A few of my favorite teenagers recently asked to meet with me one-on-one before they went off for college. I’m sure all were prompted by their parents but they followed through and made the appointments. In a way they were saying goodbye to me and their church home. I’ve known them all their lives and St. John’s is important to them. They also wanted to prepare for what lies ahead of them in college and, in some ways, they were looking for a little advice.
I did some listening and some affirming. I wanted to hear what they are excited about, what they might be a little anxious about. Leaving home is pretty exciting and pretty scary. It helps just to acknowledge those feelings. When I left home for college I think I was so excited that the scary feelings didn’t hit until after I got there. The feelings came but very few of my fears actually came to life. I was afraid of the unknown but the unknown generally turns out much better than we fear it will.
As I listened to these teenagers, all very bright and independent, I remembered my own time in college and conversations I’ve had with college students over the years. It’s one of a handful of life determining transition times. In so many ways the path we find in college affects every step we take for the rest of our lives.
Two mistakes I’ve watched college students make over the years have been either to be too focused or not focused enough. Some students enter college already knowing exactly what their major course of study is going to be. They already have a picture of what they want to do for a living, what sort of lifestyle they want to lead, and they bear down to achieve their goals. For some that works out really well but most who are that narrowly focused later on in life feel trapped and wonder if maybe they should have gone in a different direction or at least considered other options.
Maybe a more common college mistake is never to find any focus. There are a lot of distractions in college and many students never get around to applying themselves to their studies. They just bounce around from one event to another without ever finding anything that captures their full attention. Some fail out and have to start over again. Some graduate but without being awakened by any subject. If we never doing any experimenting, we never learn to fail. If all we do is experiment we never really learn to succeed.
My conversations with college students have usually come around to one main thing: learning to find a way to listen to their inner voice. College students typically have very little privacy, very little quiet time, very few places where they can reflect and ponder all that is going on inside and around them. Teenagers aren’t famous for their reflection skills. Most of them haven’t been asked to do much reflection. Their parents have steered them and their parents’ identities have naturally overshadowed their own. Now, in college, they are on their own in many ways but they typically just adopt the identity of a particular group they are part of. It’s a great time for them to begin to figure out who they actually are but that sort of perspective doesn’t come without some practice.
Suddenly having a roommate for the first time in their lives throws many college students off. Living with someone else’s mess or chaos or just never having a place that is really their own is a tough change. You wake up with someone nearby, go to sleep with someone nearby, and are surrounded by people all day. Most adults develop some system of entering the day with a period of quiet reflection. We learn to pause and consider the lessons of yesterday and the opportunities of the day ahead. We find a prayer practice or a way of meditating that helps us find our center. That’s really difficult for college students who rarely have solitude.
In the midst of all the hubbub of college life, finding a little solitude each day is sometimes the key to finding one’s identity. Carving out 30 minutes or an hour a day where we can listen is something we all need to develop. In times of transition, like college, learning to listen to that inner voice may be the one practice that will bring peace and clarity. Those with a narrow focus sometimes think their grades or their decisions will determine their success. Those with no focus develop a passive approach to life and just let things happen to them. Both types benefit from listening to their inner voices.
For those of us not in college, the practice of listening to our inner voice still applies. When things are spinning around outside us and inside us, the still small voice of God calls to us. Listen a little each day and let that voice become the light that will lead you.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.