Benji Bollinger remembers looking out over Union’s campus from his dad’s office window as a child and thinking he was in the tallest building in the world. The son of Gary and Kathy Bollinger, many of his earliest memories were made at Union. Since then his horizons and expertise have broadened, and now he’s bringing that experience home as a life coach in the Student Success office.
Bollinger’s entire career has focused on supporting children, teens and young adults, first as a social worker and then as a teacher. After graduating with a master’s in social work from Walla Walla University, he worked in the Washington State public school system with students experiencing behavioral issues, then for an outdoor education program similar to Outward Bound, and later as a case worker for the foster care system.
“I wanted to work more with kids and have less paper work, so I went back to school,” Bollinger said. He earned his second master’s from Seattle Pacific University, this time in education. “As a teacher, I got more kids, and also more paperwork.”
Focusing on special education, he taught in public high schools for 15 years in Snoqualmie, Washington. During the last eight of those years, he taught 18 to 21-year-old special needs students in a vocationally based program.
“I love the career of teaching, but I was ready for a change,” Bollinger said. “I can trace a whole series of things that put me back here at Union. I think it was God leading. I was ready to work with students at a college level, and one-on-one, and in a Christian environment where we can pray together.”
As a life coach in Student Success, Bollinger smooths the transition to college life, helping first-year students pick the major and classes that fit them, serving as a sounding board, and arranging tutoring and any other assistance they may need. “Some freshmen meet with me once a month; others come in twice a week,” he said. “We’re really just here to help students, and I love that we can individualize that support.”
His wife, Jennifer Bollinger, is a physical therapist with CHI Health, and they have two children, a son in the ninth grade and a daughter in the sixth grade. An avid outdoorsman, Bollinger never thought he’d give up the mountains of Washington to live in Nebraska again, but his family have long disagreed with him.
“Ever since they were little, when the kids were asked where they would live if they could live anywhere or what their favorite place is, they’d immediately answer, ‘Nebraska!’” Bollinger said. “We raised them in this beautiful valley with a waterfall surrounded by forests and mountains, but they think Nebraska is where it’s at. They can see long distances here and see grandma and grandpa.”
Though in many ways working at Union is a homecoming for Bollinger, he’s also getting a taste of the same transition his advisees are experiencing. “Going from high school to college can be rough, even for a grown-up teacher,” Bollinger said. “But I think Union’s small size has tons of advantages. You can make connections much more easily at a small school than you can at a large public university.”