Student Story: Taking Care of the Pennies

Sent Out with Grace and Truth

On the day of their graduation, every OKWU student receives the same item: one penny. The one-cent piece is a play on words, a reminder that the goal of this university is to equip students to Be One Sent for Christ into a world that desperately needs His truth. But while the imagery at the end of the journey is the same, the paths to getting there vary wildly.

Take, for example, two students, Kazden Ammons (’22) and Mackenzie Smith (’22). They both walked across the graduation stage this May, and they form a picture of the different roads that students take to that pivotal moment. They’ve overcome challenges as richly varied as they are: relationship struggles, pride, life transitions, and disease. Together, they represent the rich tapestry of experience that makes up the OKWU community, and they left campus ready to be sent out into the world with Grace and Truth.

Which is More Important?

OKWU Graduate Kaz AmmonsFor Kaz Ammons, an accounting graduate, the biggest draw towards moving to Bartlesville and attending OKWU was playing on the basketball team, and his experience with his coaches and teammates was pivotal to his overall journey as a person.

“It’s been a huge part of my life,” he said. “I’d say that three out of the four years I’ve been here, my closest friends have come from the basketball team.”

Perhaps more than anything, Ammons’ time on the basketball team served as a way to learn lessons about life—tough lessons, often, that wouldn’t have come any other way. His path to being a productive starter on the team was anything but smooth. He was recruited with the knowledge that he’d begin at the junior varsity level, but even when he first proved himself enough to suit up for varsity games, he didn’t find the playing time he hoped for.

“This might be a general answer in athletics, but the greatest challenge with everything has just been pride,” Ammons admitted. He points to one particular moment to illustrate the point: the conference championship game of his sophomore season.

“I got to play almost every game [that year]. The one game that whole entire year I didn’t get to play was the conference championship in Wichita, which is my hometown,” he recalled. “A bunch of my family and a bunch of my friends came to watch, and that was the one game the entire year that I didn’t get to play.”

It was a tough blow to take, but—looking back now—Ammons is grateful for it. “I remember sitting there on the bench and after the game thinking, ‘What? Is this about me or is this about glorifying God?’ I think that just really exposed my pride,” he said.

It’s a lesson that applies to more than just basketball. Ammons leaves OKWU in a significantly different stage of life than when he entered it—married to Anna, his high school sweetheart, and preparing to join a growing family business in Colorado. Through it all, he’ll take a consistent lesson with him: it’s not about you, and it’s not about being perfect.

“I remember meeting with Ben Rotz, Associate VP for Student Development, and him asking me a question: Which is more important for you – to know that you love God or to know that He loves you?” he said. “God doesn’t love you because you love Him. He loves you. [It was a lesson] to take it off a mindset of it being a workspace.”

That conversation might as well have been a mission statement for his time at OKWU.

That’s My Story

OKWU Graduate Kenzie SmithAlthough she, too, came to Oklahoma Wesleyan to play basketball, it’s fair to say that Mackenzie Smith’s career as a student and player took a decidedly different turn. A seemingly simple action like the one she took in May—walking across the stage to receive a degree in Business Management and Leadership—was no mean feat. If you’d asked her doctors a year before, they probably would have told you not to count on it happening.

In October of 2020, after transferring to OKWU to take a spot on the basketball team, Smith noticed a lump on her underarm. At first, she didn’t think much of it, but other symptoms soon followed. A visit to a local urgent care resulted in misdiagnosis and an antibiotic treatment, which solved nothing. When she went back home after the fall 2020 semester, she underwent a biopsy on the tissue and was diagnosed with sarcoma—a frightening thing to hear.

“The survival rate for that cancer is about fifteen to twenty percent after five years,” Smith said. “It’s just really not what you want to hear at twenty years old.”

Eventually, the diagnosis was corrected, and it was revealed that Smith was suffering from melanoma, a much more treatable—and survivable—disease. Still, things were harrowing for a while, and when Smith looked back at her journey in May, the week before graduation, the differences from then to now were stark.

“A year ago today, I couldn’t walk. My parents had to help me off the couch. I had a tumor in my spine, and it was pressing on my spinal cord and giving me writhing pain. Things were not looking good. None of the medicine that I was on was working at that point,” she remembered. “To go from that, and then a year later I’m exercising at the gym, I’m running, and I’m graduating—I’ll actually be able to walk across the stage. That’s such an amazing testimony.”

Mackenzie Smith celebrating graduation in Lewis Alumni ParThe turnaround came through a few newer treatments that Smith’s doctors prescribed, such as targeted therapy. Two months later, her tumors had shrunk by seventy-five percent. Some disappeared completely.

But even more than the therapy, Smith credits prayer and divine healing. “I had a lot of people praying for me, and I definitely think that was a miracle,” she said. “God has been really amazing through all of this and healed me. That’s my story.”

Even throughout the darkest parts of the cancer, Smith’s goal was always to graduate—on time and in person. She credits her professors for helping her get there by allowing her increased flexibility, and she points to the students and friends who supported her throughout the journey.

After graduation, Smith returned to Texas to become certified as a teacher, expecting to take her experience of resilience and hope to the middle school classroom. Teaching, coaching, an eventual master’s degree—the future is bright, and she’s excited for what comes next.

It’s like that saying—take care of the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves. Gather enough one-cent pieces—or One Sent pieces—to send out into the world, and the world just might be changed for Christ. Students like Kaz and Mackenzie are working to bring that dream to reality.

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