From 20 feet away, Jeff Berwager saw her.
She was in her 80s, sitting in a wheelchair outside the emergency room at High Point Regional Hospital. She had a gash on her forehead nearly two inches long. Her son had dropped her off, he was parking the car, and she was sobbing.
Berwager didn’t hesitate.
He walked over, leaned down, held her hand and began what he always does as a volunteer patient advocate in the ER. He heard about her fall and asked about her life, just anything to get her mind off what happened.
That’s when Berwager heard about her dog.
“She needed just a hand, some physical contact to make her feel safe,” Berwager says.
That’s nothing new to Berwager.
He’s worked with summer campers and preschoolers at his home church. Now, the HPU senior is a Big Brother to a fourth-grader and a mentor and confidante to a hall full of HPU undergrads.
For two years, he has worked as a Resident Assistant. Last year, HPU’s Office of Student Life named him “New RA of the Year.” Now, he has another distinction: the Extraordinary Leader for March.
It’s easy to understand why. All you have to do is listen. Berwager does.
“It’s all about hearing everyone’s stories and being able to connect with them on a different level and finding something in common no matter where they’re from,” he says. “You never know when people are struggling. On the outside, you can’t tell. But all it takes is a conversation. They need to know someone is listening.”
Mining Passion, Finding a Path
Berwager hails from small-town Pennsylvania: Dillsburg, population, 2,565; home of the Pickle Drop on New Year’s Eve, an event in which a pickle made of papier-mâché or Mylar takes center stage.
Berwager’s dad taught high school science, his mom works in a library. He is the youngest of two, the only boy. He loves math and books, loves helping people, and after graduation, he wants to go to medical school and become a physician.
He also has gumption. Other than volunteering every Thursday at High Point Regional Hospital, he also volunteers every Tuesday at the Interventional Radiology Department at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center 35 minutes from campus in Winston-Salem.
High Point University helped make these opportunities happen. Berwager had the passion; his professors like Dr. Jeffrey Taylor helped him find the path.
Because of Dr. Taylor, Berwager flew halfway around the world.
The Funny Thing about Minions
Berwager found himself in Berlin. That was a first.
He had never been outside the United States. But after school ended last year, he spent nearly three weeks on HPU’s Global Business Maymester seeing international business firsthand and visiting London and Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin.
But he had a research poster to present with the help of Dr. Taylor, an assistant professor and the director of clinical education in HPU’s Department of Physical Therapy.
So, Berwager flew from Berlin to Greensboro, North Carolina, to catch a connection to San Diego. He needed to present at the 2015 American College of Sports Medicine Annual Conference.
It took Berwager nearly two days to get there. Once in San Diego, Berwager caught up with Dr. Taylor and presented how he used equipment at HPU’s Biomechanics and Physiology Lab to measure the movement of female basketball athletes.
The title of his work? “A One-Step Countermovement Jump Elicits Asymmetrical Distribution of Lower Extremity Joint Moments in Female Athletes.”
Berwager saw the long trip as necessary. That’s how he sees his weekly visits with a boy named Magdaleno. He’s a student at High Point’s Johnson Street Elementary.
Berwager is Magdaleno’s Big Brother.
Two years ago, Berwager got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Piedmont because he loved working with kids. When he did, he met Magdaleno.
At first, Magdaleno was shy. But as weeks turned to months, Magdaleno opened up. Now, whenever Berwager goes over to Johnson Street, he hears other students holler, “Hey, Jeff!” But Berwager always comes to see Magdaleno.
They play video games, eat lunch and talk about his week. On holidays, they exchange gifts.
In one instance, Berwager gave Magdaleno a figurine from “Minecraft,” Magdaleno’s favorite video game. In return, Magdaleno gave a pair of pajama pants freckled with Minions, the cartoon character from “Despicable Me 2,” Berwager’s favorite children’s movie.
Berwager does wear them. He likes them. Ask him about it, and Berwager’s no-nonsense demeanor disappears. He just laughs.
A Bible Verse Rings True
They call themselves The Blessing Five: Nick Palmer, Connor Eline, Jimmy Willis, Anthony Vita and… Jeff Berwager.
They’ve been friends since their freshmen year when they lived together in Blessing, an HPU residence hall. They’re now all brothers in HPU’s Kappa Sigma fraternity, sharing as many experiences as often as they can like their beach trip last weekend to Myrtle Beach.
The Blessing Five typifies Berwager’s four years at HPU. His education led to adventure and relationships with everyone from fourth-graders to PhDs, and when he talks about it, he mentions one of his favorite quotes, Proverbs 27:17:
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
“College needs to be an experience where you surround yourself with people who hold you accountable, to make you a better person in all aspects of life,” he says. “So, I’ve been fortunate.”