With school in full swing, students are busy juggling academics, sports and other extracurriculars. Fortunately, several campus ministers in the state are making it easier for busy students to navigate their faith lives.
Jacob Moellers, campus minister
A Morrilton native, Jacob Moellers said attending Mass with his family at Sacred Heart Church felt like clockwork -- until his sophomore year of high school when he attended the Search #140 youth retreat.
“That’s when I realized ‘Oh, that’s what this is all about,’” Moellers said.
For the remainder of high school, Moellers became deeply involved in his Catholic faith and very active in Search retreats. In 2018, Moellers began attending Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and was active at St. Leo the Great University Parish. Moellers began helping with the program ACTS Jr. on campus, which brings youth with disabilities together to create a play each semester. Moellers, whose older brother is autistic, has spent much of his personal life debunking stigmas about autism and neurodivergent people.
Moellers began to spend his Mondays among the staff and with the late Father Ernie Hardesty at St. Leo and solidified his role as “the super mega Catholic guy” to his friends.
The new campus ministry center at St. Leo was completed in May 2021, and Moellers found himself donating things to the center, such as a ping pong table.
After graduating in 2022 with a degree in cultural and geospatial studies, Moellers spent several months working at a hardware store and the Arkansas Department of Transportation as a traffic safety analyst. Then one day, St. Leo’s parish manager, Mary Corkins, told him they needed a campus minister, and she could think of no one better than Moellers. He was hired July 17.
Now, Moellers mentors Catholic students at Arkansas Tech University, promoting the faith through St. Leo’s social media accounts. He also organizes activity nights, worship nights and outdoor events and coordinates volunteering efforts while still helping with ACTS Jr. Moellers is ambitious in his campus ministry goals.
“Arkansas Tech is going to be a private Catholic university by the time I’m done with it,” he said with a laugh.
Tachia Awbrey, campus minister
For campus minister Tachia Awbrey, her new role at Conway Campus Ministry is a perfect marriage of her passion for student success and her love of the Catholic faith. Awbrey worked at UCA for 15 years as an academic advisor and education counselor after receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCA.
“I always knew that I had a passion to work with and guide this age group based on my own personal experience,” Awbrey said.
As a first-generation college student, Awbrey struggled to adapt and lost her scholarships.
“I learned the hard way, went back to work, and ended up finishing,” Awbrey said.
Determined to make sure that other students didn’t have the same experience, Awbrey went into advising to help guide students.
“There’s always conversations of, ‘Oh, my grades,’ and things like that,” Awbrey said. “But the conversations started taking a darker turn, at least with this generation. They’re very open about their anxieties. … That really tugged at my heartstrings, because I was also having my own personal faith journey.”
Awbrey grew up Protestant, but a decade ago, she began to feel called to the Catholic faith. Just two years ago, Awbrey converted to Catholicism, and her two sons followed suit. She is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Conway.
“These two things merged at the same time — my experience in higher education, along with my personal faith journey.”
As a campus minister, Awbrey gets to use both.
Awbrey was hired Aug. 1 and hit the ground running. Now that the new CCM facility is built, Awbrey gets to focus on the wellbeing of the students who walk through their doors.
“Everything I’ve learned from working in higher education is going to help me relate to these students and what they’re going through on a week-to-week basis,” Awbrey said. “And being able to openly discuss my faith at the same time is exactly the type of conversations I want to have with students.”
Luke Hoelzeman, assistant campus minister
Even though he was officially hired in June 2022 as the assistant campus minister, Luke Hoelzeman has been involved with Catholic campus ministry since 2012 when he attended UCA and majored in health promotion. Hoelzeman’s girlfriend at the time and now wife, Colleen, was very involved in campus ministry, which made it easier for Hoelzeman to be involved. During his sophomore year, Deacon Richard Papini, who has overseen campus ministry at UCA for 25 years, hired Kasey Miller as campus minister. Hoelzeman said he and Miller became close friends, and she acted as a spiritual mentor.
“When I left the dorm and started commuting … I spent all of my time at the old CCM house on Bruce Street, which means I saw Kasey and Deacon almost every day,” Hoelzeman said.
Miller often hinted to Hoelzeman he should work in campus ministry some day.
“At the time, I was very set on what my role in life was supposed to be,” Hoelzeman said. “I was studying to be an educator and a football coach.”
Hoelzeman did just that for the next few years after graduating in 2017, getting married and settling down in Russellville. Until, one day, he got a call from Miller.
“Kasey reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve been looking at the budget, and we’re thinking sometime in the next three to five years, we might be able to hire a new campus minister.’ Then she said that she’d be head hunting for me,” Hoelzeman said with a laugh.
But just a few months later, Miller called back — she needed an assistant campus minister urgently. Six months later in the summer of 2022, Hoelzeman found himself working as the assistant campus minister in Conway. Hoelzeman, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Morrilton, primarily helps students at UCA and the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton but is eager to help any Catholic student in the area.
It was at Sacred Heart Church that Hoelzeman grew up knowing Moellers. Hoelzeman had coached Moellers for a while and was able to offer the same mentor-mentee faith relationship Miller had offered him.
“If you’re around the age of college … we encourage you to get involved with us, because we know that it can be a difficult transition after college,” Hoelzeman said. “We’ve all made really good friendships from this, and this is something that I’ve always been really passionate about.”
While there is still an opening for a campus minister at St. John Newman University Parish at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, new administrator Father Alex Smith is eager to start making a difference right away. For Father Smith, this is a ministry of presence.
“It’s so important because there’s a lot of Baptist, Methodist and non-denominational campus ministries that are very present on campus,” Father Smith said. “That’s not to judge or chastise — it’s wonderful that our brothers and sisters are there to walk with people. But it’s important that we do our very best to do that too.”
Father Smith has been promoting Catholic campus ministry to students, redesigning the campus ministry website and social media and is putting together a Bible study. He said the administration has been very welcoming, allowing him to be on the sidelines at home football games and celebrating Mass for the Red Wolves coach and team.
Father Smith said this ministry of presence is especially crucial as students look for something familiar.
“We have an opportunity to cheer them on and to remind them that they’re a young adult on fire for the Lord,” Father Smith said, emphasizing a college campus ministry has to help students navigate their faith and adulthood.
Father Smith hopes a full-time campus minister will help him reach his ministry goals.
“Being a campus minister is not a 9-to-5 mentality,” Father Smith said. “You have to be able to walk with them where they’re at, with God’s grace and mercy as well.”
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