It has been almost a month since I drove out of Athens for the last time this past semester. The rain added a bittersweet moment to the rushed exit I made after finishing the only final exams I had to take. I do not want to blame the weather for my hasty mood, but I do not think that I took the time to really reflect on what the University of Georgia has taught me over the past 10 months. Being a month removed, I realized that it has been a long enough time to look back objectively yet not forget the people, places, and lessons I met, experienced, and learned.
College Isn’t High School
While this seems like an elementary statement, I learned that it is fundamentally true in so many different aspects. High school allows you freedoms as you get older (driving, dating, etc.). College allows for all of those freedoms once your parents leave the parking lot. No one is around to tell you when to go to bed, when to get up for class (or even go to class, for that matter). You have the choice to walk down the hall and watch TV with guys on your hall or trek across campus to play basketball. You begin to really understand what it feels like to be independent. You do not have to drive across town to see a friend, since most friends are only a few doors or floors away. While there are many benefits of having your individual freedom, it comes with unexpected responsibility. Teachers do not care about you as individual (especially in classes as big as 300 people). You will not recognize (or even know) 95% of the people you pass on campus on any given day. The days of meeting someone at their locker and carrying on a conversation to the next period class are over and are replaced by 30 second conversations about how you should grab lunch or dinner sometime because you are late to class and cannot carry on an involved conversation.
Just Because You Left, Doesn’t Mean You Left
Walking on campus, you get a new start. You meet new people and begin to learn new faces. For someone who was plagued by many labels (both self-inflicted and peer-inflicted), I was anxious to meet new people and begin new friendships. I learned from high school that I needed to make an extra effort to show people who I really am rather than hiding behind the masks I did or did not make. While I started out optimistic, I learned quickly on that just because I left the high school scene behind not all the feelings and ghosts stay. It is hard to admit or even acknowledge, but your past follows you to college like your shadow. You can do your best to ignore it and convince yourself that you will be different. Without conscious, daily effort, you will unknowingly slip right back into the same patterns and begin to make the same mistakes. While this is a depressing realization to come to, it is not the end. Since you are on a new campus, with new people, and a new start, you have the opportunity grow as an individual. Just because your past follows you, does not mean it has control over you. That is the biggest lesson that I learned. You will never be able to fully escape the consequences and results of past decisions, but you do have full control over whether you will allow your past to constrict you. A fresh start is only as new as you allow it to be.
Little Fish in a Big Pond (LFBP) Syndrome sets in regardless of what size high school you went to. For me, it was almost a daily struggle. I found myself on many nights of first semester sitting in my room feeling sorry for myself. Because I had been in such a large position of leadership in high school, I had this preconceived, subconscious belief that I would be able to walk on campus and that role would still be there. I would have similar friends, in similar positions; it would just be in a different setting. I could not have been more wrong. While that vision seems naive in retrospect, I think I was holding on to more of an unattainable hope for the comfortable. I quickly realized that conversations that centered around high school activities were nothing more than common pleasantries or courteous conversation starters. No one really cared if you were valedictorian, barely graduated, dated half the guys in your class, or preferred social anonymity. Culture has taught the college age student to begin to look out for themselves, rather than focusing on relationships with people. It is all about who you know, where you study, and the connections you make for the future. If you do not take the initiative to pursue a friendship, relationship, grade, or internship, it will not happen. This was hard for me to grasp since I had been in a position that allowed me to pick and choose the benefits I wanted to pursue. I found myself slowly growing more and more lonely, moving toward a slight state of depression. I knew that I needed to get plugged in somewhere, but the options were not going to find me. I had to find (or make) them. I found out that starting your own organization may or may not be the best use of your energy since there are so many positive entities that are already well established and improving life. While I did not find a home in any one, specific group, I really felt the desire to start a discussion group for the students in my dorm. We consistently held 8 people on a weekly basis. The vision was to live life together, asking questions, and pursuing the heart of God as a community. While I enjoyed teaching and discussing with other believers, the group did not live up to every expectation I had envisioned. It did connect Christians to Christians and forged friendships that will last well through the next 3 years. But the most important lesson I learned is that while there are countless numbers of groups to get plugged into, joining them is not an option. It is a necessity. Especially for the Christian believer, it is imperative you find a group of like-minded individuals that you can challenge and learn from. If that group does not exist, then step up and create the group. It’s as simple as that.
First Semester: Not What I Had Hoped
I know that I can be verbally crucified for writing this, but I believe that if you look close enough at your experience you will begin to see that my observation is not too far off. Whether first semester was an incredible, five-month social event or one of the loneliest experiences of your life, the first semester is never what you totally expected it to be. I had high hopes walking onto campus. I wanted to get plugged into a Christian ministry, serve, make friends, and live life to the fullest. While those were high aspirations and goals, I perceived them as attainable during the first semester. Little did I know that this would be more a struggle than I thought. I remember the day when it all came crashing down around me. It was not like I had an epiphany of confusion or discontentment, but rather a slow process that (I am sure) started with my first steps on campus. I remember praying and thinking so hard about the reason I was at UGA. I want to be a pastor; then why am I not at bible college/seminary? Why am I at a secular university studying something that has little to do with vocational ministry when I could be taking bible classes to help prepare me for the life God has called me to? These questions (along with a handful of others) ran circles around my mind for days. I talked with friends, family members, and mentors about the doubts I was beginning to have. They were all supportive of what ever decision I would end up making, which was a relief. But then I remember talking to high school friends as we caught up after first semester. Instead of rattling off the easy answer to the question “How was your first semester of college?” I decided to be honest about my experience and express the struggles I was having in social, academic, and spiritual settings. It was refreshing to see friends nod along with my dissections and encouraging to hear others voice the same uneasiness I believed to be unique only to me. I have been encouraged even more when I talk to adults now –who ask me about my first year in college– and they affirm that they experienced the same feelings I did when they were my age. To be fair, second semester was a whole lot more enjoyable than the first. After I found a group of guys to start sharing life with, finding a small group to get plugged into, and figuring out the whole academic side of college, things began to fall into place more and more. So much so, I sometimes wish I was writing this in my apartment I will be living in next year with my new roommates. My final thought is this: Don’t give up until after second semester. First semester will be difficult in every area, in every sense of the word. But that is okay. Keep pushing through and looking for where God wants you to be, but be open because He may change your perceived laid out path. Be willing to walk through the valley in order to see the mountain on the other side.
God is There… Somewhere
I heard a speaker say once that the university is the graveyard of the Christian faith. While in high school, you either nod along unreassuringly or skeptically cock your head to one side, my college experience proved these words to be true without exception. Confirmation surrounded me as I overhead conversations in dining halls and class to seeing the occasional sorority girl being helped away from Sanford Stadium toward downtown on Saturday evenings. I am not going to go on a tirade about underage drinking, premarital sex, or drug abuse. I am simply stating the fact that it all happens in college. And I was surprised to realize that many who fill the folding chairs in church on Sunday are the same ones that are being picked up by friends at 3 AM on Thursdays. For someone who was frustratingly sick of the hypocrisy of private school, college introduced me to a whole new meaning of “two-faced Christianity.” Instead of sneaking around, trying to subvert authority, students outright talked about their crazed experiences. But start talking about Jesus, and they perk up and talk about the little kid they spend 2 hours a week with in the Projects. I remember one night I had the opportunity to experience a fraternity party. I had heard rumors (true and false) about what went on but outspokenly declared that I would never intentionally go. Well, once again, God likes to use those times that I decide to open my big mouth for a learning opportunity. Long story short, I ended up going with a friend from out of town just to see what all the excitement was about. I was met at the door with laughter, music, and alcohol. I ended up staying for about an hour before I ran in to someone I knew (of all the 150+ people, I could count on my hand the number of people who I actually knew). While standing and trading pleasantries, the conversation turned to spiritual matters (which always seemed to happen around this particular person). While I do not doubt this person’s sincerity about loving Jesus, it was hard to respect this person’s credibility while they were holding a mixed drink in one hand. While I do not want to come across as judgmental, it is hard (in my mind) to reconcile underage drinking and the Christian life Jesus has called us to. But the more and more I listened, followed Facebook pictures, or just saw with my own eyes, the more I began to realize that college is a place where people acknowledge hypocrisy as acceptable, as long as you do not expose their own hypocrisy. It is easy to jump through the right hoops in order to be considered part of the “Christian” circle, but it is also too easy to forsake those values three out of the seven days of the week. In retrospect, you do not have to go downtown and party every other night to slip from the life God has called you to; it is a natural progression of the heart in a new environment. As I look back, I began to see the disillusionment I began to believe. While first semester was a seemingly solid time period, I can see how second semester lulled me in to an apathetic coma of spiritual complacency. Quiet times were sporadically missed. Prayer was seemingly stale. It was not that I did not want to do these things, I just could find little drive to actually do them. While college is a whole new world of opportunity, your foremost priorities must not suffer. It is easy to put off the early morning Scripture reading until that night, but then you start cramming for the test you forgot was the next day and a downward cycle unknowingly begins. While this cycle is not what happens to every Christian, those who are newChristians or culturalChristians seem to find themselves in this scenario more than the soldoutChristian. With that said, do not let pride creep on your doorstep and convince you that you are above it all. Because when that lie is believed, you are most likely to fall.
Answers To the Questions They Were Not Asking
While I thank God endlessly for the background and environment I grew up in from my childhood to high school, there was one significant truth that I learned about Christianity: I had all the answers to the questions that people were not asking. Do not get me wrong, I was educated with a wealth of Bible knowledge that I would never trade for the world, but I never once had someone (instructor, professor, peer, roommate, friend) debate me on Hamartiology (Doctrine of Sin) or Soteriology (Doctrine of Salvation). While they are both key components of the Christian faith, no one really cared to discuss the detailed theological implications of doctrine. Although I was encouraged by a handful of friends who did probe my thoughts on certain important spiritual issues, the majority at large did not concern themselves with nitty-gritty systematic theology. This was a frustrating to me since talking about theological stances and issues really helps me learn about God’s character and about others. I began to realize that theology is not what people are looking for. They are not looking for someone with all the right answers concerning doctrine. They could care less. They are looking for application and practicality. What does it look like to live out what the Bible says? What does a life surrendered to Jesus really look like? How can I serve and give back while I have an opportunity to? These were the unspoken questions everyone (in Christian circles) was asking. While these do have succinct theological answers, they were searching for living answers. They were in search of answers that they could apply, not sit around and theorize. They wanted to proactively inspire change in their community, not just improve the four or five lives they interact with in their small group. The questions they were asking were bigger than my handful of Sunday School answers. They were (and are) longing after God and truly seeking His face for His glory. They were questions without answers, at least for now.
Before you criticize what I have just written, write it off as negative and bitter, or explain it away as “specific to only your situation,” I would encourage you (whether you are in high school, college, or in a professional role) to reflect on your expectations of college. Put them in perspective. Remember that college is not the end; it is only a stepping stone to something greater God has planned for your life. Remember that God is working all things together for His glory. This includes the friends you make on campus and the places you spend time on the weekends. College campuses are some of the loneliest, darkest places in the world. While everyone around you may appear to be having a good time drinking, partying, smoking, sleeping around, or whatever else they do, they are still broken, sinful people trying to find something substantial to fill a hole that only the Creator of the universe can fill. Do not pity them; pray for them. Do not judge them; love them. Do not gossip about them; listen with a broken heart. Because I believe that if Jesus were to walk around the United States today, his “speaking tour” would pass through every college campus as he listened to stories and gave life to a lost, hurting generation. Let’s be Jesus.