Advice to my former freshman self
A few things that I think you, my eighteen-year-old self, can stand to learn from me, your twenty-two-year-old self.
You're in college. I envy you. Last year was my first in "the real world," where people have "jobs" and make "money," and as cool as that may sound, it's not all it's cracked up to be. First off, you have to do things like wear a necktie, wake up before eight o'clock in the morning, and practice proper grooming techniques. Don't take for granted your years of crawling out of bed at noon, putting on sweats and a hoodie, and rolling into class with hair that looks like something out of an old Journey music video. These things are not really allowed in the workplace, I'm afraid. And consider—when are you going to get another chance to become the best Guitar Hero player ever to walk the earth? Probably never.
Of course, college is about more than playing unnecessary numbers of video games. Your parents sent you to college to learn something. In my four years of college, I hope I came away with more wisdom than I when I started—although my friends would likely dispute that claim. But, regardless, here are a few things that I think you, my eighteen-year-old self, can stand to learn from me, your twenty-two-year-old self.
Hit the books
More than anything else, the main point of going to college is to learn. It's easy to get caught up in any number of things in college—sports, extracurriculars, campus ministry, service projects, you name it. Those things are fine and good, and they all have their place. But if you go through four years of school without growing in wisdom, something's gone wrong.
While you're in college, you have the chance to really dig into the wonder of God's creation, and search after what's true, beautiful, and good. Time for study is genuinely a gift—as you get older and busier, you'll find that you don't have much of it anymore. Don't be apologetic about spending time on academics, either. It isn't somehow "un-Christian" to do schoolwork instead of praying or evangelizing all the time—God wants us to love him with our minds, and time well-spent in college will serve you well for the rest of your life.
As for what to study, in addition to your particular area of interest, I'd recommend taking at least two or three courses to read the classics and ponder the big questions. Writers like Plato, Augustine, Pascal, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky have a lot to teach us. Try to expose yourself to the beautiful things in life, too—developing an appreciation for fine art, music, and poetry should be a key part of any education. Finally, you've heard George Santayana quoted: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It really is true—if you don't understand where the culture and political system we live in comes from, you'll be carried along by its current without knowing where it's taking you. So read some history.
Find your path
No, I don't mean that in some sort of hippy-ish 1960s kind of way. I mean it the way the church means it, which is to say that we each were made for a particular vocation, or calling. For many of us, college is a crucial place for figuring out what we're called to do in life, and it's well worth the while to take a step back and spend time in prayerful, thoughtful discernment. How do we discern our callings? One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, explained it best: "The place God calls you to," he said, "is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Think carefully—where do your talents and passions lie? Maybe it's singing, or writing, or caring for people in need. That's no accident. We're each created by God with a purpose, and your talents and passions ("spiritual gifts," as Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians) are crucial to figuring out what you should do with your life. Not everyone has every gift, and that's okay—each gift has its own important place within the church.
It's crucial to remember the "world's deep hunger" part of the equation, too. Ask yourself how you can use your gifts to serve God's kingdom. Let's say you love persuading people, so you decide to go into marketing. Fair enough; you can do a lot of good in that career. But then, let's say that you get offered a job with a firm that specializes in selling cigarettes to kids. Probably not a good idea! By getting all three things lined, up, though—talent, passion, and Christ-like service—you'll go a long way to finding out what God has in mind for your life.
Make genuine friendships
Social life in college, unfortunately, isn't always focused on meaningful relationships. Often, people pick their "friends" with a view to social climbing. But, believe me, no one looks back on college and says, "Gosh, I wish I'd spent more time partying," or "Y'know, I wish I'd joined a cooler frat." And consider: How many real friends do you have right now, and how many are more like people you just hang out with? Real friendships take effort and investment, and don't always come easily. But the memories that stick with you from college are of the genuine friendships you made and what you learned through them. A truly lifelong friendship is a rare gem; happenstance acquaintances are a dime a dozen.
This advice goes for romantic relationships as well—too much of what passes for romance on campuses is shallow and downright exploitative. The random hook-up culture basically has disconnected sex from its rightful context of love, commitment, and family. Now, I know as well as you do—following Christian teaching on sex isn't easy, especially in college. But what most of us really want, in the end, is what God wants for us—a lifelong marriage grounded in love and faithfulness. And what you do now matters for whether that'll be in the cards. Van Wilder may look fun, but that lifestyle can hurt people, and in the long run it won't make you happy.
This one's the most important of all. In college, you have the chance to make your faith your faith, instead of just something you did back home because your parents said so. One of the most important parts of that is attending church and getting involved in campus ministries. We're made by God for fellowship, with him and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Neglecting that means neglecting God. And Christian friends can help you grow in faith and character, so that you unlearn sinful habits and grow instead to have abundant life in Christ.
Be sure to set aside quiet time for God each day, too. There's no substitute for regular prayer and Scripture reading. In prayer, our thoughts and desires are shaped by God, and by reading the Bible, we learn to see ourselves as part of God's story of salvation. The world really does start to look different when you spend daily time in Scripture and prayer—instead of seeing everything through the lens of one of the world's false stories (like popularity or power), you start to see the world through the eyes of Jesus. That changes things. Soon, it becomes impossible to keep God in church or "quiet time"—your whole life becomes centred around the God in Christ who loves you and wants you to follow him.
That's it! At least, that's mostly it. In general, college is a wonderful opportunity, and in fact a gift from God, so you shouldn't be scared of it. Some people (Christians, especially) see college as not much more than a hotbed of atheism and drunken partying, and so they get into a sort of hunker-down, "us against them" mentality. Now, I think that's an exaggeration, but it's not entirely wrong, either. Some of what you're taught in class will be strongly biased against Christian truth, and it's important to take things with a grain of salt. And I've already mentioned some of the damaging lifestyle patterns of campus culture. But overall, even though it's important to be critical and cautious, I think it's best to view college as a gift to be gratefully received, not an enemy to be battled. All truth is God's truth, and we have a lot to learn from our professors and non-Christian friends.
So get out there and learn something! And have fun while you're at it. Remember, some of us have to wear neckties every morning. Wear an old hoodie to class and play an extra round of Guitar Hero for me, OK? And have fun studying for those final exams, too. Gosh, I hated studying for finals. On second thought, maybe I don't envy you that much after all . . .
With fond affection,