April 30, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

When you ask Tess Hovermale what she aspires to do after graduation, her answer ascribes a clear path.

“I want to do tornado chasing and baking.”

While the two interests seem quite different, they both have ties to her childhood.

A shaping experience

“On July 7, 2014, it was 10:30 at night and we heard a freight train,” said Hovermale. “My dad yelled ‘go downstairs, it’s a tornado.’”

Hovermale’s house was spared major damage, but a house down the road was not and what happened in the days and weeks ahead proved to be a shaping experience for her.

“One of the houses got damaged and the tree fell on the house with no insurance. I saw the Red Cross. I saw people volunteering, I saw my future high school was there, the football players were helping out,” said Hovermale.

This period of time spurred in Hovermale both a fascination with tornadoes and a desire to help those affected by them.

A servant's heart

And for Hovermale helping others is at the center of her desire to bake. She observed her mom and grandma baking during her childhood. Hovermale’s baked a bit now too herself and wants to use this gift to bless others.

“I want to bake cakes and cupcakes for people who want to get married and who are graduating” said Hovermale. And she wants to do it for free. “I want to help them save money for their wedding ceremony.”

Hovermale’s heart to serve others is clear and over the past four years she’s moved closer to realizing her dream of chasing tornados and baking cakes through being involved in Calvin University’s life and career studies program, which serves students with intellectual disability.

Gaining experience

They teach us a lot of independent stuff and about relationships,” said Hovermale.

At Calvin, Hovermale even had the opportunity this past spring break through a collaboration between Calvin’s service-learning center and World Renew to travel with fellow Calvin students and staff to Mayfield, Kentucky to help clean up after a tornado ravished the small town.

“It makes me happy and excited [to help] and sad at the same point. Half of Mayfield is completely gone, and a lot of people passed away from tornados,” said Hovermale.

Discovering community

While she’s being equipped to pursue her passions, Hovermale also says she’s discovering community.


“This is a welcoming place, it’s like a family,” said Hovermale. “All the events are so much fun.”

Her favorite? “The hockey team, we like to watch all the rivalries, we yell our friends’ names. I want other people with special needs to come over and watch hockey, football, soccer, all the different kinds of sports.”

“Every year we learn a little bit more about what inclusive living looks like and what’s needed every year and we just see it grow,” said Kate Strater, the administrator of the life and career studies program at Calvin. “And we see our life and career studies students become more engrained in the community.”

Strater says students in the life and career studies program have taken on several leadership opportunities, including on Student Senate, dorm leadership, and in campus ministry. “It’s been amazing to watch those things that are naturally happening," said Strater.

Ready for what's next

On Saturday, Hovermale and five of her peers in the life and career studies program will participate with more than 750 of their peers in the university’s commencement ceremony. Hovermale will be earning a four-year certificate in comprehensive postsecondary education: health, wellness, and recreation.

“I’m very excited for graduation!” said Hovermale.

And while she hasn’t graduated just yet, she had an interview this week with the Prince Conference Center at Calvin University where she hopes to do some catering and baking for them this summer.

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