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Biology student passionately invests in world around herKristen Schoenike sits with a patient as a dentist works on her teeth in a clinic in Guatemala.

Dirt floors. High-tech labs. Running shoes. Petri dishes. Smiling faces. While it may seem as if those items have nothing in common, for Kristen Schoenike '16 graduating senior and biology major, they provide reminders of key lessons and realizations in her life – reminders of what it means to be alive.

"I chose biology because it is the study of life in all of its forms. As a biology student, you study the plants and ecosystems that give nature its beauty, the amazing form and function of the human body, the intricate genome that guides who we are, the powerful bacteria that can thrive in the most unlikely places, and so much more!"

But Kristen's appreciation for ecosystems and life around her goes beyond the physical study of life forms. She's passionate about investing in the lives of people from across different cultures. In 2015, Kristen travelled to Guatemala for an internship at La Mision, which helps provide medical and health assistance to those with physical and emotional needs. While in Guatemala, she had a breakthrough about what she wanted to do with her life.

"Working with La Mision was a truly unforgettable experience... I learned that helping others achieve their dreams is just as fulfilling as achieving my own. Before my internship, I thought of my education as a ladder for me to climb in order to achieve the end goal of a stable job and a sufficient salary," she says. "In contrast, I now view my education as a time to prepare me to serve others. While I was in Guatemala, service was not just a small part of my life; it was the meaning of my life. That is the way I want to live all of the time."

After her time in Guatemala, Kristen's life has continued to be shaped by that experience. She has continued to focus on how she can serve other people – whether by sleeping on the floor of a Salvation Army center while leading summer mission trips in the inner city of Atlanta or by encouraging her Whitworth cross country and track & field teammates.

"I was not a very talented or passionate athlete in high school, so four years of running for Whitworth has been very transformative," she says. "I am certainly a faster runner, but, more important, I am a better person. Sport teaches you the importance of mental toughness, determination and camaraderie. I have learned how to set goals and work hard for something that I love, but I have also learned that my athletic performance does not define me or my worth as a person. In the end, my best 5K time means very little to anyone but me. But my work ethic, my support and love for teammates, and my positive attitude can leave a lasting impression. I am thankful that our coaching staff emphasizes their desire for us to reach our potential not only athletically, but socially and spiritually as well."

From a spiritual standpoint, Kristen is thankful for the ways in which all of these experiences have challenged her to think deeply about how she defines her identity, her life mission, and her faith. 

"I used to avoid asking many big questions in faith because I knew no one could ever truly resolve them," she says. "But at Whitworth, faculty challenge you to ask those questions anyway, and they help you explore many possible answers. A tested faith is a strong faith. While I still do not have all the answers, I realize the value of exploring the questions. I have also learned the importance of interfaith dialogue, and I so appreciate the ways in which Whitworth has facilitated those discussions."

After graduation this spring, Kirsten will be working on the BriBri Reservation, in Costa Rica, for a nonprofit organization, Experience Mission. Eventually, she hopes to continue on to graduate school – but first she'll take some time to experience life outside of school and to shadow various professionals in healthcare and science to help her decide what area of graduate education she'd like to pursue.