How I found that the "quintessential college experience" doesn't exist.
Why does everyone insist that college is the time for you to go crazy, buck wild? Sure, you've been under your parents' rules for the past 18 years. It's about time to let loose. No curfew, no rules, and for many of us, no one following you from high school who could tell others how much you've changed or how this isn't "you." For many of us, this is the first time we've had the chance to redefine ourselves as young adults.
But why does this so often mean that we leave behind our faith?
In 2015, I was high on life.
I had just graduated from high school in a suburb of San Francisco (it’s a place that if you were talking to someone from far enough away, you could say you’re from San Francisco, no one would know the difference and you’d automatically be THAT much cooler. But if anyone knew the Bay Area at all, they’d know you’re a suburban fraud).
I was headed to the ever so perfect and sunny, with just a spritz of materialism and dash of corrupted money, Los Angeles, CA. I was going to study Business (even though I didn’t want to do anything having to do with finance, economics or real estate development). It was just what my dad studied and so by default, I did it too.
Can someone cue the fight song?
College fall semester 2015 had begun and after being Little Miss Perfect for all of my adolescence, I was ready to make some college mistakes.
In California, Christianity is not cool.
And the capital of the most uncool place for believing in Jesus? You guessed it: the Bay Area. In high school, people knew I was Christian and made it clear they didn't like it all that much. Aside from being called Jesus Freak and being sent videos of burning Bibles by the popular kids, I held myself to an impossible standard of perfection in order to protect the name of Christianity. And man, was it tiring.
So when I got to college, it's not hard to guess what I did next.
I hid my faith and I joined Greek life (because that’s what all the movies had told us, right? Frats = the only way to the “quintessential college experience”). Have you ever seen Easy A? (If you haven't - it's highly under appreciated and you should see it.) My first steps on my college campus not known as a "Jesus Freak." perfect prissy angel were like Olive Penderghast's first steps as promiscuous princess, sporting her scarlet letter A and corset like a badass.
Duly noted: don’t believe everything the media tells you.
Needless to say, frat row is like a vortex of darkness. Just like Olive Penderghast, in a matter of weeks, I became unrecognizable to myself, with no one to talk to about how I felt I was slipping away from who I truly was in Christ. This was exacerbated simply because the dozens of people I had met weren’t actually meeting the real Jess, but someone else entirely. No one in college had yet to meet the girl who actually loved reading and studying the Bible, having game nights and watching movies, making art and writing... Not ripping shots at frat houses. Even though deep down I knew this wasn't who I was nor what I wanted, I suppressed it because everything around me was screaming:
"So what this isn't your 'thing'? This is how college is done."
So I followed what I was told, like the good girl I was.
I became so lost with seeing who I could become that I completely lost sight of who I truly was. I was going out and meeting everyone I could, comparing myself to every girl next to me. My self worth turned into being better than the next girl, having more followers on Instagram, more likes on my photos, more, more, more - and it was utterly exhausting.
Within a matter of three short months, I quickly found that the "quintessential college experience" of frat row, while it may be a quintessential experience for some, was far from it for me. I thought this was what college was all about? Freedom to do whatever we wanted, right? Shouldn't pure freedom feel like ecstasy? Nirvana? The best thing since sliced bread? If so, how come every morning after a night out, we felt unsatisfied, alone and misunderstood? Why in those moments had we never felt more lost and confused?
Come to think of it - so many of us did. I recall having conversations in my sorority house, in the cafeteria and even in class with other freshmen who confessed, "I don't even want to drink tonight" or "I feel like I need to sleep with him just so he'll pay attention to me" or "Is it crazy I just want to study for my exam tomorrow instead of go to the party?"
It made me sick to my stomach that so many of us felt there was something wrong about the way we were living life: that we had just accepted this culture as fact and concrete, but that something deep down in us knew it didn't have to be this way - whether we held a certain faith as true or not... It was as though every girl I knew seemed to be screaming:
"Can't we just have social night where we don't drink alcohol and we can actually remember the people we met, developing deep friendships beyond a few moments at the bar?
Can't I just go on a romantic date with a guy and not be expected to be physical with him?
Can't I be treated like a princess because of who I am instead of fight for a guy's attention by showing more skin and ripping more shots than the next girl?"
And yet she was silenced by the blaring music and distractions of fraternities that awaited her just outside her window.
In college, it seems like these realities don't exist, especially if you're involved in Greek Life. But news flash, my friends:
YES. WE CAN.
Something I wish my junior year self could go back and say to my freshman year self: "Your journey can and will look different than everybody else's. Be honest with yourself in how you want to spend your time and with whom you want to spend your time. Try new things, but also don't ditch what you know you already love. Be free from others' ridicule. Forgive yourself through your mistakes (because they will happen). And for goodness sake, just because everyone is doing something, that does not mean you have to too!"
Hear this. The cornerstone of freedom is the fact that we have the ability to choose for ourselves. This means that we have the choice to make our paths look the way we want - be it like the status quo or against it. Just because your path may look different than another's does not make your life journey any less important, meaningful, or unique.
Lastly, it's important to mention that just because something is permissible does not always mean it is beneficial. Sure, we can do whatever we want in college; this is true. But will our actions serve to be generative to who we are and who we want to become, or degenerative to who we are and who we want to become? The freedom and the choice is ours.
For your journey...
The college experience does not exist. But your college experience does. Everyone's journey will look different in a variety of ways. It's only when you begin to deny your true self: denying your emotional, physical, spiritual and mental needs, that chaos will arise and you will lose yourself in the midst of trying to "redefine" who you are. Learn to listen to your soul's pleas and be honest with what you want out of your college experience. You may be surprised that it doesn't look like the movies after all...
The Christian perspective...
"'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything'—but not everything is constructive" (1 Corinthians 10:23).
Consider what the apostle Peter says in his letter, 1 Peter, as he reminds us of who we are in the eyes of God. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (2:9).
What?! The Creator of the Universe says that about ME?
As children of God, we are called out of the darkness - not into it. This may mean not having the same college experience (involving sex, drugs, gossip, and alcohol) as other students at your university. He has already taken ownership of you, pursuing you with fervor and proclaiming, "THAT CHILD IS MINE!" and in response, we are to proclaim His glory in everything we do and to everyone around us.
This may explain why we feel so empty and lost when we go back into that darkness after following His footsteps for some time in our lives. Once we know the goodness and truth of following Jesus, everything else will simply fall short.
This one metaphor really helps clarify things for me when I'm trying to make sense of this topic: Imagine there is a fence that separates the Kingdom of God on the right side and the world on the left side. When we say yes to believing in Christ, we begin our journey to understanding the Kingdom of God and how He calls us to live in it here on earth. We have seen the world for what it is on the left side, and we are beginning to experience Jesus' way by crossing the fence over to the right side. If you are a professed Christian and you are still sitting on the fence, this is the most uncomfortable place to be. I mean literally - have you ever tried sitting on a fence? It's not enjoyable, and you can only last for so long.
Jim Johnston, author and senior pastor of Tulsa Bible Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma summarizes this metaphor well when he said, "the most miserable Christians I’ve seen are those who live with a foot in both worlds." It is when we deny God's truth, the truth we have already seen and tasted, that "redefining" ourselves just to fit in with worldly culture can get mucky and we can lose sight of who we truly are in God's eyes.
Live like you are chosen by Jesus. Live like you are a beloved child of God. Be bold in what you believe in at the depths of your core - even if its different than what others say. Trust the person who He has molded you to be today. God doesn't make mistakes.
Johnson, Jim. “Why Are So Many Christians Unhappy?” Desiring God, 4 Mar. 2018, www.desiringgod.org/articles/why-are-so-many-christians-unhappy.