Looking forward and looking up

How Daniela Puente '21 learned to trust God with her future

by Rebekah Sterling '18

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Which college to attend? Which major to choose? Which career to pursue? These decisions are daunting, and many high school graduates feel the need to have the future mapped out for fear of making a mistake or wasting an opportunity. Daniela Puente ’21 felt this pressure. A stellar pupil her entire life, Daniela wanted to have a clear view of the finish line. What she found at HPU was not the answer to her calling, but the community to help her discover it. 

Daniela’s connection to Howard Payne University began with her family. Her parents, who are both college professors, made education a priority in the Puente household and her older sister, Beca, graduated from HPU in 2017. Even so, Daniela had reservations about attending the same school as her sister. 

“Beca is a very intelligent individual, so there was going to be a high standard for me and that was a little bit intimidating,” she admitted. 

Despite her hesitancy, Daniela was ultimately drawn to HPU by her sister’s encouragement as well as the opportunity to study two very different subjects: public policy and biology. She participated in the Guy D. Newman Honors Academy program with an ultimate goal of attending medical school after graduation. 

Daniela’s two majors, though certainly not incompatible, required a unique and rigorous combination of courses. Fortunately, Daniela found herself surrounded by people who supported her career aspirations even as they evolved and changed throughout her undergraduate experience. 

“At the end of my sophomore year I added an international business minor,” Daniela shared. “That was the point where I changed career directions and where I wanted to go after graduation. I don’t think I would have been able to do that anywhere that wasn’t Howard Payne.” 

Dr. Kristen Hutchins, professor of biology and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, was a source of wisdom and encouragement to Daniela as she reassessed her future. 

“She helped me with my academic plan, adjusting my coursework after traveling abroad and assessing different needs for my career path,” Daniela explained. “The very first master’s program I applied to was because of her. She was so patient with me and she’s done a great job with the department as a whole – reaching out to us and making sure we felt like a community.” 

Letting go of the plans she had made for herself was a challenge. Daniela had to learn how to thrive in seasons of uncertainty. 

“When I realized medical school probably wasn’t going to happen after graduation and I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do anymore, I kind of panicked,” she recalled. “It was difficult to take that risk because that meant leaving the clear-cut path for medical school. I had to trust myself to make decisions for my future and trust that the Lord has a plan for me. And I needed to do what I was passionate about – not just what I thought would make me a lot of money or would make my parents happy with me.” 

Daniela was used to approaching her studies as a series of boxes to check to get a good grade. However, her professors at HPU challenged that mentality. It wasn’t unusual for Daniela’s Honors Academy classes to forgo the traditional lecture format for other styles of teaching. Daniela recalled the impact that classes with Dr. David Claborn, professor of government, made on her. 

“He challenged me not to just go for the A,” she shared. “He wants his students to apply the concepts that he’s teaching. He would put an emphasis on simulations because he wanted us to challenge ourselves – not just take a test, get an A and leave.” 

Daniela’s framework for learning continued to expand as she spent a semester abroad in London. 

“Our classes were rarely in a classroom,” she said. “I got the opportunity to learn about things that I normally wouldn’t have been exposed to within my majors, including British Literature and The History of Rock and Roll. My parents are both immigrants from Mexico, so those were very helpful for my social studies.” 

With her parents and younger brother living in East Texas, Daniela was used to six-hour road trips to and from Howard Payne throughout each semester. This made visiting another country in less time than that a new and exciting experience. 

“My roommate and I traveled our way through France, Italy, Spain and Ireland,” Daniela shared. “It was crazy to see all those places in such a short span of time and to see the way the world works outside of the United States.” 

Back on campus, Daniela found that getting involved in extracurricular activities became another enriching part of her Howard Payne experience. 

“I was a part of Student Activities Council all four years, which plans events like Pancake Supper, Christmas on the Plaza and HPU Fest,” she said. “I also pledged Delta Chi Rho my freshman year and was inducted into both Gamma Beta Phi and Beta Beta Beta, the biology honors society. I was also involved in the Student Government Association my freshman and sophomore years. Being involved made it easier to be my own person and find my people.” 

These people walked with Daniela when she began to feel uncertain about the faith she had known her entire life. 

“My parents are both college professors, but my dad has also been a preacher my whole life,” Daniela shared. “I was a classic preacher’s kid – at church whenever it was open. Going six hours away for college meant that no one was making me be a Christian or attend church. In my first couple years of college, I let a lot of personal hurts move me away from my faith and what I knew to be the truth. I really had to find my own faith and learn why I was claiming to be a Christian and what that meant for my life.” 

Daniela’s suitemates, Kylie Johnson ’21 and Cynthia Montalvo, were patient and supportive of Daniela during that season. 

“Kylie’s been such a wonderful example for me,” Daniela said. “She stuck it out and always had grace for me. Then one of my best friends from home, Cynthia, decided to come to Howard Payne and I had both of them to encourage me and accept me when I began to rediscover my faith.” 

The incorporation of faith in the classroom also became vital for Daniela, as she sought to grow academically and spiritually. 

“Being at an institution that always values faith in the classroom has been invaluable to my spiritual journey,” she remarked. “I don’t think I would be where I am today without those lessons.” 

Taking a course on American Political Culture during an election year and a global pandemic had the potential to be fraught with controversy and negativity. Instead, Daniela was grateful that faith was never excluded from those conversations. 

“The discussions reminded me that I need to be prepared to talk to people with different views and communicate with them in a way that doesn’t alienate them,” she said. “I also learned why I should care about different issues and how to have discussions about them, while holding true to my values.” 

The global pandemic hit the second semester of Daniela’s junior year, causing HPU to transition to online classes and once again clouding Daniela’s vision of the future. 

“It was a scary thing to go through,” she admitted. “A lot of junior and senior year is volunteering and taking internships, and that disappeared. I had been working as a student worker, so when classes went online I was unable to work, and my parents thought they wouldn’t be able to work. That caused a lot of uncertainty in the middle of one of my most demanding semesters.” 

Despite the hardship of 2020, the pandemic underlined the importance of the topic of Daniela’s senior thesis and shed new light on the significance of her future education and career in public health. 

“My academy thesis focused on disparities in health care among racial and ethnic minorities,” she shared. “I think the pandemic just strengthened my desire to work in public health.” 

With this in mind, Daniela applied to several master’s programs in public health, ultimately accepting an offer of admission from Syracuse University – where her sister will also be attending. 

“To have my sister by my side as I earn this master’s degree is such a blessing,” Daniela shared. “I have a supporter and best friend right by my side going through a similar experience and that makes the intimidating part of it easier to navigate.” 

Following grad school, Daniela hopes to find a job in Washington D.C., utilizing her background in public policy and healthcare to help draft new legislation. 

Daniela reflected on how HPU has prepared her for her next steps. 

“Allowing me to study my two majors was huge for me,” she said. “I was able to get a biology degree, which helped me become an analytical thinker, have a process behind my research and know the science behind things, while the Honors Academy prepared me in ethics and leadership and helped me recognize the importance of those things.” 

Photo #1: Daniela is grateful for the ways HPU has strengthened her faith and prepared her to pursue her calling. 

Photo #2: Daniela Puente ’21 (far right) says involvement in many areas of campus life enriched her college experience. Pictured with Daniela at the Pancake Supper in fall 2020 are, from left, Chiana Potts, Cynthia Montalvo and Mya Ross.

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