By Nathan Peterson

Reaching New Students at Boise State—Hospitality through Letter Writing

It starts to hit you when the family minivan arrives through the university’s massive arched gateway. It hits even harder when you reach the freshmen dorm, and your family starts helping you unload your hoard of late-night snacks and your time-stained teddy bear, WaWa, packed for emotional support.

And then saying goodbye to your family (your siblings are already bickering over your room as your parents tear up) and walking into the school’s dining hall full of complete strangers just brings it all hammering down: You’re going to be spending a lot of time in this new strange place over the next four years. And you barely know anybody . . .

Those First Few Weeks

This strong blend of butterflies, anxiety, and excitement that accompanies a freshman’s first day on campus has always been there. But COVID took things to a whole new level. Many freshmen never even had the chance to tour campus. These uncertainties, questions, and murky expectations multiplied exponentially as they prepared for the fall of 2020.

Right in the middle of this, InterVarsity Area Director Matt Michalowski began sensing the Lord’s leading to try something new for New Student Outreach (NSO) at Boise State University. NSO traditionally spans the first few weeks of the semester, where InterVarsity campus ministers and chapters make intentional spaces to welcome new students to campus through things like fun outreach events and Proxe stations that help jumpstart deeper faith conversations.

But with COVID drastically changing the college experience, Matt began asking himself, “How can we better reach freshmen? What could it look like to reduce some of these friction points, so when students step on campus in the fall, they feel like they’re walking into a home? I feel like the Holy Spirit was really challenging and inviting me to see NSO differently.”

As Matt wrestled with this more, what came to mind was his mom, specifically memories of her extravagantly welcoming him home from college for the summer and holidays with gifts and a huge spread of authentic Sicilian food. With her deep passion for hospitality, she’s always looking for ways to add a “little oregano and basil.”

Then he saw incoming freshmen creating Class of 2024 accounts on Instagram, longing for a chance to build community. And the more he thought about it, the more Matt came to see: Instagram could become the Sicilian spread his mom was always preparing, helping freshmen feel at home on campus.

Walking into Relationships

Screenshot of stickers Matt's chapter sent to incoming freshmen. One is a shoe with" Jesus, take the wheelys from my heelys." And another is a bird with: "Birds aren't real, but Jesus is."In the spring of 2020, Matt and his student leaders started reaching out to incoming freshmen on Instagram, introducing them to InterVarsity and asking if they’d like a little something in the mail to help them feel more at home even before they stepped foot on campus in the fall.

Around 70 students said yes. So Matt and his students got to work designing custom stickers for these incoming freshmen and writing hand-written letters of encouragement and prayer. By the fall, many new students were already reaching out to Matt, asking when they would start hosting events. One student started recruiting friends to InterVarsity gatherings—before she’d even gone to one herself.

Matt and the chapter were thrilled to meet the students they’d been writing to, and many of these new students have been with the ministry ever since.

Brooke was one of those students. She immediately fell in love with InterVarsity’s easygoing, God-seeking community. And her time spent studying God’s Word, like at Mark Camp, where students went through the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark, helped her deeply grow. Along with several other freshmen who received letters, she’s been preparing to step into leadership in the chapter this school year.

And even when Matt’s plan to host a table during a campus organization fair—he had to reserve the spot a year in advance—fell through the day before the event, Matt and his students leaders were still able to keep moving forward.

In the spring of 2021, Matt gathered the chapter to again write letters for incoming freshmen. As they wrote, students who had received a letter themselves began reminiscing, saying how refreshing it was. One student still had the letter hanging up in their dorm.

“But our role now is to care for others.”

“It was just a fun process and such an easy way to cast vision for NSO and invite [students] to be part of the process earlier too,” Matt said. “These students as a community are starting to gain that mentality of ‘We are being cared for, and we’re caring for each other. But our role now is to care for others.’ It’s really beautiful, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what this NSO will bring.”

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Nathan served as a writer for InterVarsity for five and a half years. He currently works for a ministry serving adults with disabilities. He enjoys writing and drawing and staying in shape.

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