June 2007

Keeping faith from fraying


Some college antics make for laughable middle-age confessions. However, these do not represent the kind of depraved lunacy that Barrett Seaman describes as part and parcel of today’s college culture.

In preparing to write Binge, What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, Seaman, a former Time magazine editor and White House correspondent, lived among college students at a dozen highly respected public and private universities. Seaman’s experiences and research paint a picture of campus culture that would likely disturb most boomer parents whose memories of college are frozen in the 1970s.

For many students, campus life as described in Binge is a self-indulgent world where “hooking up” (illicit sex with no emotional attachment), binge drinking, drug abuse, cheating and depression are common. Academics figure in, but as a priority far below opportunities for unrestrained excess.

It is into this wasteland of moral and spiritual abandon that children from Christian homes often come to pursue their education. Sadly, many are unprepared for the spiritual challenges and emerge from the experience with their Christian upbringing all but forsaken.

Derek Melleby is among a handful of Christians focused on helping Christian parents and their children prepare to make the passage from childhood to adulthood by way of the American university. Melleby serves as director of the College Transition Initiative (CTI) for Center for Parent/Youth Understanding based in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Below he addresses issues concerning this defining time in young lives.

AFA Journal: Some parents seem to view going to college as a rite of passage, an entitlement to a few years of unbridled freedom with little or no accountability. How would you correct this view?

Derek Melleby: Scholars and researchers tell us that the years between 18-25 are considered critical years. Decisions are made during this time that are formative for the rest of life. Another way to say this is that during these years you become who you will be forever. Now, I know that people can change later in life. God can work in people’s lives at any time, but there is something about decisions that are made and practices that are developed during these critical years that are “fixed” for the rest of life.

With freedom comes responsibility and there is no such thing as “no accountability.” I always ask students this: What kind of person do you want to be? Have you thought about what it will take to be that kind of person? And, of course, our choices, for better or worse, have consequences.

Concerning college as an American rite of passage, I think we have lost the sense of privilege that going to college really is. To be born into a middle class American family where college has always been assumed as the next step after high school is a very unique position compared with the rest of the world. We need to somehow regain the sense of privilege. It is a gift. The parable of the talents comes to mind. What will we do with this gift that has been given? I fear that too many students bury their gift and waste the time God has given them in college.


AFAJ: In describing your CTI seminars, you write that “the theme of story runs through the entire presentation inviting students to consider how their story fits into God’s story.” Explain this.

DM: We are surrounded by stories that give life meaning. The question for us is whether or not we will live our lives based on the Biblical story – the true story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation – or base our lives on the world’s story. The world’s story goes like this: life is about you. Life is about making a lot of money and having a lot of stuff. “He who dies with the most toys wins.” What story that you think you are a part of makes a big difference in how you approach college.

According to the world’s story, college is about getting a degree, to get a higher paying job, to make a lot of money. A college degree becomes a passport to privilege, or the ticket to the good life. I would say that most Christians have bought into this story when it comes to college. Most are shaped more by the world’s story than the Biblical story.

But when we take a closer look at the Biblical story we learn that we are created in the image of God. We’ve been given minds to think and gifts with which to serve Him. A person who bases his or her life on the Biblical story will understand college as a great opportunity to develop the mind, discover the gifts he or she has been given, and discern God’s call. College is about increasing our serviceability for God.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with going to college to prepare for a career. It’s just that a degree to get a job should not be our main motivation for going to college. 


AFAJ: How can parents use this “story” in preparing their kids for college?

DM: First, parents need to be honest about how much their own lives have been shaped by the world’s story or the American dream. It is a pervasive and powerful story that grips people’s hearts and guides their actions. My fear is that too many Christian parents go to church on Sunday and live out the world’s story Monday through Saturday.

Second, parents need to continually point out how the Biblical story conflicts with the world’s story. If the Biblical story is your life-shaping story then the way in which you approach college will be different. Where you go to college, what you study, the people you surround yourself with, all these will reflect the story you are shaped by.


AFAJ: What should Christian parents know about the contemporary college experience that they probably don’t know?

DM: It’s hard to know what other people don’t know, but here’s one thing that seems to surprise people: Nearly half of all college students admit to feeling so depressed at some point that they have trouble functioning. Depression is a big issue on campus. Some Christians think that Christians should never be depressed. To them, being a Christian means that everything is wonderful and that you never have any problems. Parents need to know that more than likely their child will suffer some form of depression while in college.  


AFAJ: Should parents feel safe sending their child to a Christian college?

DM: I don’t think that safety should ever motivate Christians when making decisions. The most repeated phrase in the Bible is “do not be afraid.”

There are legitimate concerns about the student culture at secular colleges, but I’m not sure that we should assume that the same temptations are not prevalent on Christian campuses as well. Partying and praying happen at both Christian and secular institutions. That being said, every child is different and needs to be approached differently. Christian higher education is often a very good choice for students and parents. But, safety can’t be the main motivation for sending students to Christian colleges.


AFAJ: Seaman’s picture of college life would disturb most Christian parents. In light of that, if a child from a Christian home is unsure about why he/she is going to college, are parents wise to encourage their child not to go?

DM: College is not for everyone. My hunch is that when all of the current research being done on college transition is finished, the solution to the problem of students transitioning poorly will be simple, but most people won’t do it. If you want students to transition well and make the most of their college experience, students should strongly consider not going to college immediately after high school.

More and more 18-year-olds are not developmentally ready, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, for college. Not to mention the financial burden that college brings. Not going to college or taking some time off before going to college should seriously be considered.

Many students benefit from a year of part-time work while taking a few classes. More and more students are taking time to do cross-cultural missions before heading to college. That isn’t for everyone, and I certainly don’t want to scare people from going to college right after high school, but I do think that not going to college right away should be seen as a legitimate alternative.   


AFAJ: What can Christian parents do this summer to help prepare children for college this fall?

DM: Find time for a serious conversation with your children about college. Ask them questions about why they are going, what they hope to accomplish, what their biggest concerns are and what they think God is calling them to. This shouldn’t be a lecture, but a real conversation. Tell them what was going through your mind when you were 18. Be honest about your own doubts.

Make sure that your expectations for your child don’t compete with God’s. Be open to the possibility that God may be calling your child to a career that you weren’t expecting. Allow space for your child to follow God’s call.


CTI recommended readings for parents

Binge, What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, by Barrett Seaman.

My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, by Rebekah Nathan

The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief in Behavior, by Steven Garber

College Bound: What Christian Parents Need to Know About Helping Their Kids Choose a College, by Thomas Shaw.

For more about the CTI seminar, click here.