BEMIDJI -- Kristine and Shane Fleming have been on and off college students for the past several years and had significant personal and academic growth along the way.

Now, on Saturday, the two are graduating from Oak Hills Christian College with bachelor’s degrees at last -- Kristine in applied psychology and Shane in youth ministry -- and said they are looking forward to not being students for a while.

“We've been pursuing this for like, six or seven years, on and off. This has been our goal for so long now,” Shane said ahead of graduation.

Now, with degrees under their belts, the couple hopes to provide help to others through counseling and ministry.

Bound to meet

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Kristine, from Laporte, Minn. and Shane, from Pine River, Minn., first became acquainted back when they were in high school.

“My church had a Christmas play going on. We needed a Lazarus, and we did not have a man,” Kristine explained with a laugh.

A favor was called in, and Shane came through as Lazarus, and the rest is history -- sort of. The two apparently didn’t actually get along at the time. But years later, they reconnected beyond high school church plays, after both overcoming personal crises.

“We ended up reconnecting because Shane had gone through a pretty tough situation,” Kristine said. In her social circle, she’s known as the best one to cheer people up, so they were reintroduced. After reconnecting, both realized they shared a plan to go to Oak Hills for college.

“I think we were bound to meet,” Kristine said.

Coming back after a pause

The couple’s initial tenure at Oak Hills was short-lived. After dealing with personal issues and feeling overwhelmed by workload and financial obligations, the two ended up dropping out. But they remained connected to people on campus.

“I came in the fall of 2015, and dropped out about mid-semester, just because I had some personal things going on in my life. I needed to sift through those and figure out how to work through them properly,” Kristine said.

The Flemings remained in Bemidji and in contact with the Oak Hills community. The pair got married in 2017, and a few weeks later, Kristine felt compelled to go back to school.

“The fact that we had close ties to this college helped us be able to return,” Shane said. Kristine decided, like a week after we got married, she was like, ‘Hey, I think I'm gonna go back to school.’”

Kristine said she felt in her heart she needed to come back, that God was calling her to complete her degree. She enrolled in just one class, to get her feet wet, and found she was welcomed back with open arms by the faculty and staff.

In 2018, Shane came back as well, on a work-study program that helped alleviate him from student debt. The two credited Oak Hills professors Derrick Houle and Randy McKain for inspiring them to persevere in their courses of study. “They're the reasons we came back,” Shane said.

The pair also said the small school helped keep them accountable and on track to reach their goals.

“You get an opportunity to be really close with your advisors and your professors. It's just something that you might not get at a larger university. Not that you can't, but when you're literally bumping shoulders with them every day, it just makes a difference,” Shane said.

The couple’s dream jobs both center around helping others and serving as listening ears.

“For me, a dream job would be either working as an administrator or organization that is very fixed on helping families develop, whether that's through counseling or just through training,” Shane said.

Kristine said her own personal experiences led her to seek counseling and made her want to be that help for someone else.

“I just really want to help people,” she said. “I really want to help walk alongside them through what they're going through, whether it's a hard time at a job, or whether you've just lost a family member, or somewhere in between or even more extreme. I just want to help people through whatever it is that they're going through.”

Going forward

What’s next for the Flemings? While Kristine’s ultimate goal is to pursue a graduate degree in psychology at some point, Shane and Kristine agreed they would like to take some time to enjoy not being students for a while. The pair said they were planning on taking a year off while Kristine completes an internship.

“My goal is to try graduate school, whether that be Wheaton (College) or Seattle School of Theology and Psychology,” she said.

The Flemings and the rest of the Oak Hills Christian College class of 2021 will be celebrated in a commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 8, on campus in the Schreiber Activity Center Gymnasium. The program will also be livestreamed on the Oak Hills Christian College website.