Graduate Malia Runge: Second-gen Lumberjack found strength, purpose during her time at NAU

Malia Runge

Malia Runge has one B on her otherwise straight-A transcript.

It’s the grade she is proudest of during her time in college. To Runge, who graduates this weekend with a degree in criminology and criminal justice, that B represents the resilience and fortitude she found in herself when faced with an unexpected challenge halfway around the world.

While doing a semester abroad in Australia, Runge woke up to an alarm, but not the alarm she expected. Her residence hall was on fire. It was a terrifying experience, she said.

“I woke up to alarms, screaming, smoke and flames,” she said. “When I opened my door, the hallway was filled with smoke. I didn’t think to bring anything with me because I was in shock and in survival mode.”

She struggled to get out of the building, maneuvering around piled-up mattresses and other furniture that had been discarded after a flood and a cyclone hit the area. She got out and called a friend who lived on the other side of the building. As she walked to meet her friend, she turned around to look at the residence hall.

“I saw that my home was covered in flames,” she recalled. “After I found my friend, my second thought was, ‘I just lost everything I brought over here and I am completely alone.’”

She struggled after the fire, feeling lost and displaced for weeks afterward. Life on the unfamiliar campus continued to move forward; Runge did homework, took exams and turned in papers even as she strove to find something familiar to hold onto or ways to replace what she’d lost, ranging from clothes and books to important papers like her passport and visa. Slowly, however, she found, if not her footing, then others in the same struggle.

She didn’t go home, as some students did, despite her support system being 8,000 miles away. She didn’t stop going to class, even as she struggled. She got a new passport and new clothes, though she packed them into a bag every night just in case she had to flee again. So that B on her transcript? Runge earned it. To her, it’s a mark of the adversity she overcame.

“The craziest thing was, I wasn’t actually alone,” she said. “Over 200 kids also lost their homes and at least a dozen of those kids were also foreign exchange students. I learned that when people experience a traumatic event together, it brings them closer. I became much closer to the other study abroad students than I ever believed would happen.”

Those aren’t the only relationships that defined Runge’s time at NAU. She said the people she’s met here—faculty members, other student workers at Campus Recreation, roommates and classmates—were the best part of her collegiate experience. She signed up for several courses just because she knew the professors teaching them would be interesting and would challenge her ideas.

A Flagstaff native, she began building those Lumberjack relationships long before enrolling in school. She’s a second-generation Lumberjack; her father, Peter Runge, is head of Special Collections and Archives at Cline Library and her mother, Vanessa Bowden-Runge, is a two-time NAU grad who earned her degrees as Runge was growing up.

“I watched my mom work and go to school all through my childhood,” Runge said. “She would study late into the night and on weekends regale us with stories of everything she was learning. Watching her complete her degrees made me realize how important education is and what an amazing university NAU is to be so supportive of her educational goals.”

Her parents are glad to see NAU be so supportive to the next generation now.

“Over the past three and a half years, as I watched Malia attend NAU, I was filled with a deep sense of pride with her accomplishments and growth as a human being,” Bowden-Runge said. “It is with a deep sense of anticipation and excitement that I look forward to her attaining her professional goals and personal dreams. NAU prepared me for a career as a speech-language pathologist, and I know that NAU has prepared Malia for her future.”

Her father agreed, reflecting on his appreciation of NAU’s history and the university’s deep roots in student-focused education.

“I knew Malia would receive an excellent education at NAU while being exposed to a wide range of complementary experiences such as studying abroad, student organizations and cultural activities,” Peter Runge said. “Naturally, Vanessa and I are so incredibly proud of Malia’s achievements and success, but we also feel privileged that we had courtside seats to watch her grow as a young adult and become a self-reflective citizen of the world.”

A Gold Axe recipient, Runge listed Upward Bound math and science director Mark DeSpain as having a significant influence on her education. Which he admittedly did, just not the way you might think. They met 12 years ago when a little girl who was excited about education walked into his fourth-grade classroom.

They met again years later when DeSpain walked into the Campus Recreation Center, where Runge worked. They caught up with each other and this time stayed in touch, with Runge occasionally seeking out advice from DeSpain, though he was never a teacher or official adviser or mentor. He was thrilled when she told him she was listing him as her mentor.

“I tried to give her a strong foundation that her education would be able to thrive on: Believe in yourself and others. Speak up when you need to and listen the rest of the time. Life is meant to be explored and lived,” DeSpain said. “I don’t know how well I instilled these values in Malia, but my reason for keeping in contact throughout the years was to bear witness to Malia’s growth, not just as a student, but as a wonderful, kind, strong, resilient human being who represents the best in all of us.”

From start to finish, NAU was a life- and perspective-changing experience for Runge, whose next step is with the U.S. Coast Guard; she’s applying for Officer Candidate School and plans to spend the next few years in uniform. From there, she hopes to work in the FBI’s Violence Against Children International Task Force, which works to prevent child sex trafficking.

“One of the most unexpected lessons I learned was just how quickly life can change from one moment to the next,” Runge said. “The night of the fire, I went to bed unconsciously confident that tomorrow would be the same as today and I would have the same community, privileges, material objects and opportunities as the day that just concluded. Within moments, my life changed and everything that was elemental was gone. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I understood how a single event can leave you vulnerable, alone and displaced.

“Thankfully, that situation was temporary for me, but I know for others, it is not temporary. No matter how confident and sure we are of our lives, we’re all vulnerable and susceptible to the whims of life.”

Northern Arizona University LogoHeidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 5236-8737 | heidi.toth@nau.edu