There were so many emotions running through my heart as I sat in my family’s minivan, ready to begin my college career. As my parents stared out the windshield, the silence signaled the start of a new journey. Were there tears? Absolutely, especially from my mom. Were there final words of wisdom from my dad? He couldn’t help himself. Was I excited? I had longed for this moment. Was I scared? No doubt, but I knew it was time. My parents knew it was time. Yet I needed a few more moments in the safety of their presence…in that van…in that silence.
As I mustered up the words, “Alright. I’ve got to go to orientation. I love you guys.” My parents responded, through quivering lips; reciprocated their love; and offered a, “Have a great time.”
I grabbed the door handle and slid the door open.
I will never forget that moment, the silence, the few words, and the excitement ahead. Everything I had known was about to change. My relationships were new. My environment was unfamiliar. My finances were non-existent. My occupation was to be charted. My physical body was taking me to places I’d only dreamed of before. My emotions already were riding waves. My intellect was preparing for a rigorous routine. My faith was being strengthened with every step away from the vehicle.
My story is repeated every fall on college campuses all across the country. For me, instead of being the student who’s stepping out of the van, I’m helping get students ready to take that wonderfully painful journey away from the minivan and into college life.
The Most Important Transformation
The transition into college comes with a unique set of transitions: relational, emotional, intellectual and (most important) spiritual. They leave friends whom they’ve grown to love. They leave the comfort and safety of home, church and community. They leave their parents’ bank accounts. They journey onto a path that may determine their careers. They witness their bodies morph from teens to adults. They learn how to handle emotions without a trusted support system. They grow in knowledge and experience. They discover and test the nuances of beliefs, values and faith.
All of this is why the transition to college commonly is known as the most transformative period of time for students. We work hard to get students to the place where they’re spiritually ready to step away from the comfort of their home churches—via sleepless nights and constant prayer—in anguishing moments when we’re not sure they’ll continue to choose to be disciples. Similar to you, I have a pocket full of stories about students with whom I’ve walked through this transition.
Ben was ready to leave home…ready for the freedom found in college. His home life was anything but easy: divorced and emotionally distant parents and an overbearing stepmother. Ben needed a drastic change, which college offered. Ben’s transition to college became the very place where life would be found. His future would be determined by new relationships, working through deep pain and reliance on Jesus. By his own admission, college saved his life. Each year, I marveled at the transformation he was experiencing.
In high school, Kasey dabbled in recreational drugs, frivolous relationships and rebellion. Though the spiritual ground had been seeded, those seeds hadn’t taken root. Kasey was lost. She struggled with identity, depth of relationships and purpose. She was provided multiple opportunities to lead at church, only to maintain an apathetic attitude. Kasey’s decision to attend a local Christian university was a huge step of faith. The new environment unlocked a passion and determination never before realized. Her college friendships helped keep her moving in a direction of glorifying God. She experienced the world through summer mission opportunities and studies abroad. She is now pursuing a career in missions.
Kristal was the quintessential student in our junior high ministry. She was well-connected, participated in just about every event, and helped many friends come to know God. However, a random high school experience created a barrier to further spiritual growth, and her faith took a massive hit. While attending a state university, Kristal was invited to attend an on-campus Christian group. The community nurtured a spiritual awakening, leading to her involvement with this group through graduation and a ministry in China.
It’s our dream to see graduating students achieve this kind of whole-life growth. The looming question is, “How do we get them to that place?” While I’d love to tell you about all the success I’ve had, not every story ends happily.
Recently, I connected with two college students who grew up in our high school ministry and were in my small group. As they prepared to begin their sophomore year, I thought it would be a good time to ask questions about their spiritual growth. I asked about their friends and the influence they had in those relationships. I wanted to know if they were connecting with a Christian community. Were they part of an on-campus group or local church? How were they growing spiritually? Had they been honoring God in all areas of their lives?
The more I asked, the more they stared at their coffee. My questions left them speechless. I didn’t mean to heap guilt on them. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened.
In the days following that conversation, I asked myself some hard questions. I wondered what our ministry could have done differently to better equip them. Could I have helped them find and engage in an on-campus Christian group or local church? Could I have helped them solidify their faith? Could I have equipped them to mentor others?
Being More Intentional
Yes. We could have done better, but we hadn’t failed or left them ill-equipped. Youth workers don’t shoot for good enough. We aim for the best. We don’t want to launch students who might be ready to enter the university world. We want to release kids who can’t wait to tackle their campuses for Christ. So, to that end, let’s create a to-do list for our next crop of graduating seniors.
Intentional Spiritual Growth
I believe we need to help students learn how to set spiritual growth goals. Setting general goals for spiritual maturity is too broad. I’m challenging my students to think spiritually about their relationships, tuition, environment and occupation, as well as the relationship between their spirituality and emotions. Simply put: I am challenging students to make Jesus the center of their lives, leading to whole-life growth. How will their relationships with Jesus affect their relationships with others; their identity and emotions; developing spiritual disciplines; and lead to a life of service, accountability and worship? We help students make the transition into college successfully when we help them see that Jesus is central in life, and everything else flows from that belief.
I want students to be ready relationally when they hit campus. This includes family relationships. What are their plans for maintaining connection to their families of origin? What are their maps for connection to peers on campus? How will they connect to professors? It’s not enough to encourage students to “get to know others on campus” or “hang out with the girls in the dorm.” What are their plans for forming lifelong friendships? How will they find friends who share similar values? We prepare students for these relationships by offering opportunities to engage in safe relationships in our youth ministries. We teach them what safe relationships are and what it means to invest in others while they’re growing in our programs.
I want students to think intentionally about safe personal surroundings. I want them to engage in community activism to improve environments for others. We get students ready for this by inviting them to think intentionally about their surroundings while they’re still with us. More importantly, we invite them into a culture of service and mission, helping them understand the needs of the under-resourced in our communities.
Emotional health probably is the one area many of us don’t think about when launching students into college. Remember that a lot of the drama in a transitioning teenager’s life is caused by the inability to manage emotions in a mature fashion. They’re facing roommate issues, displaced anger, unresolved conflict, loneliness, homesickness and other challenges. Emotional goals help promote awareness, understanding and acceptance of feelings. Growing emotionally will ensure that students stay healthy by managing stress, discovering identity, and asking for help in working through their wounds and suffering.
Gifts, talents, passion, occupation…If you listen to what students are talking about as they’re telling others in your church about their college plans, they’re likely talking about these things. We encourage them to be intentional about their future occupations by giving them space to live out their passions. We help them get internships or summer jobs in a desired field of work. We also can encourage students to set goals to discover and utilize personal spiritual gifts. The more we give space for this while they’re in high school, the more they’ll do this naturally in college.
Intentionality is key. As students embark on the life-changing transition into university life, youth workers will do well in walking with them before they walk through the doors of our youth rooms for the last time as our students. We have the opportunity to assist them in owning their faith, setting goals to experience growth, and to become all that God designed them to be. We cheer them on, love them through setbacks, and celebrate with every step of faith.