Stacey Stanhope planned on attending a four-year university after high school.
Then she heard about Gather4Him Bible College, a program that's gaining momentum and students in Pasco, and decided to enroll there instead.
"There's not a doubt in my mind that this was the right thing (for me)," said the 19-year-old Richland woman.
Stanhope is one of more than a dozen Mid-Columbia students who took classes through the college last year. Leaders hope to have 20 students this fall.
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The college expects to soon have accreditation and degree authorization from the state, and plans to offer an associate's degree in biblical studies starting with this fall's group.
The course offerings -- from a survey of biblical literature to introduction to pastoral counseling -- provide a foundation for students hoping to continue their education at Bible colleges such as Corban College in Oregon, said Bob Nash, Gather4Him president.
Classes are held at Sunset View Baptist Church in Pasco, although leaders are working on a grant for a new facility.
The college has been around for four years and has been growing steadily, Nash said.
Several students said it's an attractive option because tuition is comparatively low -- $6,500 a year -- and they can keep their expenses down by living at home.
"This is a really good opportunity to stay here, save up some money and work your way up academically -- get your (associate's degree) out of the way," said Paige Holden, 20, of Richland.
The program involves more than just taking classes. Students also do a practicum -- like an internship -- where they get hands-on ministry experience by working at a church or a place like The Emmaus Center in Richland, which offers Christian counseling.
Students also go to a national leadership conference and on a mission trip. Recently, a group from Gather4Him traveled to Kenya.
The Bible college is part of Gather4Him ministries, a Pasco-based nonprofit group that puts on the annual Gathering youth convention in the Tri-Cities and runs a record label.
Nash said Gather4Him aims to keep people in their 20s involved in Christian ministry. That's an age when many young people fall away from the church, he said.
Nash pointed to a 2006 study by the California-based Barna Group that said 61 percent of 20-somethings who were churchgoers as teens had stopped regularly going to church, reading the Bible and praying.
A faith-based Bible program like Gather4him "is a great way to ground yourself. Seek God, get good and grounded, then go off (to whatever is next in life)," Nash said.
Most of Gather4Him's students are planning careers in the ministry. Stanhope plans to work in biblical counseling. Holden hopes to teach at a Christian school.
Another benefit of the program is having classmates with similar goals, the students said.
"Everybody is there for the same purpose. Everybody's moving in the same life direction," Holden said. "It's a feeling of community."
To learn more about Gather4Him Bible College, go to www.gather4him.net.