As French international student Priscille Mikala packed her bags to travel to the United States, she tried to shake off her nervousness. She was excited to study music at Southern Adventist University, having made a special connection with the dean of the School of Music during a virtual tour of the Tennessee campus. He had encouraged her and her family to pray for guidance before making a final decision, and although Mikala had received a full-tuition scholarship offer at another school, she felt called to Southern.
“I was afraid of going to a new country,” said Mikala. “I wasn’t sure if I would easily make friends, but it has gone really well. The faculty and staff have been exceptional, and the variety of campus activities has helped me connect with people from many different backgrounds.”
Nearly 3,000 students answer God’s call to attend Southern each year, coming from across the country and around the world. During the 2022-2023 school year, the University welcomed students from all 50 U.S. states, as well as 40 different countries, each on a journey of matching their passions with God’s purpose.
Ivan Vakal never planned on studying abroad, but when war broke out in Ukraine, his parents urged him to leave the country right away.
“I was just 17 when I crossed the border alone,” said Vakal. “I remember wondering what would happen next and when I would be able to see my parents again. There were just too many things happening too fast.”
Vakal’s sister found a sponsor family who would pay his university fees and provide him with a place to live in the U.S. At the time, Ukrainian refugees were allowed special entrance to the U.S. at the Mexico border, so Vakal began the long 26-hour series of flights that would take him there.
“My English was beginner,” he said. “Along the way, God sent a lot of people to translate for me. One of them even helped me when I was exhausted and lost at the Mexican border, unable to find the special line for Ukrainians.”
The stranger helped Vakal backtrack to his plane, where he discovered he had missed a procedure. He was assigned a number and joined a long line. After five hours, he finally met his sponsor family, who flew him to his new home in Collegedale.
Before leaving Ukraine, Vakal had studied computer programming as a freshman. He was very grateful that he could transfer his classes to Southern Adventist University and continue as a sophomore in the School of Computing, his first experience in a Christian education setting.
“My favorite part of Southern is the people,” he said. “I really like how people understand what I believe. The professors are helpful, and I have made great Christian friends.”
Vakal is deeply grateful that the rest of his family is now safe in the U.S., as well. In spite of the war that continues to rage in his home country, he remains positive, determined to praise God and follow His call, no matter where it might lead.
Alone in El Salvador
Fernando Portillo was born in El Salvador, and while he was still a baby, his mother left for the U.S. Her goal was to work there and send money back so that he could have a better life. Portillo was raised by his grandmother, the first Seventh-day Adventist in their family. On Sabbaths, they went to church together; during the week, she asked him to read the Bible to her since she didn’t know how. They lived in a rural area where his walk to school every day was 40 minutes each way. Their life was simple, but they were happy together.
When Portillo was 10, his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Watching the kindest woman he knew suffer through each stage of the horrible disease shook his faith to its core.
“She was like a mother to me,” said Portillo. “I started to ask God questions like, ‘Why would you take her away from me?’ She was the perfect definition of what a Christian should be.”
Portillo moved in with extended family after this tragedy. Trying to find himself while searching for acceptance, he began to drift into gang circles. When his mother found out about the new direction his life was taking, she realized she must find a way to bring her 12-year-old to be with her in the U.S. immediately. She saved up $7,000 to have him smuggled across the border, but his group was caught, jailed for a month, and sent back home.
When Portillo was 14, she tried again. This time, the escort abandoned him and his group in the middle of the desert. With no idea where they were, they began to walk. As their food and water diminished, Portillo and two others decided to backtrack to a small road and hitch a ride. Although risky, they decided it was better than death in the barren landscape. Miraculously, a kind stranger picked up the trio and drove them the five remaining hours to Houston, Texas, a destination they never would have reached by foot.
The next 24 hours were an emotional whirlwind as Portillo met both of his parents for the first time. His biological father picked him up in Houston and drove him partway across the country to meet his mother, who took him the rest of the way to her home in Kentucky. She had made a vow to God that if her son arrived safely, she would take her family to church. Although he did not want to go at first, his mom kept her promise.
“What finally attracted me to church was when I started understanding answers to some of the questions I had asked about my grandma,” said Portillo. “I started thinking maybe it wasn’t an accident that I went through this. Maybe God did have a plan. The closer I got to Him, the more the things that had happened in my life started making sense.”
Portillo’s stepfather, an American citizen, adopted him when he turned 16. He received his green card, and five years later, he became a U.S. citizen. When it came time to consider careers, Portillo felt called to the ministry but felt insecure about his English fluency and biblical knowledge.
That all changed when he enrolled at Southern and participated in the Soul-winning And Leadership Training (SALT) program. SALT is founded on the theory that all of God’s followers are called to be the salt of the Earth (Matthew 5:14), and participants receive hands-on training in evangelism and a Bible worker certificate. As a theology major, Portillo’s experience at Southern was transformative, helping him break free from his insecurities. He particularly appreciated his professors’ support and prayers. In May, Portillo graduated magna cum laude with a theology degree and three awards for excellence from the School of Religion.
“I’ve been so privileged to come to this University where it has been a blessing to learn,” said Portillo. “Southern became home to me, and I’ve seen God’s hand in every step of this journey. Here I have been able to not only survive but also thrive.”
Southern Adventist University | July 2023