Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Letter to the Incoming Freshmen Class at Christian Colleges

Dear Freshmen,

A few months ago you were filling out applications for college and comparing the list with your friends.  Last month you started anxiously checking the mailbox for college acceptance letters.  Your prayers may have started getting desperate: "Please, God, let me be accepted to at least ONE school!"  And then, as multiple acceptance letters came back, you realized that you had options!

All of a sudden the theoretical planning you had been doing for the last few years of high school came down to the big decision: which school are you going to choose?  

If you're reading this letter, I'm guessing that you've chosen to attend a Christian college.  Or as my alma mater put it: a Christ-Center learning community ("Because colleges can't be Christian").

I'm excited for you!!  The four years I spent at my university were some of the best of my life.  I have wonderful memories of friends, professors, dorm life, chapel and so much more.  My Christianity became more robust and profound because of friends, professors, and classes that asked me good questions and forced my worldview to stretch in necessary ways.  There is so much good that I could tell you, but I'm guessing you have heard many of those cheesy lines in the brochures and videos your prospective college sent you.  ;)

(A quick note: I've had many family members and friends attend secular universities who also loved their time in college, so I'm not saying that happy experiences are restricted to Christian colleges.  I'm simply writing from my experience.)

Now that I've been out of that the Christian college environment for a few years, I think I've gained some perspective.  I'd like to share a few tips to help you prepare for the upcoming school year.

It's Going To Cost
Christian colleges are expensive.  Many graduates (myself included) spend years paying off those bills.  If you want to reduce those costs, find out what job are available on campus.  That doesn't necessarily mean cleaning dishes in the cafeteria.  Students can join a cleaning crew, work in the library, tutor other students, run soundboards, and more.
It is an INTENSE Christian environment.
Think of Church summer camp on steroids.  It's not a bad thing, but it can feel a bit suffocating and myopic at times.

Go to Counseling.
I would say this no matter where you went to college, but it is especially true if you're attending a Christian college.  Most likely this is the last time in your life that counseling will be free so it is great to take advantage of it.  Don't feel like counseling is reserved for people with "major" issues either - most people have life issues to sort through in their early twenties.  I cannot recommend counseling enough!!  
Majors and Spirituality Don't Correlate.
People who major into Bible-related subjects are not more spiritual than the rest of us.  Some of them are doubters, some are rebels, some will eventually leave the faith, and some are truly sincere.  Knowing the Bible doesn't necessarily mean that you know Jesus.

Abide By the Rules...Most of the Time
Speaking as a former RA, please try to obey the rules, ESPECIALLY if student RAs are made to enforce them.  The RAs I knew dreaded confronting other students, but we signed a contract agreeing to do it.  Since you knew the rules before you agreed to go there, you were subjecting yourself to those rules. 
That being said, college is also about fun.  If you grew up in a strict environment and take things seriously and avoid getting into trouble, make sure you take time to have fun.  My husband's dorm made an indoor slip-n-slide down the hall (definitely against the rules).  I was late to curfew a few times (against the rules).  My husband was thrown in the lake after we got engaged (a college tradition, but still against the rules).  I drank alcohol during summer break (against the rules although I didn't know it at the time).  I made it through all four years without any demerits, but I wish I had been a little more relaxed about the rules and had more fun. 
So obey the rules.  But break a few.  But be smart about the ones you choose to break. 

You Will Be Stretched and Will (probably, hopefully) Change. 
And it's a good thing.  Admittedly having your beliefs challenged and then trying to figure out what you believe can be very uncomfortable.  It is easy to rely on the answers you've been given your whole life, but this is a time to study and question and learn.  

People Still Get Hurt.
Multiple Christian colleges are currently under investigation for mishandling sexual assault.
There are many Christian colleges currently under investigation because they dealt with rape incorrectly.  I beg of you: don't be naive!  Please don't assume that a student, faculty or staff member is safe because you are at a Christian college.
Christians Cheat and Lie and Steal.
Don't plagiarize.  Don't cheat.  Etcetera.  

Try Very Hard Not to Judge.
With so many rules, it's easy to use those rules as the markers for good and bad Christians.  Skirt an inch shorter than dress code?  Bad Christian.  Never skipped chapel?  Good Christian.  Beyond making judgement about someone based on their actions, sometimes we make them based on their theology, like this: Doesn't believe in a literal 7-day creation?  Bad Christian.
I hope that you'll come to a gracious and winsome place as a Christian.  Even if you hold tightly to your beliefs, I hope that you'll be kind to others, that you will actually listen to them and that you'll see Christ as our unifier.  
Once You Leave, All Bets Are Off.
One of my former cello teachers attended a university known for being one of the most conservative and most strict in the country.  While she loved her time there and was still very involved in the university, I remember her telling me that there was a very high divorce rate among the alumni.  She said: "They've never been given any freedom.  They went straight from a strict household to a strict college where they were told what to wear and when we go to bed.  They meet someone, graduate, and get married and suddenly realize they have freedom to do what they want."  In other words, don't confuse conformity with character.

The Chapel Stage is Not a Shortcut to Heaven.
Yeah, yeah, I know.  Everyone seems to be rushing to get up there to sing or play an instrument or pray.  The people on stage get noticed a lot.  If you do end up taking part in chapel, that's great!  But if not, it's okay.  You can be known for a lot of great things on campus without ever stepping foot on the chapel stage.

You Will Absolutely, Undoubtedly See UnChristlike Behavior.

You will meet many marvelous, godly, and sincere people.  They will encourage you and challenge you and make your college years wonderful.  But you will also witness unChristlike behavior from administration, from fellow students, from professors, and staff members.  I'm warning you so that you are prepared.  It is disheartening to watch, especially when you're at a college that you love so much.  But it is a good reminder that we are called to behave like Christ (not like other Christians) even when the circumstances are skewed.  

I hope that your first year at college is fantastic.  I hope that you learn and grow and have fun.  I hope that you make friends and make a few mistakes (and realize that you can get over those mistakes).  I hope you find a gracious, welcoming community for these next four years.


p.s. If you're looking for more general college advice, you can read the letter I wrote to my younger sister upon her graduation from high school.


  1. I like this. I sent it to a friend of mine who is probably going to a Christian college next year and signed it "Love Callie the sister and McKenna". (It was to your 5/8ths friend!)


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