Last month, my wife and I were invited to speak to a youth group about the transition to college. Maybe it was the ten hours of driving the day before, maybe the haze of having to give four “talks” in two days, or simply the time pressure I felt (my wife had already begun her half of our ten-minute limit). As I sat there trying to figure out what I think students need to know before they go to college I thought about Dr. Hicks.
When I was in high school, I was a math and science geek. My senior year, I took a physics class that drew the interest of a total of five other students. The six of us would meet with Dr. Hicks, a gray-haired physics teacher, to design experiments and probe the depth of our Newtonian world. Intent on preparing us for college, Dr. Hicks ran his class much like, as I would later find out, a college course. Then one day Dr. Hicks decided to set aside the regular coursework and give us an unsolicited how-to lesson on financing our college educations. It was a very concrete lesson about things I knew little about, such as real estate value, parental income, federal taxes, and interest rates. I have looked back on that day and appreciated that Dr. Hicks saw a need and decided to tell us how the world really worked.
As my wife finished her inspiring story about rediscovering God’s love on a six-week wilderness trip, out the window went all my pedagogical training and everything I read about how “make it stick” or how to best reach this new generation. I decided that my approach, for better or for worse, would be to simply tell them what I, in my vast life experience of attending college, believed to be the most important thing all college students should do. Inspired by Dr. Hicks I boldly stood up and said, “When you go to college, at least once during your time there, get out of this country!”
Steven Wright, the dead-pan comedian of the eighties used to say: “It’s a small world but I wouldn’t want to paint it!” Since then, with globalization in full swing, the world does seem to be getting smaller. You can read about it on the Internet, watch it on YouTube, and throw sheep at people literally on the other side of the world. But to really discover it, as Janie, the heroine in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God, says, “you got tuh go there tuh know there.” There is something about the embodied experience that cannot be replaced.
How you go about getting out of the country is where your creativity and personal interests come in. The number of “study abroad” programs is growing exponentially. You can get credit for living in another culture and usually the cost is not much more than the cost of regular tuition. There are also a number of service or volunteer work programs that will offer (usually summer) opportunities to discover the world. If you are self-directed or have contacts overseas, you can design your own adventure in the tradition of the pilgrimage of Santiago or the Grand Tour, the 18th-century rite of passage young men took around Europe.
If I were to give this talk again I would add another experience to the list of important things to do before or during college years: learn to retreat. For most of us, being alone does not come naturally but it is something we desperately need. So, start small and work your way up. At first take a couple hours, maybe a half-day. Leave your phone, laptop and PDA behind. Go somewhere without the visual clues that will easily distract you. Maybe your church sanctuary or if the weather is nice go outside in a park. Take a notebook and a Bible, or a good meditation book like Don Postema’s Space for God. Pick one page of your notebook as the place to write down all the thoughts that will come and distract you from hearing God through the silence and the Scriptures. When one of those thoughts or problems comes into my mind, like how am I going to get my next paper done or where do I want to take my wife on our next vacation, I write it down on that page. The question or thought won’t be lost and I can return to it after my time of solitude.
Once you become comfortable with solitude, or if you are more the immersion type, find a retreat center or a monastery and contact them about taking a couple of days and visiting for a personal retreat. Often during your retreat you will have the option of meeting with someone who is trained to guide people during their time of solitude. This may be helpful as you learn how to listen in silence and solitude. Retreats can give a rhythm to life and an opportunity to breathe and reconnect with God in a way that is often very difficult in the intensity of college. To take a couple days once a year while in college can begin to build a discipline that will last a lifetime.
Twenty years ago as a high school senior visiting a college campus, I met a student who asked me what I thought about his school. I told him that I didn’t like it because in my weekend visit I hadn’t met anyone with whom I felt I could connect. He responded: “Why do you want to go to a school where everyone is like you? You don’t learn from people like you. You learn from people who are different from you.” I thought a lot about what that student said that night and four months later enrolled in that school as a freshman.
Maybe you are like me. Sometimes I need somebody like Dr. Hicks or this student to tell it like it is. In my life it has been those pieces of advice that have been the doorway to unexpected adventures and learning. As you consider your next semester or summer plans, find a little solitude, and at least once, get out of this country!