Nowadays, you hear a lot of talk that the value of a college degree is its earning value in the job marketplace. Take, for example, this inspiring message from The College Board (you know, the people who make the SAT and AP exams):
Thanks to all the knowledge, skills and experience you’ll gain in college, you’ll be able to adapt to a greater variety of jobs and careers. Statistics show that a college diploma can help you:
OK, it may be true that statistically speaking, you are more likely to get and keep a job as well as earn more over your lifetime if you have a college degree than if you don’t have one, but if this is the primary reason for getting an education, I find it rather depressing from a Christian standpoint. This point of view woefully diminishes the greater power and purpose of being an educated person–of the opportunity the college environment provides for self-discovery, the sharing of ideas, discourse and dialogue, deepening knowledge, and experience of the world. In short, the formation of the person.
I’m certain at this point you’re probably calling to mind all the negative things that people have warned you about college life, and yes, they are certainly there–we’ll address them later in this series–but if college were just about getting a degree so you can get a job while trying to survive an onslaught of negative social experiences, I don’t think we’d all be so eager to sign up. At minimum, the sheer amount of freedom that college allows you demands that you take seriously the important questions about who you are and who you will become.
Whether it’s in philosophy class considering the writings of Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Derrida or during rush with your sorority, whether it happens in Biology 101 or in the lounge of your dorm, whether it occurs when you change your major, you end a relationship, you finish an internship, or you fail a class, college will demand that you ask yourself,
Who am I at my core?
This is not a trivial question by any means, and it is certainly not a question only for liberal arts majors. This is the paramount question we will be asked not only by the world, but by Christ on the day of judgement. Who have we become? Are we icons of Christ in our love for God and neighbor, or have we become so distorted that Christ says to us, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt 7:23) It’s a question we will answer not only with our intellect but with the fruits our lives have borne.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Preparing for college is more than just picking out a roommate, lining up your first semester of classes, and getting used to the bus routes on campus; it’s preparing yourself to be challenged, to question your intentions and assumptions, to seek a deeper understanding of life. I encourage you, start now. Ask yourself now, before you are asked by the world: Who are you? Why are you an Orthodox Christian? Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know yourself–your talents and your sins? Have you sought God’s love and mercy? Do you want to be His child? In the process of self-discovery, you will have to come to terms with your own life’s story–the good and the bad. You don’t have to make the journey alone, but you will have to decide for yourself what path your life will take.
College will be a time of formation, whether you actively engage in the process or not, the question is: will you be conformed to this world or transformed in Christ?
Noah was in the ark for forty days and forty nights. Moses retreated on Mt. Sinai for forty days. Jesus met Symeon in the temple on his 40th day. Jesus fasted after his baptism for forty days. There were forty days between Christ’s resurrection and his ascension into heaven. We fast for forty days to prepare for the two great feasts of the Christian year, Pascha and Nativity. In each Orthodox Christian’s life, we are churched on our 40th day of life and are remembered on our 40th day of death.
It seems that there’s something very special about a period of forty days in the Orthodox tradition. In Scripture, forty signifies a completed time, a long period of time during which something of significance is accomplished. The end of a forty day period signifies the end of one epoch and the dawn of a new. It’s interesting, then, to note that secular research has shown that in the first six weeks of college–in Orthodox-speak that’s the first forty days–most freshman build the habits and peer groups that will stick with them for their entire college careers. In forty days, students decide what groups in which they will participate and with whom they will spend their time–or even if they will stick with college at all. That’s surely an accomplishment of significance.
So what are we as the Church doing to make sure those first forty days of college are holy epochs and not times of confusion, exclusion, loneliness, or regrettable decisions? Obviously, preparing our students to be successful in college doesn’t start when we drop them off on campus for the first time. It takes years of hard work and education to prepare them academically to be successful, and the same goes for preparing them socially and spiritually to handle the pressures and demands of college life. This is the work of families, parish communities, youth programs, and camps–together, we help raise strong, faithful, and grounded young people who are ready to stand on their own on campus. However, there is something we must be doing when they set foot on campus:
We have to show up.
Our Church community must be present as students go through the crucial social transition that occurs in the first few weeks of college. We can’t expect that they will always find us or will automatically feel at home in our parish just because the sign says “Orthodox” on the front. It is our responsibility to make a personal connection with each Orthodox student as they go off to college so that in their forty day period of transition, they know that the doors of the Church are open to them always like the arms of the Theotokos warmly welcoming, embracing, and loving them, giving them space to find their own way while always bearing witness to the truth of Christ and the fruits which His commandments bear. And if we aren’t there to share our message of love and faith, we should be aware that some else will be there with their own message–good or bad.
Again this year, we at OCF have again launched our First Forty Days Initiative. We want to make sure that we do everything we can to help new freshman find a home in OCF and the local parish as soon as they get to campus by forging personal relationships between new students and local clergy, lay people, and other Orthodox students. From now until July 15th, we will be asking for the names and contact information of every Orthodox high school graduate from every background so that we can ensure that their local OCF chapter and spiritual advisor are able and prepared to reach out to them when they arrive on campus.
Let us join together as a Church and in true Orthodox fashion make the first forty days of college a time of spiritual preparation and growth for our college students.
To read more about the First Forty Days Initiative or submit student contact information, visit our website at ocf.net/firstfortydays.