As a community college English instructor, I often hear conversations about what we can do to help students graduate. We want students to complete their degrees as efficiently as possible so they can move on to a four-year university or immediately into their career path. Educators today are skilled at helping students gain work ethic, intelligence and academic tenacity.
While most community college students need training in these areas, from my experience, there are other areas that an educational institution might not be able to easily address. I have noticed that many of the reasons students drop out of the community college (or the university) have less to do with intelligence and more to do with deeper personal issues.
The students who have dropped my class recently have given the following reasons for dropping: death in the family, arguments with parents, depression, a move to California to search for purpose and panic attacks among other reasons. If college students are underachieving or dropping out, how can a community help their college students stay on course? The answer is not completely academic. College does take smarts, but a stable personal life needs to exist as well. We all know that academic endurance is a must, but what about personal and emotional endurance?
If I had to answer that for myself, I would argue that my church community provided me with the endurance needed to survive as a college student when I was an undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
During college, I met many new people, which was exciting. One of the most impressionable connections I made when I arrived in Wilmington was when I talked to a guy working at a coffee shop one afternoon. He invited me to a church in Wrightsville Beach. I went to his church later that weekend on a Sunday night and opened up a world of connections that shaped my time at UNCW.
College students need a healthy, social scene that supports them. Before I arrived at UNCW, I had spent my time partying and seeking out popularity. Yet in the end, I had grown weary of the "party scene" that involved people doing whatever it took to rise in the high school hierarchy for popularity. I needed a change and to find the right group of friends. Like any college student, I was looking just to establish my own identity.
I believe students must choose to seek out God on their own. I'm not naive. Persuading people to go to church in today's age doesn't really work. People have to want to go to church. If someone doesn't want to join a church, they won't .
But when I was 19, I wanted to find God. I wanted something real. So I went to church when I got to college. And I was shocked at how great it was. I was surprised at how little peer pressure I experienced when I attended events or services sponsored by Christian student organizations like Young Life or Campus Crusade.
College students also need existential direction. I had a lot of Holden Caulfield-like questions when I arrived at UNCW. How do you live an authentic life? Is God real? Why is everyone so consumed with image? I met a guy named David at church. David's group of friends studied philosophy, Christian thought and had discussions in their free time. I remember looking at David's bookshelf of books I'd never seen before, specifically addressing lots of these questions. He made a list for me, and I started buying these books off eBay. This profoundly helped me develop an understanding of which direction I wanted my life to go.
I found Christianity to offer me sufficient answers to my questions. This experience with books ultimately helped me when I chose to be an English major, where social issues, existential questions and debating were the norm. Honestly, without many of the Christian theology books that people like David introduced me to, the "big questions" I often thought up or faced in literature class were too overwhelming to face.
College students need emotional endurance. My own emotional stability was a result of my personal prayer life, hearing sermons weekly at church and meeting with a Bible study weekly. My friend, Brian Few, led a Bible study I attended weekly and was intentional about challenging me. Few was the college pastor at my church, and he was about 4 years older than I. When I was stressed out about who my roommate would be the next semester, Brian would often tell me to "get out of my head" and be proactive.
These kind of mentor relationships are essential for college students today. At the community college, we often try to come up with ideas about how to be mentors to students. However, in the church, the idea of discipleship can create informal mentor relationships. I greatly benefited from this in college, all for free.
While some students might want to get away from a church or Christians to explore other paths when they arrive at college, I found the opposite to be true. I found a stable community and authentic people who were supportive of my career goals and well-being. The church offers solutions and services to problems the education system faces daily. I hope students can benefit from the advantages of both rather than struggle academically, emotionally or spiritually.
This article originally ran in the Lexington Dispatch on April 9, 2015.