an adrenaline-packed work experience, the thought of sitting in a classroom every day and doing homework sounded depressing.
Then his friend described the degree program from Union College in international rescue and relief that prepares students for careers in public safety, emergency management, medical field and global development. Shetler visited the campus and was hooked.
Right away he was able to put his skills to use. After a summer of technical rope rescue and swift water training, Shetler taught a brief ropes course at his local fire department.
“A lot of the training in IRR isn’t even taught at a lot of volunteer fire departments and rescue squads,” he said. “It was a unique opportunity to be able to go back and share what I had learned at Union with the folks back at home.”
Shetler loves working with his local fire department. “It’s really fantastic that they leave the door open for me,” he said. “The people at the fire department understand the importance of a college education and they’ve been nothing but supportive of it. They always ask me, ‘When are you going?’ but also, ‘When are you coming back?’”
For students like Shetler who want a four year degree, but struggle with a traditional classroom, college can be a challenge. “If it wasn’t for Union I wouldn’t be in school,” he said. “I’d be back working in the fire department. But because I’ve received so much encouragement from IRR faculty and from my hometown fire department who are excited about this program, that’s convinced me to continue here year after year. I’m excited to graduate with this degree.”
Union’s goal is to assist students in finding more than a job—to find their calling. That means helping students discover their God-given natural talents and mixing those with mentorship and leadership opportunities so students understand how they work and thrive best. According to 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index research, that mix of mentorship, care and applying what you learn, means students become employees who are twice as likely to love what they do.
Shetler is confident he’s already found his calling as a first responder. “I feel called to help people. Sometimes, that sounds cliché, but I also believe that it’s one of the most fulfilling and rewarding jobs out there,” he said. While he loves working as a firefighter, Shetler’s ultimate career goal is to eventually be a flight paramedic. Right now, he’s taking one step at a time. And this step is taking him to Texas.