A life-changing flight and a grateful heart inspires support for Hope Forward

Rajean “RJ” Wuerfel ’90 Wolters views Hope Forward as a “glimpse of heaven.” A harrowing experience in the sky inspires how and why she gives to the program.

Wolters, assistant to the dean of arts and humanities, typically gives some combination of 303 when she makes a financial gift to Hope Forward. It all goes back to Republic Flight 303 — the first cross-country commercial airline flight she had ever taken with her family for a trip to California.

While enroute, the engines silenced and she noticed black smoke coming from outside the plane.

“We were flying above Utah. There was smoke; silence; the plane began to point vertical to gain altitude; and then descend,” Wolters recalled. “The pilot announced that we were without engine power.”

“People were crying and saying goodbye to each other. People were praying. We all assumed the crash position.”

The plane eventually lost so much altitude that Wolters’ father could see cars on the highway, she said. Fortunately, the crash landing they were bracing for never happened. In the nick of time, the lights flashed on and the engines suddenly roared back to life, allowing the pilot to regain altitude and make an emergency landing in Las Vegas.

“We were spared that day,” Wolters said. “God has a plan.”

After that life-changing experience, Wolters and her family started noticing the number 303 everywhere. When Wolters was a freshman at Hope College, she lived in Gilmore Room 303. The last three digits of her mom’s phone extension at work were 303. Another family member lived at an address with the number 303. Often, when she looks at her watch, the exact time is 3:03. 

When she makes a financial contribution to Hope Forward in some combination of 303, Wolters said it’s a tangible reminder of how God saved her and her family’s lives. Her giving, however, is inspired by more than the fateful flight. Wolters also gives out of a grateful heart for the way her Hope College campus experience as a student and, later, as an employee changed her life.

“Hope does such a great job preparing you for life and providing you with a variety of experiences,” she said.

Wolters majored in education at Hope and participated in a variety of co-curricular activities: Sibylline (SIB) Sorority, a semester in Philadelphia and work as a student assistant in the provost’s office. Even as an alumna, she participated in a London teaching term along with other alumni and a group of Hope College students.

“Hope is one of those places that has definitely planted the seeds of transformation and continues to nourish and grow that transformation,” Wolters added.

With her education degree, Wolters taught elementary and middle school at Holland Public School for 15 years. Near the end of her teaching career, she contracted a virus that shut down her pancreas causing her to become a type 1 diabetic. After her diagnosis, she could no longer maintain her health while keeping up with teaching and caring for her family, especially when her husband, Tim, was moved to third shift. They have a son, Jarod, who graduated from Hope in 2019 and married alumna Kelly Arnold ’19 Wolters.

Desiring to stay connected with education in some way, Wolters applied for a job at Hope and was hired to work in the dean’s office.  

“It was more than a job,” she said. “It saved my life.”

She comes to work every day to support the mission of Hope College, which is focused on transforming students’ lives in the same way Hope had been instrumental in changing her life. 

Hope Forward is more than a program that filters through the financial weights of student debt,” Wolters explained. “Hope Forward is a way of living which is biblically based.”

As Christ has freely given His life for us, we should freely give to others, she added. Christ’s example is the basis for Hope Forward, which provides gifted tuition to students funded by generous donors. In return, Hope Forward students sign a covenant to give back to Hope at any amount of their choosing when they graduate so that others can have the same opportunity. 

To Wolters, Hope Forward gifted tuition means freedom for students to get a full liberal arts experience so they can be exposed to different learning experiences on and off campus.

Hope Forward means freedom to be immersed in different cultures,” she enthused. “Because students from all over the world become part of the cohort, Hope Forward also brings different cultures to campus. Hope Forward allows students to have a breadth and depth of experiences so they can go further. Why wouldn’t you want that for everyone?”

“The more we are able to break down barriers, the more we can bring the world to Hope and Hope to the world,” she said, referring to the diversity of students who come to Hope when the barrier of affording tuition is removed. “It’s a glimpse of heaven.”

Wolters often repeats her mantra of “God’s immeasurably more” from Ephesians 3:20 — “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” 

God has done immeasurably more than she could imagine in sparing her and her family’s lives on flight 303; in providing her a job at Hope College; and in using her on campus to help students have a transformational experience.

She also sees “God’s immeasurably more” at work through Hope Forward, where one day all students will be able to receive gifted tuition so they can fulfill their calling without crushing student debt and give back so others will always have the same opportunity.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for sharing, RJ – and always choosing to give because of what we all receive! You are a beacon of light for all of our Hope students!

  2. Thank you, RJ! Beautiful story of God’s provision. You are a light to all of Hope College and the community. Thank you for all that you do.

  3. What a wonderful story of God’s faithfulness and protection that keeps the hope moving forward!

  4. Thank you for sharing your positivity and strength ! ❤️ Hope is an amazing place and people like you are the reason .

  5. Rajean ‘303’ Wolters,
    Thank you for boldly proclaiming Christ. The examples of God’s faithfulness you share are so heartening; I hear and feel the Holy Spirit in your words. It is wonderful to watch you truly live your convictions.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *