Growing up as the child of missionary parents in Kenya, attending boarding school, and returning to the U.S. to attend high school, Austin Hakes was ready to find a place to call home.
He found it just down the road from his high school in west Michigan: Calvin University.
“A lot of kids felt like they wanted to go somewhere after high school, do something adventurous,” said Hakes. “I was the opposite. I wanted to find a place that I could say I was from.”
Calvin fit the bill in more ways than one for Hakes: “It was the tradition I was raised in, which is an excellent reason in itself, but I also wanted a school that felt academically rigorous.”
After a year of putting down deeper roots in west Michigan, Hakes joined the U.S. Army reserves, mostly for practical reasons, he explained.
“I was the son of missionary parents, and they weren’t able to help me much financial- ly, so I needed to figure out a way to pay for my education,” he said. “I also really wanted to marry my high school girlfriend, and I needed to become financially independent.” (It worked! They’re still together.)
Hakes said it was amazing the way his academic education and military education coincided. “I took my books to study on the weekends and would read when I had down time at the firing range. There is nothing like reading philosophy when you’re in the mud,” he said. “It makes you really question the wisdom of what you are reading.”
After graduation, he was called into active duty during the Iraq War. While stationed in Kuwait, Hakes applied to law school and was accepted at the University of Michigan.
Upon graduating cum laude, he felt as though he still owed a debt to the military.
GIVING BACK MORE
“I made it back from my deployment with no injuries, psychologically or otherwise, and for a lot of others this simply wasn’t true,” he said. “I felt like I needed to give back more.”
Hakes joined the Marines, following in the footsteps of his grandfather. “I knew I wanted to be a criminal trial litigator, and this offered some great experience along with the ability to pay the debt of service I still owed.”
Hakes served for four years in Hawaii as a judge advocate officer before returning to Grand Rapids, where he currently serves as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Justice Department.
“I do not think I could have had a better education for the way my life unfolded,” said Hakes. “Calvin prepared me practically to succeed in law school; I was taught to read and understand hard things.
“But that was the least important thing Calvin gave me,” he said. “Augustine
and Aquinas got it right when they said education is about nurturing appetites. My Calvin education strengthened my love for the things moth and rust can’t destroy. It helped me trust that a love of virtue is one of the best defenses against despair and one of the best allies when facing hardship.
“Calvin gave me a worldview that has been such an encouragement to me when I’ve had to do hard things,” he said.
As a criminal litigator, Hakes has seen a lot of sad stories. “Narcotics, firearms, child exploitation—these are hard things,” he said, “and you need some perspective on the world that helps you endure and not be overwhelmed.
“At Calvin I learned about total depravity, but I also learned about common grace,” he said. “I look at situations and figure that there’s got to be a way to find good in this.
A lot of people don’t work from the same perspective. Sometimes, I’m involved in some awful human drama, but I’m motivated by trying to make this world a better place.”