Thursday, September 07, 2023

College / University Survival Guide [Part 3]

My father always said he would prefer I never had a motorcycle. He had ridden when he was young, and he said it was very dangerous. He certainly was not going to buy me one. But I was fascinated with them, and by the time I was nineteen I owned one — a dirt bike.

I crashed it on my first day out; no real damage, just a good mud bath. After that, I got the hang of it, and was off. I never really crashed again. Sure, I came close a few times, but that was half the fun. Being young is about taking on those risks and seeing how far you can push your limits. That’s how you grow up and find out what you’re capable of.

Back then there were two major types of races: motocross and enduro. The bikes were similar, but were designed for different races. Motocrossers were fast over a short circuit. They ran hot, and they needed lots of mechanical work all the time. They were fun, but fussy.

The enduro bikes looked similar, but were designed for the long haul. They were slightly less powerful, with a higher gearing and a cooler running temperature. They weren’t as razor sharp, but they could last the distance without breaking down or needing fussy adjustments. Out in the woods you didn’t want a breakdown.

Four Years on an Enduro

Think of university as more of an enduro race than a motocross. You can come in “hot”, all full of zeal and good intentions, and burn out quickly; or you can come in a little cooler and more intentionally, with a better long-term plan in place, and last the distance.

Going the distance is what we’re all about in today’s post. Last week we covered “preparing” (i.e. what to do right now, in order to get ready), and “arriving” (i.e. what to do immediately upon getting to the campus). But university is pretty much four years of hauling. You’ve got to have a strategy that keeps you in tune for that whole time. You’ll be enduring some jumps and bumps during that time, and more than once you’ll have to grind your way through a longer section of rough terrain. Don’t worry: the Lord will take care of you. But to make the best of the experience, you’ve got to be tuned for the task.

Being tuned means you’ve got to have your endurance strategies in place. What are they? I’m going to call them “surviving” (i.e. basic priorities to get you through the first year and beyond), and “thriving” (i.e. how to employ your faith to enrich your academics and actually give you a strategic advantage).


1/ Don’t panic

This is the most important rule in this entire list. You will face foreign ideas. You will sometimes be shaken from your composure from something you read or something discussed in a class.

This is natural, because you don’t know everything. A lot of what you’re learning is new things from new perspectives. It takes time for you to process, absorb or put into place among your commitments. This is a thing called “mental assimilation”, and it takes time.

Unfortunately, at university, time is in short supply. You’re pretty busy, since you are managing your own personal and social life in addition to attending classes, managing assignments, preparing for tests, completing labs, and so on. Ideas hit you like waves, one after another, with little time to catch your breath in between them. At times, you’ll feel like you’re drowning just because of the sheer volume and speed of the new stuff hitting you.

Don’t panic. You don’t need to change your whole worldview just because somebody threw a new idea at you. Relax. Don’t overreact. Don’t throw over your faith just because you got confused for a minute. Take your time. Mull it over. Carry it with you for six months or a year. Talk it out with other Christians. Consider possible objections or modifications to it. Compare it with what you’re discovering through real life.

There is no hurry. If that new idea that’s scaring you half to death right now is really an important truth, it won’t go away if you give yourself some breathing space. In fact, it will prove itself to you over time. Eventually, you’ll find your feet again, intellectually speaking, and you won’t feel so perturbed. You’ll be much better equipped to decide what to believe. Anyway, it’s not the final word in anything. It’s not even the last new idea that will hit you. So chill.

But even more importantly than that, ask yourself this: who is behind the idea? Who backs it up and guarantees it? Who advocates it, and why does he or she want you so badly to believe it? If you did, what kind of lifestyle does it argue for? What will it make you if you embrace that new idea?

You see, compared to all that is the person of Jesus Christ. He is the one who is ultimately “behind” Christianity. He backs it up with his life and example, and he guarantees its truthfulness. He wants you to believe it because it is the truth, and because it’s absolutely the best thing you could do for yourself. The lifestyle he argues for is called “holiness”, and it’s indisputably the morally best way you could possibly live. And if you embrace him, it will make you a person like him.

No wonder, then, that when faced with this sort of confusion, Peter responded in the best way possible: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

It’s not “To what new idea should we turn?”, it’s “To whom shall we go?”

2/ Pray often

On that same note, have you ever thought of inviting Christ into your learning process? Have you ever thought about taking new ideas to him, and talking them through in prayer, asking him to show you what’s true and what’s not? I heartily recommend it.

I have never found that when I took any new idea to the Lord he left me long in indecision. Sometimes I didn’t know what to think. Sometimes I didn’t know for quite a while. It could be six months or a year, maybe. But always, always, always, within a reasonable amount of time, the Lord has showed me what to think about a difficult new idea. I have learned to trust him completely for that.

Of course you’ll need prayer to keep up your daily devotional life with the Lord; but you’ll need it academically as well. To speak regularly to the Source of all truth, and to seek the aid of the wisdom of God incarnate is the best possible way to fortify your mind for the critical and analytical tasks demanded of your by your education.

I have no doubt at all that your performance will be higher, and your learning will be richer if you invite Christ to walk with you through the process every day. Mine has been, beyond a doubt. I truly believe that daily prayer is actually a crucial academic resource, believe it or not.

3/ Don’t mess around

What do I mean, “mess around”? I mean, don’t be wishy-washy with your stand for Christ. Don’t play footsie with the world.

Look, you nailed your colors to the mast when you arrived at university, right? You presented yourself honestly as a Christian. What you do afterward has a big effect on your testimony, on your happiness, on your usefulness to the Lord and his people, and on the lives of people who are watching you. Don’t start playing around with things a Christian shouldn’t.

Want me to be more practical? Okay. Don’t hang out in bars and parties. Don’t take this opportunity to learn how being drunk feels, or whether you can “handle it”. Don’t try out coarse language or questionable entertainments. Don’t pick up non-Christian boyfriends and girlfriends. Don’t cozy up to the crowd of experimenters and dabblers, intellectually or socially, and let them think you’re one of them … even for a short time.

If you do these things, you will end up sorry. You will learn too late that there is no such thing as a “safe” time for Christians to mess around. Keep your head about you.

4/ Watch the weariness

You’ll find that at university, nobody but you is watching your sleeping and eating schedule. It will get a bit irregular, to say the least. Late socials, last-minute assignments and labs, all-nighters and just the fun of behaving like a night owl will sometimes play havoc with your system. After the excitement, the weariness will claim you: and with it will come symptoms like depression and inability to focus.

You won’t always perceive the direct relationship between physical exhaustion and your emotional and intellectual state, but tired people are vulnerable, inconsistent and moody. They make many mistakes, and feel clouds of darkness hanging over them.

The effect is even stronger if you’re not eating right, which is pretty much a certainty. Too much Kraft Dinner and too few proteins, or too many trips to McDonalds and not enough broccoli are the kinds of things that mess up body chemistry. And yeah, you’re going to do that: I did.

Odd sleep habits and bad diet are parts of university. But it’s really important to your performance and your mental well-being that you keep some awareness of those factors. Consider, for example, that your near-suicidal depression (experienced after the all-night Halo championship) may be related to the fact that you haven’t had a good night’s rest in a week, and that your falling grade in Political Science could have some relationship to it being an 8:00 a.m. class.


1/ Engage your learning Christianly

I’ve kind of said this already, but I’ll say it again. Use your Christianity as the buffer for your intellectual development. Compare what you learn in class to what you learn from the word of God. Ask yourself often, “How does this relate to what Christ says about X, or what Paul says about Y?” Ask yourself, “Is this new idea similar to something that’s in scripture, or is it totally outside of that?” Ask, “Does it contradict, or merely supplement what God says?” “Is it consonant or discordant with what I already know as a Christian?”

Doing this often exposes the weak part of a new theory. God is always right, and human ideas, no matter how clever or well-articulated, are only as good as their correspondence to the truth. If you know the truth, you can quickly see where a subtly-pitched concept goes wrong. And you can use that insight in class discussions and papers, to show your professors your intelligence and critical engagement with the material.

For example, I have found that one area where human social theorizing often goes wrong is this: that it trusts human nature too much. God tells us that human nature is both good and bad: Good, because we’re made in the image of God, but bad, because we’re fallen creatures living in a fallen world. But many social theorists speak as if human beings are basically only good, and that some social maladjustment is all that makes them behave badly. So, they say, if we create “social justice” by manipulating political arrangements, people will all be happy and good.

Rubbish. The Bible tells us otherwise. And we can see every day which view the facts of the case support. This is an important curative to the fervent injustices perpetrated by today’s social-justice culture.

So by approaching your learning from a Christian direction, you actually gain a tremendous advantage over those na├»ve souls who trust only in the theorizing of mere humans.

2/ Talk it out

Sometimes it’s enough to boil a new intellectual challenge inside your own brain, and the truth distills out of it; but at others, it takes the interaction of conversation to crack open a difficult intellectual nut. So find people with whom you can talk, and talk your ideas and concerns through.

It can be a weekend conversation with the family. It can be a coffee-shop dialogue with Christians. It can also be a friendly discussion with non-Christians who are dealing with the same or similar ideas. Just the process of verbalizing and listening can help put new ideas into a new perspective.

Don’t bottle yourself up and brood. Go talk to someone. What’s more, you’ll start to make intellectual friends and companions through this means. A lot of great socializing and contacts starts when you walk out of the lecture hall, and turn to your peer and say, “Well, what did you think of all that? Want to grab a coffee?” Topic leads to topic, and pretty soon you’re hearing about their personal life or about their private spiritual struggles. And especially if they already know you’re a Christian — but not a jerk — they’ll walk you right into opportunities for you gently, respectfully to tell them about your faith.

3/ Engage in service to others

“It’s not all about you.” We say that often, and it’s always true. Life is about other people, not just about us. I know you won’t have a lot of free time, but use some of it to dedicate yourself to the welfare of others, rather than just to your own needs.

At university, it’s easy to start to see yourself as a little monad — a unique individual the sort of which has never yet been seen on the earth, a free-floating entity with no attachments to ideas, identity or place. This is largely an effect of the stage of life you’re in: You’re away from home, engaging with new people, concepts, cultures, patterns of life and intellectual ideas, but untied to parents, spouse, children, locale, duties or precise prospects for your future. You feel like you’re floating a bit, with no particular others in connection with you.

It takes a definite decision on your part to choose to see your ties to others. But you need to be serving. If you keep doing good for others, you’ll feel less lonely. You’ll be able to unfocus from your personal problems, and to switch to a healthier focus on the needs around you. What’s more, you’ll gain a sense of personal value and achievement from making a difference. Most importantly, you’ll be obeying the Lord, who commanded us to keep caring for people and seeing to their needs rather than indulging exclusively in preoccupation with your own.


Okay, there’s my basic survival guide for young Christians thinking of going away to university or college for the first time. Some of you who have been to post-secondary institutions may have other helpful insights. Those who have plunged into apprenticeship or the workplace directly will have different experiences. Please feel welcome to add you own comments to the end of this post. I’m not the last word here.

There are also no absolute guarantees. For example, I can’t promise you that every campus group that calls itself “Christian” is a good one, or that all local churches will turn out to be healthy. You’ll have to be discerning. I can’t promise you that every professor will always appreciate your critical insight — though if you offer comment graciously, most of them will. I can’t promise you that it will always be easy to be declared as a Christian on campus, though it will make your testimony much easier, and I think I can assure you that you will probably never face the sort of dramatics you may have seen in the (rather sensational) Christian film God’s Not Dead.

But some things I can promise you:

  1. that you will be glad every time you trusted God more than men,
  2. that you will regret every time you “messed around,” compromised, or failed to own up to your faith, and
  3. that your faith can, and should survive university — and that you should eventually emerge from these years stronger, wiser and more dedicated the Lord and to truth than you’ve ever been before.

At least, that’s how it all should go. The rest is up to you and the Lord.

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