Do you plan to go to college? If you’re in high school, your search for the place to continue your education has likely already begun. Maybe you’ve already visited a few campuses and experienced the typical sales pitches from tour guides and admissions counselors. Maybe your mailbox is starting to sag with the weight of shiny brochures and tantalizing offers boasting every imaginable selling point. Or maybe college is just a nagging thought in the back of your mind, pointing toward a decision you’d like to postpone as long as possible.
Regardless of the nature of your prior schooling, many aspects of going away to college will be overwhelming and new. As a college sophomore, that apprehension is still a recent memory for me. Even small fears—the embarrassments of “Welcome Week,” the increased rigor of college classes, the unique problems of living in a dorm—can congeal in your stomach into an immobilizing knot of dread.
No one can guarantee that your experience in higher education will be a time of growth and fulfillment. But for humble followers of Christ, college can involve some of the most exciting years of your life. As I reflect on the overall themes of my experience thus far, here are ten guiding principles that have helped me thrive at college.
Check Your Priorities for Choosing a College
If your goal is to train for a specific career, choosing a secular college can be a valid option. Pursuing an engineering degree at a quality engineering institute might be good stewardship of your time and resources. However, if you hope to reap more than technical skills from your college experience, I urge you to consider carefully your priorities. A liberal arts education involves far more than career-specific training; it relies on a philosophy of learning that aims for holistic growth in every area of a student’s life—attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.
From a Christian perspective, the liberal arts model of education is even more significant. In The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness (recently revised and republished as Learning for the Love of God), Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby write,
Schools and colleges shape us to think and live in certain ways, and reinforce in us particular hopes and aspirations and attitudes. Some of these characteristics and goals are not so bad, whereas others may be diametrically opposed to God’s concerns for life in his world. We need to sift our educational experiences carefully, straining out dross and keeping the gold. As we grow in wisdom, we learn how to handle the pan, and we become better able to discern truth from lies. And this really ought to be a central purpose of our education—to grow in discernment and wisdom. (35)
Check your expectations for education and choose a college accordingly.
Come to Learn, Not to Pass
Last semester, while walking past the mail room, I overheard a student excitedly exclaim to one of his friends, “Dude! I didn’t even study and I got a B-minus!” Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t think good grades are the most important goal of college. But something about this classmate’s attitude still disturbed me.
If you come to college to earn a degree without failing too many courses, you’ll probably succeed. By figuring out exactly how many classes you can miss, how low a quiz grade you can safely get, and how many extra minutes of sleep you can snatch on a Monday morning, you can make your college experience a breeze. But you can achieve this goal and still miss the mark.
An informal student creed I learned during my freshman year, and one that Opitz and Melleby quote, begins like this: “We study in order to understand God’s good creation and the ways sin has distorted it, so that, in Christ’s Power, we may bring healing to persons and the created order.” For the Christian learner, the purpose of education is not accruing knowledge but rather acquiring wisdom. The book of Proverbs promises that
Developing this wisdom leads to a deeper understanding of our role in God’s kingdom. With an understanding of the original goodness of the world, the devastating effects of sin, and Christ’s plan of redemption, we will find ourselves better equipped and motivated to serve him in our various vocations.
The search for wisdom doesn’t mean having your head in the clouds, so to speak. Rather, it will profoundly shape your approach to college even in ordinary and mundane ways. You’ll discover nuggets of insight in boring core classes. You’ll seek out deeper opportunities for learning by interacting with fellow students and professors both inside and outside the classroom. And from the sports field to the dining hall to the dorm room, you’ll find yourself learning in ways and places you never would have thought possible.
Commit to Intentional Involvement
During my time in college I’ve never had occasion to grumble, “There’s nothing to do around here.” Especially at a small university, you generally get out of it what you put into it. Look for concrete ways to get involved in programs and causes you love. Rather than criticizing your school for lacking a particular club or opportunity, take the initiative to help get it started.
Don’t Neglect the Assembly
While the environment of a large secular university may present obstacles to your walk with Christ, attending a Christian college can pose a more insidious threat. In the context of mandatory chapel attendance, weekly dorm Bible studies, and classes that open with prayer, studying at a Christian school can lull you into a pattern of spiritual atrophy.
Beyond establishing habits of faithful Scripture reading and prayer, remember that membership in a local church is a primary manifestation of your identity in Christ. Make an intentional search for a nearby congregation committed to biblical doctrine and worship and composed of members from all stages of life (not just a church with a college ministry). Attend worship faithfully, and make it your church home away from home. Accountability to a local congregation will anchor you even in times of difficulty and uncertainty.
Maintain Relationships Back Home
As you enter new circles of friends and mentors, relationships with family and friends from home may begin to suffer neglect. Just as new friendships need commitment and hard work, maintaining connections back home requires effort as well. Consider ways to continue nurturing these relationships through social media, phone calls, or even the occasional handwritten letter.
Watch Your Friends
Friends who follow the world’s values can quickly dampen your zeal for Christ, but surrounding yourself with friends who follow the same Master can create a mutually edifying bond as “iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17, ESV). One of the highest compliments I ever heard about a friend was from his pastor, who told me, “He won’t lead you astray.” Search out brothers and sisters in Christ who can encourage you in your spiritual walk throughout your time in college and beyond.
Beware the Bubble
When you think about it, college isn’t an accurate representation of real life. But it can be easy to pretend it is, particularly at a small, close-knit institution. To help prevent myself from becoming an ingrown member of the college community, I’ve tried to form habits such as spending time outside my dorm room as often as possible and getting off campus at least once or twice a week. Without disconnecting from your school’s support network or creating compromising situations, look for healthy opportunities to pop the college bubble.
Look Out for Cynical Sophomore Syndrome
Especially if you came to college hungry to learn, your freshman year may have been full of big ideas, fresh insights, and exciting opportunities. Sadly, the joy of learning can be difficult to maintain. As I began my second year of studies I found my attitude slipping from involved enthusiasm to aloof cynicism. In sophomore year the novelty of college wears off and the grind of classes, homework, internships, and other obligations sets in. And as you become more familiar with your institution, its flaws become easier to spot and criticize.
The remedy to cynical sophomore syndrome is to step back once in a while and ask the same questions that brought you to college. Why are you here? How have you sensed God’s calling on your life, and how is your time in college helping you obey that calling? As Steven Garber asks in The Fabric of Faithfulness, what makes you get out of bed in the morning? Answering these questions honestly can help you correct the cloudy vision imposed by the grind of college life.
Look for opportunities to renew your enthusiasm for learning, and take comfort in the knowledge that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58, ESV).
Don’t Fear Change
My grandmother’s frequent admonition to me about college is short and direct: “Don’t let anyone change you.” Her warning is well-founded; as young adults step outside the jurisdiction of their parents, mentors, and church community for the first time, they can easily develop harmful hab-its or stray toward the siren call of the world.
At the same time, I’d like to offer an alternate suggestion: Let God change you. Seek His will and watch as He uses your mentors, classes, and experiences to transform you into Christ’s image. The question is not whether college will change you, but how. If you study for God’s glory, you’ll find your attitude and character developing accordingly. In the hands of your heavenly Father, your college education can be wielded as a mighty tool in your sanctification.
Balance Your Perspective
If your spiritual vision is anything like mine, you may notice that the college causes you to drift into either nearsightedness or farsightedness. On one hand, the workload of the semester can burden you down and blind you to any goals beyond surviving the next few hours. On the other hand, there are the occasional miniature existential crises—those agonizing moments when you strain your eyes into the distance, wondering if you’re pursuing the right major, attending the right college, or correctly discerning God’s call for your life.
While I may never master the balance between these two extremes, I have learned the necessity of realigning myself with the perspective God reveals to us in Scripture. That perspective can be summed up in the words of Philippians 1:6 (ESV): “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Our future hope gives purpose to our present calling.
At the far end of the reference room in my college’s library is a set of stained-glass windows by Henry Lee Willet depicting eighteen distinct scenes from The Pilgrim’s Progress, each with inscriptions such as “We Buy the Truth,” “This Fire Is the Work of Grace,” and “I Will Walk in the Strength of the Lord God.” Just as Willet used individual panes of glass to tell the story of John Bunyan’s characters, college represents merely one scene in the story God is working in our lives as his pilgrims. As we seek to be faithful servants, however, college can be a fulfilling and richly rewarding stage of that journey.
Michael Kearney a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org