I have a permanent front row seat to two of the most critical and misunderstood transitions in the life of a young adult college student: the first year after college and the year they come to college. I cannot overstate the importance of those transitions and how I wish parents, clergy, mentors and other influential adults would take more care to understand and invest in these young adults during this time.
Working in student ministry for two decades has taught me that not many people are thinking through the impact these transitions have on a young person. Yet, I have come to view them as central to my work in student ministry. I cannot count how often these two times of their life come up as central to our counseling/mentoring sessions.
I have written recently on the first-year-out of college transition and since we are in the throes of welcoming back our students to the new school year, I thought it good timing to address the group of students that are making their way to our halls of learning for the first time. I love getting to meet new students this time of year. They bring so much energy and excitement with them to campus and they remind us all what it was like to be young and ready for the next adventure (with a little fear and homesickness rolled in). Whenever I get the chance, I like to ask these freshmen:
"Why are you here?"
I mean this question both practically and existentially. Each of them has a story about how they ended up at our college. Many come with question marks surrounding their future, but there is always something that led them to the place and choices where they have arrived. But then I like to dig a little deeper: "But why do you think you are here? What is this all for? What are the goals and outcomes?" or if I’m really feeling like wrecking their lives that day: "What is your purpose? What are you here to contribute to the grand story? What do you bring for the flourishing of your community and fields of study?"
But before the tears of anxiety well up in their eyes I say: "Look! A deer!" and everything is copacetic again.
I jest about my approach but I am serious about finding ways to have these conversations with college students. You see, many of them don’t know that their decision to go to college is the first step of autonomous adult behavior putting them on a path towards … something. It’s a joy and a privilege to remind them that their twelve years of obligatory education is finished. Upon successfully receiving their high school diploma, our government says: "Thank you for finishing your education! Now please go join the workforce and be a productive member of society." These students who have been in an educational holding pattern their whole lives have not often thought about the fact that all higher education is voluntary. One they leave high school, we relinquish them to society and ask them: what will you do? For my students, they chose four (or so) years of undergrad studies.
Many of them just laugh when I talk about this choice being voluntary.
"You say, voluntary and I say, have you met my parents?"
I know that my own decision to go to college was not laden with alternatives. I don’t know when or how the expectation began but I grew up (like many of students) just knowing I would attend college and get some kind of degree. The question was not whether I would go to college but which college. This passive transition into the next phase of life was why I was also not asking myself many questions about the bigger picture. Like many of my students, I knew that a college education was an entry level requirement to the kinds of careers I was supposed to have access to and was expected to achieve … somewhere.
Students coming into college are hard-wired with these expectations. They are coming to continue their education, earn a degree, and get a job. Every class selection, internship, major of study, or part-time job remains under the scrutiny of these objectives. My students reach an anxiety fever pitch over every minutia grade and choice because lurking deep down is this nebulous but fierce expectation to earn the "right"degree and secure the "right" job in the "right" industry.They know that there are right and wrong answers to these choices and that they will have to account for each one around the table at Thanksgiving, but the rightness and wrongness are not always clear as they also manage being a college student, learning who they are, navigate relationships, and become adults. All they know is that if they switch to one of the "wrong"majors or decide to do a service or mission project over the summer instead of that internship then they can gauge the public disapproval from the home front in the form of an uncomfortable conversation at Christmas. These students do not object to the parental guidance offered them but they live in an ebbing state of worry over whether they are decoding the "right" map key from parents, professors, and God.
But I ask the questions not to prompt a guarded explanation into their five year plan. I ask because my college students seem to be fighting an internal battle of priorities that should be able to coexist together. Here at college, many of my students begin to wake up to the larger idea of vocation. They sense that there might be more to life than just hoarding creature comforts and living in gated communities. There might be more than just achievement and accolades. As a minister, we intentionally encourage and facilitate these conversations and ideas. We want our students to not just think about what they want to study but also what kind of person they hope to be. Our school motto comes from the words of Jesus in Matthew: Not to be served but to serve. We don’t just want students who gain all this knowledge and skill just to be mediocre people bent on consumption and closely guarded comforts and luxuries. We want them to be people who use their education and skills to make a difference in their communities. We want them to be bearers of shalom and light to places dark and broken. We want them to be the kind of workers who work hard and dedicate themselves to the common good so that loving their neighbor is paramount to their success.
There are thousands of schools in the world where someone can earn a degree. Many of us are bright and hard-working enough to get jobs even without an advanced education. But not everyone who is educated and hard-working is good. A degree does not ensure compassion, innovation, or servant-leadership. So how will our students become these people?
It starts at the beginning. I want them to think about the parts of college that will not just educate them in academics but will shape their character. What people, places, opportunities, communities, or rule of life will they submit themselves to in order to have spiritually transformative experiences that will orient them towards love of God and neighbor? I tell them, if they don’t show up for class, there will be consequences. If they don’t show up for work, there will be consequences. But no one in all four years is going to come behind them and ensure that they are prioritizing heart formation. It is up to them. What course of action will they take to ensure this journey?
The biggest hurdle for many is that while we are encouraging them to engage all three of our pillars (the head, heart, and hands) equally while they are here, this is not the message they have received from parents and their culture. Our students feel torn and many of them put spiritual or character development WAY on the back burner because "it’s not what I am here for."
So why are you here? The answer to that question will orient you towards the priorities that you will devote yourself to over the next four years. The good news is, that you can pursue academics, work, and heart formation with excellence and equity. They are not competing against each other. The college experience (especially a residential, liberal arts college like ours - but that’s for another blog) is designed to provide all these possibilities intertwined together.
So, tell me, freshmen - Why are you here? Who do you want to be?