Russell Palmer III ’06 and ’13 was determined to be a doctor. So he enrolled in Union College as a pre-med major, graduating in 2006 with a chemistry degree and plans to attend medical school at Loma Linda University.
But his first attempt at the MCAT didn’t go so well.
“I bombed out,” he said. “So I went back home, studied all summer, and went to take it again. But something didn’t feel right. I stopped at the door of the test and prayed, ‘God, if this is what You want for me, let me do well.’”
His second score was even lower.
“I felt like God was closing that door and that chapter of my life,” he recalled. Within days, administrators at his alma mater, Thunderbird Academy, called. They needed a part-time science teacher.
“That was it for me. I fell in love,” he said “I discovered my calling to be a teacher.”
Palmer spent two years at Thunderbird before transitioning to Auburn Academy, where he worked for a year, teaching Bible classes and getting a feel for academy life and a new vision for his own life.
“I knew I had to go back to Union again,” he said. Luckily, he was in the perfect place timing-wise. Union’s Guaranteed Education program offers a tuition-free bachelor’s degree for students between two and six years after graduation.
“It had been three years, so I was able to go back to Union for a completely free degree,” he said. He was carrying student debt from his first college degree, and he’d been earning a task-force salary. He wouldn’t have been able to go back to school without the Guaranteed Education program. “It changed my life by enabling me to get degrees in something I was interested in,” he said. He graduated for a second time in December 2013 with degrees in religion and science education.
A new career wasn’t the only thing Palmer found during his second stint at Union. He met his future wife, Sarah Kohls Palmer ’14, a physician assistant studies major, a month after school started. “We were both prayerfully returning to Union, trusting that God would lead us into careers and the person He had created for us,” Palmer said.
Today, he teaches middle school science, religion and robotics at Mile High Academy in Denver, Colo.
Learning to Adapt
During his first years at Union, Palmer had noticed a difference in his attitude toward his future career. “The other pre-med students were super passionate, but there was something in the pit of my stomach leading me away from it,” he said. “I was stubborn. I didn’t prayerfully consider whether God had something else in store for me.”
But when he started teaching, he realized he was on to something better. “Teaching was so freeing,” he said. “My days of trying to be a doctor were over, and I could embrace God’s will for me.”
Dr. Charles Freidline, longtime chemistry professor who died in 2013, had given Palmer a hint at his true calling on Palmer’s first graduation day. “Dr. Freidline knew I was struggling with my major. He wrote something on my graduation card that I will never forget. He told me the story of a pre-med student who could have fallen into the path of medicine. But that student was now the longest-serving, most-impacting college chaplain in the world—Dr. Rich Carlson. Dr. Freidline told me that if God leads you away from medicine, don’t be afraid to follow His pathway. I had no idea the wisdom he was speaking to me.”
Looking back, Palmer believes the message was crystal clear. “That could be me. I could have been stubborn and forced my way into medicine and be plugging away as a doctor somewhere,” he said. “Instead, I’m changing kids’ lives and building God’s kingdom.”
Palmer said he learned adaptability through the process of finding the place God wanted him. “You have to listen for God’s voice and for His leading,” he said. “You have to be willing to go down the pathway on which He leads you. When God’s will links with yours, there’s no feeling like it. Finally, after all of these years, I’m on God’s path for me.”
Palmer sees the long way around was part of God’s plan. “God smoothed out some of my rough edges at Thunderbird and Auburn,” he said. “That prepared me to be a teacher and to meet my wife. Before those experiences, I wasn’t ready. But I adapted to what He wanted for me, and now I’m living His plan.”
By Lauren Bongard Schwarz ’04