I was raised in a strong Christian family. I grew up in a great church and was very active in every aspect of its ministry. As a high school senior, I was seen by my peers as a very mature Christian; and therefore, when I graduated from high school, the expectation of myself and everyone who knew me was that I would continue in the growth trajectory that I had started years before. But that was not the case. My “Point A” did not fully prepare me for life in “Point B”. The first half of my college experience was a spiritual struggle, and as you know, I am not alone.
For many high school seniors who have grown up in a Christian family and in church, they have up to four major spiritual influences in their life. These influences have helped them grow and mature in their faith over the years up to graduation. Those influences are: Family, Friends, Church, and Mentors. Some teens may not have had all four of these influences, but many certainly do. Then, by nature of the transition, a student leaves most if not all four of these influences behind to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar setting. This puts the student in a new environment that forces them to make decisions, develop friendships, and navigate a future without all of the influences that have helped them do those things in the past. The average college freshman has never had to start from scratch in building a new community of friends. He has never had to find a new church on his own, much less one with a mentor that can replace the valuable discipling influence of a youth pastor, teacher, or coach. Most incoming college freshmen have never had to balance life with a long-distance relationship with parents and family. This transition is far more than just geographical. This transition is academic, social, emotional, relational, financial, territorial, spiritual, and very personal.
As mentioned in the first post in this series, there is often an inadequate level of preparation for this new reality before the student begins transitioning, causing a challenge to the student’s faith like never experienced before. As I look back on my senior year, I can compare my last year of high school to that of tubing down the rapids of a white water river. When you are riding an inner tube down a flowing river current, you don’t have to paddle or even steer; you just hang on and enjoy the ride. That is a good summary of my life as a high school senior. I had those four spiritual influences so firmly rooted into my life I knew that to continue growing, I simply had to stay on the tube and enjoy the ride. I knew where to go for fellowship and community because my friends and I were all in the same place of faith. I knew where to go for accountability, discipleship, advice, direction, worship, and serving opportunities- all because my life was structured in that way, and I had very few interruptions or challenges. My hope for growing in college was to keep doing what I had been doing, in regards to my faith. The problem was that I was moving forward without all the influences that had helped make growth possible. Let’s just say that my hopes did not work out very well. The river current stalled out quickly, and as a freshman in college, I found myself up a creek without a plan.
There are many differences in the life of a college student compared to that of someone in high school. Let’s look at a few of them so that we can understand how to best prepare a student for this new living environment. There are academic differences that can be unsettling to the student who is accustomed to the way school has always been. Suddenly, teachers do not care anymore if a student does well, misses notes because of sickness, or even attends class at all. In high school, most students are used to being one of maybe twenty-five students in a class, and now they are one of one-hundred. Test frequency can be an issue for students who are not used to taking a test worth 1/3 of a final grade. On top of that, the amount of reading and studying many students have to adjust to can become unbearable.
If the academic differences were the only major change, it would be tough, but the social differences between high school and college are worlds apart. We can start with the living situation and the social distractions that can come with a teenager living around a few dozen peers verses parents and a younger sibling. The culture of college life is different than that of high school. All night long, students are awake, partying, playing video games, and doing anything else they want to do. There are no longer any guiding rails for morality and behavioral issues that once existed for students in high school. The temptations are great, even for an individual who was once able to avoid such behaviors.
Many students are not prepared for the emotional differences that come with being a new college student. Homesickness and loneliness round out the top two most common as a student is forced to get acquainted with this new normal. Many new stresses are caused by the responsibilities that come with living on one’s own as a student struggles to adjust away from home. How does a student take care of himself when he gets the flu during his freshman year? How will a college freshman learn to manage her time and money so that she doesn’t lose both in the process of trying? The emotional challenges take a toll and can create even more issues physically, relationally, and personally for the student.
Probably the most severe and most important change is the spiritual differences a Christian student faces away from home for the first time. Finding a new community of faith for worship, accountability, discipleship, and fellowship can be very hard when faced with all of the other differences discussed. I discovered this the first week of my freshman year. The BCM on my campus was having a Back To School event, and I wanted to go but couldn’t find anyone to go with me. I asked all of my new friends but had to go alone. I walked into the building, saw a lot of new faces, waited for about ten seconds, turned around and never went back. As much as I wanted to find a Christian community in my new environment, I had never felt that insecure and out of place before, and that was overwhelming.
A student needs to know what this new life is going to be like and how to grow in that new setting. Your teenagers need a plan to execute and a vision to cast for themselves in their new environment.
If they intend to continue growing and maturing in a Point B life, it is up to us, along with the parents, to help them to be prepared well for the challenges ahead. Romans 12:2 instructs: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will”. Our teenage friends will either transition by conforming, or they will transition by transforming, and we have a hand in helping them make that distinction. The more they understand what their future destination is like, the better transformation they will make when they transition.