Caleb Shetler has found his calling. Whether extinguishing a structure fire with the fire department back home or cleaning out flood-damaged homes in Texas, Shetler plans to spend his life serving people.

“I feel called to help people,” said the Ruckersville, Virginia, native. And he believes earning an international rescue and relief degree at Union will help him get there.

Fight like you train. Train like you fight.

After three years in the IRR program, Shetler knows the value of confidence backed by experience in tough situations. As part of their curriculum, IRR students spend a semester in Nicaragua doing medical work. In rough conditions, with little food and sleep, students’ endurance is tested while opportunities to help are endless.

“In challenging situations—whether it’s repelling off a building, scuba diving rescue or performing an IV on a little girl in Nicaragua—the opportunities that challenge you give you confidence and help you see that you’re capable of a lot more,” Shetler said.

And confidence matters. In moments of crisis, it can mean the difference between paralyzing hesitation or saving a life.

“There’s a quote we use a lot in the fire service,” he said. “‘Train like you fight, fight like you train.’ We want to train how we’re going to respond when we get a job in the real world.”

Finding Union College

After graduating from high school, Shetler completed fire academy and EMT training to work at his local fire department and rescue squad. While he loved that year of training, he also felt called to earn a college education. But after an adrenaline-packed work experience, the thought of sitting in a classroom every day and doing homework sounded depressing.

Then his friend described the international rescue and relief program he had discovered from Union College that prepares students for careers in public safety, emergency management, the medical field and global development. Shetler visited the campus and was hooked.

Right away he was able to put his skills to use. After a summer of technical rope rescue and swift water training, Shetler taught a brief ropes course at his local fire department.

“A lot of the training in IRR isn’t even taught at a lot of volunteer fire departments and rescue squads,” he said. “It was a unique opportunity to be able to go back and share what I had learned at Union with the folks at home.”

Shetler loves working with his local fire department. “It’s really fantastic that they leave the door open for me,” he said. “The people at the fire department understand the importance of a college education and they’ve been nothing but supportive of it. They always ask me, ‘When are you going?’ but also, ‘When are you coming back?’”

For students who want a four-year degree, but struggle with a traditional classroom, college can be a challenge. “If it wasn’t for Union I wouldn’t be in school,” Shetler said. “I’d be back working in the fire department. But because I’ve received so much encouragement from IRR faculty and from my hometown fire department who are excited about this program, that’s convinced me to continue here year after year. I’m excited to graduate with this degree.”

Union’s goal is to help students find more than a job—to help students find their calling. That means helping students discover God-given natural talents and mixing those with mentorship and leadership opportunities so students understand how they work and thrive best. According to 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index research, that mix of mentorship, care and applying what you learn means students become employees who are twice as likely to love what they do.

Shetler is confident he’s already found his calling as a first responder. “I believe that it’s one of the most fulfilling and rewarding jobs out there,” he said. While he loves working as a firefighter, Shetler’s ultimate career goal is to eventually be a flight paramedic. Right now, he’s taking one step at a time.

Becky Daniel is director of strategic marketing for Union College.