A handbook of practical wisdom for the would-be college student. Essential summer read for every incoming freshman.–Dr. Gene Veith, provost of Patrick Henry College
About this time last year, we had the honor of hosting Dr. Gene Edward Veith on our website. He talked us through some of the challenges of both secular and Christian colleges, and he addressed the topic of postmodernism in literature and other disciplines. As both an administrator and past educator himself, as well as a thoughtful critic of cultural trends (see his many books, including Postmodern Times), he is a source of wisdom worth carefully considering.
The fact that he recommends Alex Chediak’s book, Thriving at College, says a lot. So do the many other recommendations you can see at his website, www.alexchediak.com, from spiritual leaders such as Alex and Brett Harris, Albert Mohler, Leland Ryken, and even World’s editor in chief, Marvin Olasky. Janie and I actually met Alex through our recent post, Graduation Gifts for Teens, but since the struggles of college life are probably more meaningful to our intern, Caity Kullen, still in college herself, we asked her to conduct an interview with Dr. Chediak for you all. Here’s the very helpful result.
1. What do you think is the most important thing for a student entering college to know?
That they are now expected to act as adults and will be treated as such. In other words, they must take full responsibility for their lives–socially, academically, and spiritually. Nobody will be looking over their shoulder. In high school, the mere presence of parents in the home provided a measure of accountability that is absent in dormitory living. Time management is now entirely their responsibility, not Mom and Dad’s.
This isn’t just a personal shift, but an academic one. In high school, you’re in class for about 7 hours/day, Monday through Friday. In college, actual class time is about half of that, but the expectation is that you’re studying two hours out of class for every one hour in class. Even if assignments aren’t due, you’re expected to be keeping up with the course material, so that you’re ready for the midterm exams and term papers. In short, if you’re a full-time student, college is a full-time job.
Academic failure–experienced by about one in four freshmen each year–is generally not for lack of ability, but for lack of discipline. An inability to keep fun times limited, to get enough sleep, and to stay on top of their classes. One of the techniques I recommend in Thriving at College is making a schedule that reflects not just when your classes, laboratories, or music and athletic practices meet, but when you’ll be studying–even if no assignments are due. There will be free time leftover to do things with friends, but it’s important that you prioritize your work, because it will often take discipline to do it. Yet those who don’t attend to their responsibilities do not thereby escape them. Rather, they’re ultimately overwhelmed by them (Prov. 24:30-34).
2. How would you advise students to deal with new-found freedoms and an unending stream of social activities?
I think it’s important to begin college with a clear purpose in mind: This is a temporary season of academic preparation and growth so that I can serve God more effectively with the rest of my life. It isn’t an expensive vacation funded by Mom, Dad, and student loans.
For many, college is their first time away from home, so the new-found freedom can be exhilarating, but perhaps debilitating. So many options! So little external restraint! It’s wise to cultivate a healthy, God-honoring perspective of recreation. It’s essential to take breaks from work because only God never needs to eat, sleep, or rest (Ps. 121:4, cf. Mark 6:31-32). Recreation is a gift of God to be pursued with intentionality and in reasonable measure (i.e., limited doses). It is never to dominate our lives—the way video games or endless hanging out do for some. Rather, when properly pursued, recreation empowers us for our work rather than distracting us from it.
3. And in particular, the freedom, and perhaps pressure, to access alcohol?
Stress and anxiety are common emotions that college students experience, and ones which some seek to suppress via binge drinking. Christians should respond to such temptations by recognizing that they’re accountable to God for their behavior, and that drunkenness is everywhere forbidden in Scripture. It not only devastates their walk with God, but can lead them to make foolish decisions.
4. What is the best way for students to make friends on campus?
I think it starts with being secure and confident in your identity as a Christian. At college you’ll meet lots of people in your dorms, in classes, and in your musical group or athletic teams. But not everyone you meet has to become your close friend. Rather, recognize that “whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20).
The people you hang out with that first month make an enormous difference on the entire academic year. So be intentional about finding the kinds of friends that can truly enrich your experience. The ones you can be honest with, and still be accepted. The ones who won’t tempt you to compromise your convictions, but who share your core Christian values, and who spur you on to love, trust, and follow Jesus Christ more wholeheartedly. Along with this, commit yourself to finding a good church–one not only with good teaching and music, but where you can really connect with the people.
5. Many college students struggle with feelings of loneliness, how should a student deal with loneliness or depression?
Developing a strong, core group of solid Christian friendships should help curb loneliness. As for depression, a good Christian counselor or pastor can be very helpful. In my limited experience, depression can be triggered by some life-altering event—a regretful decision(s), a break-up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, not getting a job offer, or new anxieties regarding relational or professional aspirations. We sometimes need help to cast all our anxieties on him because he cares for us (I Peter 5:7), and to remember that God wants us to follow Him more than we do. Even our sins and failures will not prevent God from making us more like Jesus. Rather all things (including our failures) will work together for our good (Rom. 8:28). This does not promote passivity, but rather grace-fueled, faith-filled effort in the pursuit of holiness and in the faithful stewardship of professional and relational opportunities.
Do you have questions for Dr. Chediak? He’s been making the rounds recently at Desiring God and Focus on the Family, etc. You can hear more of his thoughts on his blog, including links to some of these further discussions. Or check out the parent-child discussion guide here. (Even if you don’t have the book, this could be very useful.)