Christians and Campus Life

Christians and Campus Life March 5, 2013

Editorial Note: This is the fourth installment in John Mark Reynolds’ series on Christians and higher education.  See Part One, Part Two and Part Three


The most powerful person in a college student’s life is often the resident advisor: ill paid, but ideologically driven.

Classroom time is not the only learning time.  When I talk to students and parents, they don’t realize that the campus social climate will have as big (or bigger) an impact on their education than professors.

I suspect that if the campus looks like a resort (fun!) and has a good academic reputation, then thinking stops.  Like choosing the shiny cup in the Grail Cave, this is choosing unwisely, because if you live on campus the social atmosphere can wither.

It’s no fun if not a single store in the college neighborhood sells food or even personal products you need.  It is no fun if your values are ignored or attacked every day, even in the bathroom.  It is not fun if your school turns out to be so narrow that the resident advisors can see down a straw with both eyes: a problem as frequent in secular as in Christian schools.

Given this kind of warning, most ask: Should I commute?

Maybe — because you are not growing up to be a monk or nun and so the “dorms” and the cloister are not necessary.  Recall that “college” as we know it has only been around since World War II and is changing fast.  Maybe not — because when I find a person who loved their college experience, I find few commuters.

Living on campus increases the risks of college, but also the potential rewards.

Three Reasons to Commute

1.  Commuters live in the real world.

At no point in later life, you hope, will you be forced to share a bathroom with the person who lives down the hall in your apartment.  When the college tells you dorm life gives you life skills, ask if they are preparing you for prison.

If dorm life works out well, then it can form lifetime friendships.  When it fails, it can waste a year of college.  Nice people sometimes spend an expensive year of college becoming unpaid therapists for troubled souls.

You don’t have to live at home as a commuter.  Get an apartment in a building with diverse age groups.  Fix your own meals. That is learning real life.

If you live at home, pause for a moment.  Are you sure?  In most cultures, you left home when you married, but college is a good time to make that break.

2.  The mysterious “co-curricular” staff does not pastor commuters.

Parents often imagine the Professor of Doom who undermines beliefs with his pernicious Agenda of Doom.  This is fairly rare.  In the sciences, time is limited and so classes focus on content.  In the humanities, the better the school, the less willing the professor is to waste time on “rants.”  He or she might be hostile to Christian values, but will present his or her case carefully.

Little harm is done dialoging with a thoughtful, better trained, person!

Most “ideological training” takes place from people who are not professors.  Most colleges have as many resident advisors, staff, and resident directors as teachers. These folk have educations centered in making a difference in student’s lives.

When this is good, it is very good.  When it is bad, it is horrid.

You do not argue with the ideology of the “co-curricular” area.  They remedy your defects.  More difficult, they set up an entire eco-system to promote the “good values” that the school has embraced.  If it’s difficult to fight the social air you breathe, your mental drink and food without turning cranky, then you should pause.  Do you want to accommodate to those values or become a twenty-two year old curmudgeon?

3.  Commuters focus on the “end.”

College life can be so enjoyable that a few folk get trapped in it or confuse it with their future.  A few of us have never escaped!  Seriously, however, the life of a working faculty member, staff person, or administrator is nothing like being a student.

Students often think college jobs are being paid to be a student, but our jobs are jobs anyway and jobs require work.  Work, especially work with decent wages, is often nothing like the experience one gets when one is paying for the fruits of other people’s work.

If that sounds obvious to you, then you have not met the scads of students who want to grow up to be a professor without learning all those languages, grading all the papers, or slogging to the tutorials.

Sadly, any of us can drink like C.S. Lewis, wear tweedy jackets, smoke like him, but most have no idea how rare such an intellect is!

Most graduates should not expect to work for a college anymore than most graduates should expect to play professional sports. The odds of an English major becoming a fulltime professor with decent wages should be compared to the odds of the school’s point guards playing in the NBA.

Commuters are less likely to see college life, seductively pleasant, as home. Education is a wilderness experience, and some love that life, but civilization requires most of us to leave the wilderness and move to the city.

Three Reasons Not to Commute

1.  Commuting will not save much or any money.

Food plans are often a bad deal, but housing is often a very good deal.  Commuting requires transportation and transportation is expensive.  You can pay for college housing using some forms of financial aid, but you cannot pay for your car.

Price out all aspects of your plan.  Many students spend more money commuting.

2.  Commuters sometimes don’t get as much mentoring and find it harder to make friends.

Most commuters I have known found it harder to spend time with professors after class or spend time eating with friends. In fact, if you do commute, you should buy a basic meal plan to avoid this very problem.

The best learning times I have known have come in unscheduled meetings.

Warning: if you do live on campus and only spend time with peers, you are cheating yourself.  The better you know your professors, the better your experience will be . . . If this general rule isn’t true in your school, rapidly be untrue to your school and transfer.

3.  Commuters don’t hang around campus.

Good colleges have libraries, museums, art galleries, and interesting people.  There are wonderful places to sit apart from life.  Paul went away for three years to learn and a good campus does that for you as well.

Sitting at a desk in the Rochester library looking out the window was some of the most productive thinking I have ever done.  I was blessed, deeply blessed, to have that chance . . . and I would not wish anyone to miss it if it is available.

Last night here at Houston Baptist University, I saw students visiting a new show in the gallery, worked with two theater groups, saw groups in line for a musical treat, and knew lectures were happening in most buildings.  Groups of students were sitting with faculty.

My own opinion is that the benefits of living on campus outweigh the costs if you pick the right school.  Pick a place where the paid folks share your general values, have your standards, there is a diverse student body, and you will have gained immeasurably.  Even at the right school, never be afraid to demand a new roommate or room.  But if you have to do that more than twice, consider that the problem may not be your roommate. A man divorced thrice may not be nice.

Three (or so) Questions to Ask Yourself about Campus Culture

1.  What are the values I wish to have at graduation?  How hostile or friendly to those values do I want my college to be?  Should non-Christians be at the school? 

What do you wish to believe at the end of school? Do the resident halls support those values?  Do all the students?  If you don’t know what you want, luck is unlikely to favor you.

My favorite blend is Christian faculty and a diverse student body.  You pay for the teachers and get to hear their arguments challenged by pagans!

2.  How important is “fun?”

You can have fun at home or on a cruise ship.  Planned “fun” at college is expensive and poor relative to quality found in places like Disneyland or a cruise ship.

Even a Carnival Cruise is safer than most college parties.  Remember: no modern college is a Dickensian horror show . . . Oliver Twist can eat all the fried food he wants and Mr. Pecksniff would never get tenure.  Colleges work hard for you to have a good time, but don’t be deceived: if classwork isn’t hard and oft tedious, it is a fraud.  Eventually you should be asked to read hard books, think hard thoughts, do difficult tasks.  If the college is too centered on you as a “consumer,” it will inevitably stink.  They should be giving what your forty-year old self wishes to get, not what you presently want.

If a college spends time recruiting to your felt needs, ignore that and see if they know what you will really need in decades. 

Make your own fun and go to college to learn.

3.  Am I an urban, suburban, or rural person?

If you are a city girl and go to a Christian college in rural Iowa, you may wish for the Zombie Apocalypse before the end of winter just to spice things up.  If you love the smell of cut grass in the morning, realize that exhaust from the freeway is not the same.

Five Things To Look for at Your College

1.  Does anyone look like you?  Does anyone not look like you?

Diversity matters, but so do sympathetic friends. I would not go to a college that looked nothing like the state in which I planned to live. Why get used to an unreal world?

2. Talk to the resident advisors, not the ones on the tour.  Ask hard ethical questions.

Get into friendly email exchanges with these folk.  Don’t tip your hand to your opinion so you can get candid “help.”  Ask to see training manuals for RA’s and RD’s.  Find out what is encouraged.  If the school will not let you see such materials, don’t go.  What are they hiding?

3. Ask your school directly if they are friendly to your religious values.  Is there a place to pray?  What if you need religious counseling?

4. Walk through the dorms and read the notices on the walls, whiteboards, or on the screens. What do they say about the University values?

5. If sports matter, ask your major advisor about what he or she thinks of athletics.

Are faculty members detached from athletics?  If theater or other activities (non-professional grade) matter to you are faculty members involved?  Do the President or the Provost work with intermural activities?  Attend?

Ignore campus culture at your peril.  Flourish in a good culture to your benefit.

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