Texas Youth Academy Alum Shares Her Amazing Story
Ashley Hamel is heading to Princeton Theological Seminary. Her life took a transformational turn after experiencing Texas Youth Academy five years ago and she returns this summer to serve as the TYA Director of Students.
Flashing back to the summer of 2009, Ashley Hamel still vividly recalls the jitters that were a-flitter in the pit of her stomach. As she rolled on to the campus of Georgetown University, it hit her that she would be away from familiar faces and the comforts of home for two weeks with people she did not know. She was heading into uncharted waters as one of the first high school students selected to attend the Texas Youth Academy. Little did she know how this spiritual formation experience would still inspire her, five years later.
“Teens arriving on that first day are pretty nervous and scared of the unknown,” she recalls. “I did not know a soul on day one, but by the end of the two weeks, the tears were flowing as we felt we were leaving our spiritual family behind.”
Adds Ashley, “As I drove away from the very first TYA, I remember thinking, what just happened here? I felt certain that every student, at the end of the two weeks, felt God in a special way – and learned the importance of community.”
Ashley is quick to share the events that led up to that life-changing experience – and the news that she will serve as this year’s Director of Students at the Texas Youth Academy before heading to Princeton Theological Seminary in the fall. “I would encourage any student to consider attending if they are wanting to understand God better, and openly and honestly be in discussion about spiritual matters with their peers. It creates a space for students to be vulnerable, be creative and to ask questions in a safe environment.”
Rev. Thera Freeman, Director of Youth and Young Adults for the Texas Annual Conference describes TYA as an intensive spiritual experience that allows students from across the state to spend time with faculty members from various seminaries. Students devote time to service projects, spiritual expression through hands-on art, planning and leading worship, and even sharing time with Bishop Janice Huie.
“The year I attended TYA was the summer before my senior year. I was pretty active at First UMC Lufkin, at the time, and the experience opened my eyes to what it would be like to work in the church,” shares Ashley. “During that time I saw how eager my fellow students were to know God, and that refreshed me and confirmed to me that ministry was something I wanted to pursue.”
She went on to graduate from high school and attend the University of North Texas in pursuit of a degree in social work. “All through college, I volunteered at church to keep this a big part of my life. I was seeking that TYA type community, so I also became active in the Wesley Foundation,” she says. In 2011 and 2013, she attended the Exploration Conference hosted by the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry for young adults considering ministry work. “I’ve recently received more clarity in my calling to seek ordination as a deacon and someday work with youth and young adults. “ Her faith journey will soon take her to Princeton in pursuit of a dual degree: Master’s of Divinity and a Master’s in Art and Youth Ministry.
“Now that I am an adult, I still feel God at work through my initial TYA experience,” she shares. “I experienced God in such an authentic way that still impacts my daily walk.”
She is greatly excited about returning to TYA in a few weeks to serve in a leadership role. Adds Ashley, “Students see what it takes to plan a worship service and realize the intentionality in everything. My experience set a bar for my everyday faith journey and set such a model for living in a supportive community.”
“Journeying with students in life is one of the greatest joys in ministry, wherever their personal stories take them. One of the beautiful things about TYA is invitation; we invite students to join together in a community with us, and in their own time, the students invite us into their lives and discernment,” says Thera. “Through shared sacrament, shared learning and shared reflection, the Texas Youth Academy opens up a place of profound friendship. Ashley's journey is one example of a TYA community member utilizing her community and learning to continue to discern where God is calling her. I give thanks for all that has come before and all that will follow in her discernment of calling, and I rejoice in sharing in her story.”