Another day, another set of classes to attend. Students walk briskly through the cold, clad in American Eagle jeans, fashionably oversized sweaters and the newest pair of Vans shoes. Slumping into the classroom chairs they wish were their beds, heads turn towards the student that has just entered the room.
One of these things is not like the others.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around in a Big Bird suit,” said junior Michelle Winegardner.
Being one of the minuscule numbers of students that are not in their late teens or twenties, 53-year-old Winegardner has an unavoidable spotlight on her.
Getting asked by her peers if she is the professor used to be a common occurrence. “It’s probably awkward for the professors sometimes,” Winegardner said.
But interacting with young people half her age is not overly foreign to her. Winegardner is reminded of her experience on the water with the sailors.
You probably didn’t know Winegardner was serving in the Marines and the Navy years before even dreaming of coming to Messiah. At the age many current students are busy taking tests and studying, Winegardner was attending what was known as “the scariest boot camp in the world, maybe not the world, but certainly the United States,” she said.
Starting off in the Marines it was quite the change for Winegardner. Although surrounded by family members that served, this was first-hand and completely different. November of 1984 would bring around a certain homesickness that was new to Winegardner. “My first Christmas away from home was in Paris island with drill instructors yelling at me,” she recalled.
But just like any college student making the most of a difficult class, Winegardner and her platoon did the same in the Navy. “It was funny, my platoon talked so much that they put us on platoon
silence,” she explained. What started out as fun and games, quickly became torture. Winegardner’s platoon was put on platoon silence for 10 weeks. “But don’t worry, we loved talking so much that we found ways to chat,” she said.
Much like the attention Winegardner often draws in classes at Messiah, her platoon and her were drawing by the wrapped up and rubber banded flag they were forced to carry to signify their silencing. “Even if you went to go get your hair cut, no one was going to talk to you,” Winegardner said.
From the marines, Winegardner joined the Navy in Iceland. Women were just beginning to be allowed to work on combat ships and so she found herself in the minority just as she is now at Messiah.
One of these things is not like the others.
Before becoming a Messiah student, Winegardner was already perfecting the art of the all-nighter. In contrast to those of students, which consist of binging Netflix, hers consisted of preparing an engine for inspection. “On my first day of work I didn’t get to stop working for three days,” Winegardner said. “I didn’t know you could stay awake that long…I thought, ‘what have I done?’”
Those experiences turned out to benefit her as she would use the skill of shapeshifting into an insomniac when she came to college and had piles of homework to do. “Those experiences served me well in every other aspect of my life because I always know, no matter what, I can always just stay awake, if I have to,” Winegardner said.
After attending 13 different schools as a kid when her dad was in the navy, Winegardner attended college three times to receive a bachelors and two master’s degrees. The first time was right out of high school. Winegardner mostly took general education classes before realizing that she wasn’t ready for that life.
She craved adventure.
“Even though with my whole family, that’s what you do, everyone goes to college, but…not for me,” Winegardner said with a chuckle.
At the time, she didn’t know that she would go back to college a few more times in her life.
Born in San Diego, California, Winegardner went on to explore the places like the Middle East, Egypt, Germany, England, Afghanistan, Italy and many more. Then she finally landed in Carlisle, Pa.
She and her husband John, who she met in the Navy, decided to move to his home state of Pennsylvania which happened to have a Navy Depot were Winegardner could receive orders. The plan was to retire here.
But, like much of Winegardner’s adventurous life, plans changed.
The new plan came in the form of the G.I. bill, which the military gives you to cover the cost of four years of college. The doors to Winegardner’s lifelong dream of filmmaking were suddenly flung wide open. “I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to retire,” Winegardner said. Once retiring from the military, she would go back to school.
Since the first time she got her hands on a camera at the age of 10, Winegardner couldn’t stop taking pictures. She also grew to love watching movies and began to look at things around her thinking, “that would make a great movie.” Even during the military years, she would find time to capture the world around her in black and white. “Instead of sleeping I would go to the photo lab and develop photos. I loved taking pictures,” Winegardner said.
Messiah’s film program was exactly what Winegardner needed and she was ready to pursue her dreams. “It’s like this dream world opened up,” she said.
Despite age differences, Winegardner has experienced a welcoming community among students and faculty. “Everybody is so happy to be here,” she said.
But what Winegardner doesn’t realize is that her happiness rubs off on others she comes in contact with.
“I always look forward to my meetings with Michelle because she has so much energy, it’s contagious,” Film Professor Krista Imbesi said. “I have no doubt that she will be successful in whatever aspect of the film industry she chooses to pursue.”
Co-Chair of the Communication Department Nance McCown sees Winegardner as an inspiration. “Her dedication and desire to follow her dream of pursuing a film major should remind traditional-aged students that you never stop learning and reaching for your goals,” she said.
Winegardner never let her age hinder her from any of the choices she made in her pursuits. “Going back to school to pursue a new career doesn’t have an expiration date,” Imbesi said. “You can decide to pursue something new at any phase of life, and as long as you understand the practical steps and work necessary to get where you want to be, you can take that leap with confidence.”
Every step Winegardner took seemed to her as perfectly arranged by God. Choosing to wait on her film school dream worked in her best interest as she got to see the world through her work in the military and navy. “We [Winegardner and her husband] got to live our lives and we didn’t have to wait until we were ancient,” she said. “There’s so much you miss if you don’t take the opportunity while you can.”
From the 13 different desks in 13 different schools to the engine room of a ship to the pyramids in Egypt and even to the Film studio under Hostetter Chapel, Winegardner has been living that adventure that she decided she wanted that day when she was just in her early 20s. “Every piece of everything I’ve done in my life has gotten me to here, from the first day I got my camera when I was 10, until now.”
Now when she walks into classrooms people don’t ask her if she’s the teacher, they just smile and say ‘Hey Michelle!’ Winegardner has become quite known around campus, but not just due to her age, like she may think. She has become known for her excitement about her major and her positivity amidst stress.
Winegardner recalls an encounter she had with someone who challenged her on why she doesn’t share her story with students. “They need to know what you’ve been through and done in life,” the man said.
Winegardner just laughed, “No they don’t,” she said. “Nobody cares about my story; they’re getting ready to live their stories.”
People have perceptions and ideas of who the 53-year-old sitting behind them in French or Intro to Film is. To some, she’s the teacher, to others a faculty member doing evaluations and to others just out of place. To many students, Winegardner’s story is still a mystery and will remain a mystery. But to her, that’s okay. She has been to more countries than she has fingers and toes, made friends across the globe and gained a husband and two step-children. Now it’s time for her to turn the camera around. She’s ready to start telling the stories of others.
“I’m finally getting to do what I’ve always wanted to do,” Winegardner said.