There are a couple of important things that almost didn't happen for Erica Peethumnongsin, a May graduate. One is that she almost didn't find out about an organization that's given her one of her dearest friends. The other is she almost didn't come to Baylor at all.
Peethumnongsin, a University Scholar from Houston, admits that as a high school senior, her heart was set on attending an Ivy League school. But, when it came decision time, she chose Baylor.
"The most I knew about Baylor was that they were offering me this very nice scholarship," says Peethumnongsin, who received the four-year Regents Scholarship, which covered tuition. She also merited the Robert C. Byrd and the Houston Endowment scholarships, both non-Baylor awards.
Although her decision to attend Baylor primarily was a financial one, the warmth of people on campus and the University's academic reputation also influenced her choice.
"Looking back, I realize that Baylor was a good decision, based on that gut feeling," she says. "I did feel very comfortable here."
As a freshman, Peethumnongsin remembers sorting through stacks of fliers in her mailbox when one caught her attention. That slip of paper was her introduction to Best Buddies, an organization that seeks to build relationships between individuals with mental retardation and other members of their community. Baylor's chapter was chartered in 1992.
It seemed a perfect fit for her. She grew up with an uncle with mental retardation, whom she saw often until her family moved. After that, she missed spending time with him.
"I thought, 'Well, I can't be with him ... but I'll be with someone like him who would want the friendship,'" she says.
The first year she volunteered, she was paired with a woman who moved before the semester ended. It wasn't until her sophomore year that she received another "buddy" -- Nickey, whom she's been with since.
"As much as she's one of my best friends, I'm one of her best friends," Peethumnongsin says. "It's nice to have that sort of continuity and such a dependable relationship."
Students who want to be involved in Best Buddies are interviewed and must commit to weekly phone visits with their buddies, as well as monthly personal visits, says Peethumnongsin, who directed Baylor's chapter during her senior year.
She and Nickey saw each other often, going to the park to feed ducks or to throw a football. Other times, she took Nickey bowling -- but only if Peethumnongsin was feeling lucky: Nickey bowls in a local league.
"Nickey likes to tell everyone how she whips me," she says.
This summer, Peethumnongsin moved to Houston to attend Baylor College of Medicine, where she also received a full tuition scholarship. Although she looks forward to fulfilling her dreams of becoming a physician, she was sad to leave Nickey.
"I think that for a short time, Nickey might miss me more, but in the long run I'll probably miss her more," she says. "It's hard for me to put into words everything that Nickey has given to me."