When I was asked to write my reflections on College Conference West 2015 and I started to think about it, I suddenly understood that I did not have the words to express my feelings. Well, you could say, that is not a surprise, non-native speakers always have problems with vocabulary. However, the real problem was that I could not find the true words in my mother tongue of Russian.
To explain the variety of my feelings, I will try to write here everything in order, from the moment when I first time heard about the conference (and even a little bit before it), till the last farewell hugs with my new friends.
The story started in approximately October 2015. I was planning to visit my family in Russia for winter break, but, unfortunately, some problems occurred and I had to spend the whole break in the US. Unfortunately? Just three months later I thanked God for this problem. But let’s not break the order of the story.
In the beginning of December, I heard about the conference for the first time. I thought, “Well, I have nothing to do at this time. Maybe it will be interesting.” This is the way adventures begin. I registered, finished with my classes and started to wait. What did I expect? Kind of a standard conference. Lectures, posters, discussions–sometimes interesting, but mostly not. New friends, well, not close friends–how can you make a real friend during three days (Ha. Ha. Ha.)? Just acquaintances. Those were my expectations. And, as usual, the reality was much more interesting…
We reached St. Nicholas Ranch via carpooling (thanks, Andriana, who organized it, and Marina, who picked up all of us!). It was already quite an unusual start for a conference. Instead of a boring bus or even more boring airplane, we had a four hour ride across the beautiful California mountains with people, who quite soon would become my friends. Real friends.
We came to the Ranch, registered, I took my bags from the trunk and went to the room which was assigned to me. And there, finally, I understood how wrong my expectations were. I needed to change my paradigm.
Everything around me was not like a boring “adult” conference, but a childrens’ camp, where I had not been for ten years ago. Well, great! Let us be children at least for three days. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
Of course, in a good sense. We didn’t become irresponsible as children, but we became ready for friendship, new knowledge and new experience, unlike usual adults. Now let me talk a little about each of these gifts.
Because the event was called a conference, let me start with knowledge. We had four brilliant workshop speakers and one keynote speaker. Father Apostolos Hill, Abbot Tryphon (aka Lord Abbot of Salish Sea), Father Michael Gillis, Mother Melania, and Daniel and Christina Andresen–thank you all! I cannot say that someone was better, it is as if to ask, “What is better? Salt or sugar? Water or fire?” Everyone was an excellent fit for his topic, and all topics were really relevant for our life as Orthodox students. And Abbot Tryphon was not only a workshop speaker, but he also organized the “Salish Brotherhood of St. John the Wonderworker” to help us to be connected by the bounds of friendship. The other name of the Brotherhood is “The Knights of Salish Sea” so I am a knight now. Please call me “Sir Valentin”.
Talking about the friendship at this conference, it is impossible not to mention the second night. I would even call it, “The Second Night.” I think it is the most important night at this conference. The night when people who were nobody to each other become close friends for the rest of their lives. The night when, through the pain and tears, friendship is born. The night when you understand something very important about yourself. I will not tell you what happened during this night so as not to be a spoiler. Just believe me, you will never forget this experience. After this night I really was sure that it was the climax of the conference.
And I made a mistake, the next morning was…here my words are finished. I can just say that it was one of the most beautiful moments in whole my life. So beautiful that sometimes I was close to crying. It was one of those moments, when you feeling the reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. It is better to see one time than listen to the description one hundred times, as a Russian proverb states.
Alas, the time of the conference was coming to the end. The last evening was like an ultimate gift. The Open Mic Talent Night. “Every neighbor is a friend” and wanted to do his best at the end. People played different instruments, sang songs, and read poems. There were excellent piano players and singers, and there were just beginners, who wanted to give their two mites for their new friends before parting. There was a girl who had played the piano for the first time the night before, and she played “Happy Birthday” for one of the participants (thank you, Mary!). And then we danced, and walked, and gazed at stars, and did not want to part.
The last morning. The day of parting. Final hugs. Everyone feels a little bit lost. We are sitting to the car and driving back to LA. Finally, I am at home, feeling mixture of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Glory to Thee for the encounters Thou dost arrange for me. Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life. Glory to God for all things.
Valentin Slepukhin was born in Ekaterinburg, Russia, a city in Ural mountains between Europe and Asia. When he was 16 years old, he moved to Moscow for his undergraduate, and then Master studies in Physics. In 2015, he moved to UCLA for a PhD program. He is studying theoretical physics, which is mainly about understanding the basic laws of the universe and applying these laws to predict or explain some observable effects. In his free time, he usually reads books.