When I Encountered Grace: Sarah Dunford’s Story

Homeschoolers U

This summer, as I prepare to enter my junior year at PHC, I have been reflecting on my time at PHC. I have enjoyed the past two years. This is not to say that it does not come with its challenges and struggles, but that I have been encouraged and strengthened by the community and structure established there. To better explain what I mean by this, here is a brief summary of my life at PHC thus far.

My first encounter with PHC was an ad I saw in an HSLDA magazine. My initial reaction was, “That is a college for homeschoolers. I will never go there.” At that point, I was a freshman in high school without the thought of potential colleges in my mind.

A year or so later when I began looking at colleges again, I came back to PHC. After hours exploring the website and reading the course catalog, I fell in love with the classes offered there. I wanted to take (nearly) every class listed.

I traveled from California to Virginia to visit PHC my junior year of high school. What I remember most is a conversation I had with a PHC junior in the dining hall. This conversation, most of which I’ve forgotten, included a description about life at PHC. At some point, he said that each student at PHC reaches a point where they break and realize how much they need God. I really appreciated his vulnerability in sharing his story — and I thought I understood what he meant.

But it wasn’t until I underwent the process myself that I came to know the full meaning.

A year and a half later, I came to PHC as a student. I thought I was prepared for what I would encounter, but I was soon stretched in every aspect possible. I wanted to excel in academics, but struggled to keep up with the workload and reach my ideal GPA. I wanted to make friends and be outgoing, but I questioned if people enjoyed my company. I wanted to engage in intellectual conversations, but told myself that I had nothing to contribute and remained silent. I wanted to maintain my faith, but easily forgot God in the midst of my busy schedule.


In high school I did well in classes. I thought academics would be no problem at PHC. Yes, I expected it to consume a lot of time but I would excel nonetheless. About a week into the semester I was already behind. Most people were in the same position, but I still wanted to keep up. I never did. I would become overwhelmed with the workload and the stress prevented me from focusing on what I was working on at the moment.

This is not an uncommon story among college students. For me there was another aspect.

School was my only accomplishment thus far. When I could not meet my expectations in school, I lost my worth. Having placed my identity in academics, I no longer knew who I was. It’s okay to laugh at me. I see now how short minded I was with my preoccupation with grades. I was nearly always aware of my grade in any class. I had constructed a spreadsheet to calculate my grades, and checked it even when there were no new assignments to input. This was a habit from high school when I was responsible to calculate my grades. But in college it became my motivation. And my standard for success.

I needed grades to indicate if my time had been well-spent or not.


My friendships at school began opposite my expectations, in the same way academics did. The difference was that my initial expectation was that it would take weeks to develop any good friendships. The truth was by the end of orientation, my freshmen suitemates were my closest friends, as if I had known them for years.

As the semester progressed and I made more friends, I soon found that my insecurities regarding friends still remained. Though I now had the closest friends I ever had in my life, I was still questioning if people truly wanted to be with me, or if they were only my friends because they pitied me.


Many people I met at PHC had been involved in speech and debate and loved to bring their experience to the dining hall. This intrigued me at first. I loved listening to them, for though it was pointless, it could become very entertaining. A few weeks later it only annoyed me. I wasn’t comfortable engaging and giving my opinions.

I didn’t want to debate, I wanted to discuss.

This was found in the classroom more than in the dining hall. Rather than the goal being to prove you are right (which was what annoyed me), you would be able to give your perspective. Yes, debates did break out in class sometimes, but not as often as the dining hall. Still, anytime I spoke my heart raced and I knew that my words were not well expressed. I told myself that anything I said in class was worthless.

So I remained silent. I would let those smarter and more eloquent than me speak.


I assumed that I would easily maintain my faith while at PHC. How hard could it be, it’s a Christian school, right?

We have chapel five days a week. Chapel can be great at school. But it was easy for me to adopt a habitual spirituality that scheduled perfectly between my classes without taking the time to know God intimately. My Christianity became something intellectual. I would talk about God, but never really talked to God. But many times I was frustrated. I could not understand God. Then I doubted Him. He wasn’t working like He used to. Many of my friends would mention the things God had been teaching them. I didn’t see it. I didn’t feel lost, but I felt like I had lost God.

I wanted to give up trying to find Him. It was too hard.


In each of the four areas above, I wanted to form my life into what I thought it should be. Anytime I fell short I would despair. I kept telling myself that when I had my life put together I would be happy. Anytime I made progress, my failings in another area would become exposed. I was stuck. I was exhausted. I was chained. What would free me?

Some people at school feel trapped by the rules at PHC. That wasn’t my problem. 

I am naturally drawn to rules. If you don’t give me rules, I will make them for myself. But I am not the best at always following rules. Though I am excellent at mentally punishing myself after I don’t meet my own standards. I made my list of what I needed to do in order to have a successful life. I was tired of wasting my time.

What I needed was grace. This is the whole message of the Gospel. But I missed it.

I had come to realize that I did not have the ability in myself to work hard enough to become the person I thought I had to be. And I thought this meant my life was meaningless. That was a lie.

Grades, friends, and having remarkable ideas do not define my life. Grace does.

None of the four areas above are resolved, but here is how grace has set me free.

I can do school work because I love to learn, for I don’t have to earn a grade to validate my existence.

I can enjoy my friends, knowing that I don’t have to be the perfect friend. I will mess up, but because they are genuine friends, they will forgive me. I can trust them.

I don’t have to worry what people will think when I share my ideas. They may laugh. Some people will always laugh. Many will disagree with me. But I know who I am and what I believe. Engaging with people at PHC with different ideas has helped me sharpen my opinions. And there are also people there who can eloquently express what I have been longing to say. I learn from these people.

I have learned more of the true identity of Christianity is. It has no connection to the number of times you attend chapel or how many things in your life you can label “Christian.” I could not become a Christian by the things I do or don’t do. It is the work of grace in an individual’s life.

My time at PHC was consumed with a constant list of things I needed to do. At many points, I felt like I was drowning. During this time many deep struggles I had grown up with but never noticed emerged. Many of my problems at PHC came from within, for I am my worst adversary.

I eventually stopped trying to hide my problems at PHC and told people my struggles.

Many some people judged me, but I don’t care. So many of my peers reminded me that grades are not important. They showed that they are true friends. They validated my ideas and encouraged me to share my perspective. They didn’t judge me when I questioned my faith, but reminded me that God is constant. Yes, I will fail, but that is not the end.

At PHC, I encountered grace. This I will carry throughout my time here and beyond.

Crosspost: The Strongest Woman I Know

Crosspost: The Strongest Woman I Know

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kierstyn King’s blog Bridging the Gap It was originally published on May 7, 2013.

I had intended to spend the day painting my dragon (Archangel) for my Horde army that I need to pick up the rest of on Thursday. But while in the shower, thinking about the meaning of life (as you do, and then quickly do that thing we call “washing” 2 minutes before the water turns cold) I realized that a large reason that I’m not bat-shit crazy, and the reason I attribute to my marriage being awesome and not abusive, is because my grandmother on my dad’s side was my rock.

I struggle and have always struggled with feeling worthless, like I’m nothing more than a broom with a brain and octopus arms for doing my mother’s bidding (or now, cleaning my apartment like there’s no tomorrow). I wonder, sometimes, why I’m not with some asshole of a guy, someone who is manipulative and mean, I wonder why my story is different. Why am I with this guy who’s been nothing but a catalyst of/for freedom and acceptance of me in all my nuances and idiosyncrasies. Who loves me for my intelligence and heart (as well as my boobs)?

I think, it’s because of her. My parents did a lot of lip service to self-worth and not settling for people who don’t treat you right, but they proceeded to treat me horribly. My Gramme?

She is the strongest person I’ve ever known. She was the second-youngest in a huge family, and the “all bad” child in the eyes of her mother (even though, like me, she spent her life slaving away for her family), she was neglected and abused and the most loving, accepting person I’ve ever met. She was brave and unafraid of anything, she was my original escape plan. She was the one, who, by her unconditional love and acceptance instilled in me this sense of I-deserve-to-be-treated-well-by-my-friends (family I was kinda screwed with, but my circle, I deserved to create to feel safe in).

She was the type of person who wouldn’t sit quiet if her kids were wrong, if her grandkids were hurt she would fight for them. She was my defender. I knew that if things got bad enough, I could run to her and trust her to protect me (not that I would have, but she was that kind of safe place).

When she died I was devastated. I’ve grown up around death – my first funeral was at 6 months old. My great-grandparents have passed, my uncle, two siblings, friends…my Gramme is the only one that still affects me. I still cry and get choked up when I talk and think about her (so I usually try not too, because there’s a huge gaping hole where she should be). Sometimes, 5 years later, I still do a double-take on the street because I see her dopple-ganger. If I were spiritual, I’d take it as a sign that she’s looking at me (instead of just some random elderly lady with the same haircut).

When I think about how she’d feel about me, I feel so so secure in that she’d still love me – that I could still tell her anything and she’d keep it between us, that she’d be supportive, that she’d be proud, she’d tell me I’m brave, and she would understand.

My gramme is the reason that I am so strong. She’s where I got my stubbornness from, she’s where I got my I-will-protect-the-shit-out-of-the-people-I-love-screw-you-if-you-hurt-them impulse, she is why I value acceptance and completely unconditional love.

She is why I am so lucky. Because without her just loving me? I would have been so different. She taught me, without either of us realizing it, that I am worth loving because I am me – that people who don’t accept me for me are not worth my time. And that’s why my marriage looks the way it does, that’s why I’m lucky, that’s why I built a circle of friends who genuinely cared about me, a circle that my family couldn’t penetrate.

I am lucky because as a child, I had a tether – and when all hell broke loose, when the shit hit the fan, when the abuse left crushing and devastating imprints on my soul – I knew that someone loved me unconditionally and that was right.

That’s why my story is different. That’s why my marriage is actually healthy – the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had.