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Navigating the College Transition
All students must ask themselves four crucial questions. If they don't, they run the risk of permitting others to shape their lives and answer the questions for them.

A few months ago I was working out at the local fitness center. It was early in the morning and only one other person was there. The radio station we were listening to announced that someone had recently won the big Powerball lottery worth $340 million U.S. The disc jockey commented that the son of the man who won the money dropped out of college the very next day. The other person in the gym with me remarked, "If I won $340 million I wouldn't go to school either."

We should be concerned with the contemporary landscape of higher education because of its cultural influence on society.

Would you?

There is a popular poster on display in many residence halls across the country. The image is an enormous mansion with a five-car garage, sitting on top of a hill, overlooking a body of water with no neighbours in sight. The top of the poster reads: "Justification for higher education."

Now, I'm not sure what I'd do with $340 million (give it to the poor, I suppose); and, let's be honest, we all have a soft spot for waterfront property. If nothing else, these two stories serve as signposts pointing us to 21st-century cultural attitudes about education in general and higher education in particular. Why do people spend thousands of dollars to attend college? What is higher education for? That's simple: to make lots of money, and to become a better "human resource." What else?

Educator Steven Garber offers this critique on much of today's higher education and contrasts it with an older understanding in his The Fabric of Faithfulness (InterVarsity Press, 1996):

The understanding of education as concerned with the formation of 'truth and virtue' still sells sweatshirts with Latin mottoes but is a worldview away from the actual commitment of the university. The shrivelled visions of universities under the impact of modernity—particularly the effects of bureaucracy and technology—seem more concerned to produce people who are technically competent but who have little interest in the whys and wherefores of their competencies.

Welcome to the world of the university.

There is much cause for alarm in this introduction. We should be concerned with the contemporary landscape of higher education because of its cultural influence on society. "As the university goes, so goes the culture" may not be entirely true. There are many factors that influence society, but there is some truth to this statement. Institutions of higher learning affect culture. If you are looking for a strategic mission field, colleges and universities are a good place to start.

But there is another reason to be concerned. The world of the university has not been an accommodating place for young Christians to nurture faith. According to Barna Research, less than one third of all teenagers are likely to attend a Christian church once they are living independently of their parents. Many students are not ready for the intellectual and personal challenges to the Christian faith they will experience in college. Garber again:

For those whose pathway leads them into the world of the university, decisions are made during that time that are determinative for the rest of life. In the modern world, the years between eighteen and twenty-five are a time for the settling of one's convictions about meaning and morality: Why do I get up in the morning? What do I do after I get up in the morning? One then settles into life with those convictions as the shaping presuppositions and principles of one's entire life.

Garber is correct. The college years are developmentally critical for a healthy and successful adulthood. Because this is an important time in a young person's life and because students are largely unprepared for the increasing tide of pressures they will face, the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding has recently hired me to the direct their College Transition Initiative to help teenagers and parents ease the transition to "the world of the university."

The transition from high school to college is a difficult one. Yet it is a transition often overlooked. College-bound high school students are often told that their time in college will be the "best four years of their lives," but the reality can be quite different. First, when students are not transitioning well they often think that it is their own fault or that something is wrong with them: I thought this was supposed to be the best time of my life? Second, the statement is almost arcane. Very few students graduate in four years.

While it is admittedly impossible to prepare students completely for the college transition, there are steps that can be taken to help students transition more smoothly.

Asking good questions

What follows is written primarily for students in college or going to college. Secondarily, it is for anyone concerned for Christian students transitioning successfully from high school to college or for those whose vocation it is to help students navigate faithfully through the university years.

Learning to continually ask good questions is vital to discipleship …

Many efforts addressing transitional issues from a Christian perspective often limit their focus to helping Christian students "survive" on a secular campus. While students on secular campuses may have different types of struggles, I do not think they are more at risk. Based on my research and on my experience in campus ministry I have concluded that all students, regardless of their college destination, must ask themselves (or be asked) four crucial questions:

1. Why am I going to college?
2. Who am I?
3. What do I believe? and
4. With whom will I surround myself?

If students do not begin to wrestle with these questions by taking a proactive approach before entering college, students run the risk of having the questions answered for them by others.

It's important to note that the main objective for preparing Christian students for college is not simply so they exit college with faith intact (this is the survival approach), but, instead, to guide students to make the most of the college years in order to grow in faith and to be ready to take up their posts in God's kingdom after college. Learning to continually ask good questions is vital to discipleship, and the following four questions should be asked before entering college and regularly while in college.

Why am I going to college?

Asking and answering the question, "Why are you going to college?" is a key question that can easily be overlooked. For many students going to college is often the assumed next step after high school and its justification is thought to be self-evident. By not asking the why questions, however, we could run the risk of allowing a story other than the Bible to shape our life. Let me explain.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote, "I can only answer the question: What am I to do? if I answer the prior question: Of what story do I find myself a part?" MacIntyre is suggesting that all people live their lives based on a grand, overarching story that gives meaning and shape to life. When you go to college you will notice, very early on, that not everyone lives life based on the biblical story. This probably isn't a surprise to you, but you need to know the difference it makes when it comes to education. We can't let other stories tell us what education is for.

In the introduction of this essay, I suggested two examples that indicate the "world's story" for education. It goes something like this: Life is about me. A "successful" life involves making a lot of money. In order to make a lot of money, I need to go to college and get a degree, which will allow me to get a high-paying job. This story is often referred to as "The American Dream." People can live by this story without even knowing it or being able to articulate it. It is the approved life story for the majority of society. Education—a smaller part of the story within that bigger story—is seen as ticket to moving up the social ladder.

Now, please don't misunderstand me. While I am admittedly putting a negative spin on the American Dream story, I am not saying that college isn't an important stop on the road to a successful adulthood. College can be an important step to getting a job and making a living, but I am suggesting that for Christians it can't be the primary reason for going college. If it is, Christians are allowing another story to shape their lives.

It is important for Christians to think about the biblical story and the proper place of education and learning within that story. The Bible presents to us a true story of a Creator God who made us in His image and who placed us in this good earth to live and move and have our being in Him. God created us with minds to think, and skills to serve Him. Higher education, for Christians, is about developing our God-given minds, and deepening our wisdom about the world in order to serve God more fully. All are to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul, strength and with all of our minds, and to love our neighbours as ourselves (see Luke 10:27). In the biblical story, college is the place in which we develop a Christian mind and skills in order to worship God and love others more completely and faithfully. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. puts it well in his Engaging God's World (Eerdmans, 2002), "One way to love God is to know and love God's work. Learning is therefore a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with."

What is important at this point is not necessarily to have a final answer to the question "Why am I going to college?" but rather, my hope is that you continually ask this question during your time in college and challenge yourself to honour God by living your answers.

Who am I?

This is what happened to me the summer before my freshman year of college: I took a look in the mirror. No really, I did. I literally looked at myself for several minutes. I was 18, an honour student, had a basketball scholarship, a beautiful girlfriend, and was either going to be an award-winning journalist, or a successful lawyer. Things were looking good. But then I made the most important mistake of my life: I stared at myself in the mirror and mouthed the words: Who are you?

I noticed that I was wearing different masks for different people.

I say it was a "mistake" because answering the question was not easy. I could never look at myself in the same way again. And, quite frankly, I didn't like my answer. In fact, what I realized was that I really didn't know who I was. I noticed that I was wearing different masks for different people. I was a different person to my parents, to my girlfriend, to my coach, to my teachers. It was an important "mistake" because it sent me on a journey to discover my true identity. It forced me to ask difficult questions of myself before it was too late—before other people began to answer them for me.

Transitioning from high school to college creates many challenges, but the challenges to identity and self-worth may be the hardest of all. More importantly, when you have the opportunity to be anonymous, you find out who you really are. And many things will compete to determine your identity for you. You will be challenged to find your identity and self worth in your appearance and body image, your achievements, and your circle of friends.

Here's the way Brea describes her experience in college:

It's hard to feel beautiful when looking through fashion magazines. It is even harder at college. College is like walking through a fashion magazine 24/7. It's difficult enough to stay on top of schoolwork, nevertheless to stay on top of what you look like in comparison to the hundreds of other young beautiful women walking around campus. It is the only time in life where you are surrounded by people your own age trying to look their best. It makes you question your own identity and self worth. It's not easy.

It's not easy, indeed. Recent research indicates that 91 percent of college females diet, 35 percent progress to pathological dieting, 22.5 percent progress to partial or full syndrome eating disorders. 78 percent of college women reported having bingeing experiences and 8.2 percent used self-induced vomiting to control weight. And this is not just a problem for college women. College men feel pressure to look like the latest "fashion magazine" as well. Many college men will spend hours in the gym trying to look a certain way. 30 percent of male and 38 percent of female college freshman report feeling "overwhelmed a great deal of the time." Much of this has to do with challenges to personal identity.

Once again, we need to allow the biblical story to shape our identity. The biblical story explains that you are a child of God. Now, that can sound a bit cliché, but I have found it to be a very enlightening and quite satisfying answer to the question: Who am I? Who are you? You are a child of God. It seems simple, almost too simple to be an adequate answer to the complex question of personal identity. And yet …

And yet I have discovered the richness and depth of this phrase, of this answer. It's not that simple at all. On your journey to college, knowing you are a child of God, having your identity secure in Him, will make all the difference in the world. Think about it: if your identity and worth are determined by being a child of God, then you already are somebody even before you do anything. This is very liberating! You are a child of God, completely known and completely loved by him. You are not what you wear, you are not what you do or achieve, you are not what you look like, and you do not have to be worried about being accepted by everyone. You are a child of God, and no one or no-thing can take that away from you.

Here are a few more questions for you to consider: Where is your own personal identity challenged? How do you think your identity will be challenged in college? Why is it often difficult to find your identity and worth in being a child of God?

What do I believe?

In college I majored in political science. What I liked most about studying political theory is that it forced me to ask the "big questions" of life: What is the world like? What does it mean to be human? What is human nature? What you discover is that down through the ages of history, people developed political theory based on how they answered these questions. If you think the world is a certain way, and you think human beings act in a certain way, then you begin to create political theories based on what you believe to be true. Developing theories about politics and government forces us to ask (and answer) the big, overarching questions about life. They force us to determine what we believe about the world and humanity, first, and then our theories about what to do come second. And, of course, this is not limited to political science. Believe me, no matter what your major is, you will be forced to ask the big questions of life. And even if this doesn't happen directly in the classroom, just the fact that you are around a diverse group of people will force you to ask these kinds of questions as well.

Your own beliefs about the world will be challenged by people around you living and acting differently.

Mike, a senior in college, had this to say: "When I came to college and started talking to people I realized that I lived my life differently than the other people around me. I was challenged to think about why I lived the way I did and why I believed the things I believed. I was never in a situation where I had to do that before. It challenged me to think more deeply about every area of my life." Your own beliefs about the world will be challenged by people around you living and acting differently. And you need to know that people live and act differently, because they believe differently.

Here are some of the key insights I learned while in college (and wish I knew before going to college!):

Christianity is a comprehensive world and life view, not just your "religion." Meaning: your faith should affect more than your Sunday morning schedule. The implications of this will take a life time to work out, but you need this "language" for it now;

Don't be intimidated by professors. Yes, they have PhDs and are smarter than you will probably ever be, but know this about even non-believing faculty: they appreciate students who care about learning, ask good questions, do their homework and think holistically;

Don't be afraid to ask good questions about your faith and what you really believe to be true. It is okay to ask questions and to have doubts. Doubting is not the antithesis of faith (Remember, God changed Jacob's name to Israel indicating that it is okay to "wrestle with God."). But there is "good," honest doubting, and "not-so-good," dishonest doubting. The latter usually is an excuse for immoral behaviour; and …

Not all Christians think alike. Not all Christians will think like you, but that doesn't mean they are not Christians or "lesser" Christians. Have a diverse group of friends and conversation partners.

A life following Christ is a process and a journey. You will never have everything figured out. Please don't ever think you have arrived. Being a disciple literally means that you are a "student" of Jesus. We are all life-long learners. College will be the time when you begin to settle in on central convictions that will be formative for the rest of life. As Lesslie Newbigin once said, "Have an open mind, but not opened on both ends!" All truth is God's truth. Read and re-read Colossians 1:15-20, and let its profound mystery guide your actions.

With whom will I surround myself?

"Peer pressure" strikes me as an outdated phrase that has something to do with anti-drug public service announcements. But whether or not we feel like "peer pressure" still affects us, we can't ignore the fact that all these questions of the college years—Why am I going? Who am I? What do I believe?—will be worked out in the context of other people. These people include roommates, hallmates, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, mentors, professors, sororities, fraternities, clubs, and fellowship groups. Social psychology is a discipline entirely based around the idea that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are affected by other people, that individuals affect groups, groups affect individuals, and individuals affect other individuals.

And uniquely, when you arrive at college, you'll be surrounded by people who don't know you. Your high school friends, neighbours, family and others who have known you well may feel (or be) oceans away. Most likely, you'll be sharing a small amount of square footage and sleeping one bunk away from a perfect stranger. The Campus Activities Fair will offer you 1001 clubs to join. The upperclassmen will be walking around with Greek letters on their chests that let you know who their friends are. And the campus ministries may be as diverse as the Greek scene. Where do you start? Who will your friends be? These are important decisions that will shape the context in which you'll answer many other questions over the course of your time at college.

We work out all the questions of life and faith in the context of other people. And those people affect—for better or for worse—our beliefs and behaviours. The people you surround yourself with make all the difference in the world. When you arrive on campus you need to look for Christian community. I am surprised by the number of college seniors I meet who get involved in campus ministry late in their college experience. Their reasons are always similar: "I didn't know there were Christian activities on campus." I'm not sure how it happens, but many students fall through the cracks. Look for fellowship on and off campus. Go to church. Worship regularly. Build lasting friendships.

Here are a few more questions for you to consider: What types of people do you surround yourself with now? Do you see yourself as someone who easily influences others or is easily influenced by others? What relationships in your life have been the most encouraging to you? How will you look for healthy relationships in college?

… the voyage is rewarding.


A good friend and mentor of mine recently said to me: "When talking to students about transitional issues you need to give them new hardware, not software." What he means is that you need to begin to work on foundational issues of life and faith and help students to think differently and more deeply. To be sure: colleges and universities can be a difficult context for navigating faithfulness, but the voyage is rewarding. May you hear God's voice upon receiving your diploma: "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Derek Melleby is the director of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding's College Transition Initiative, helping college-bound high school students and their parents through issues of faith and culture in transition.

Susan Den Herder was formerly the coordinator of the Cornerstone high school ministry program at The Falls Church in Virginia.

Originally published in Comment, December 2006.




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