The sprawling University of Wisconsin campus dominates life in Madison, my hometown. When new and returning students move into university housing at the end of each summer, the whole town feels it. Couches, filing cabinets and shower caddies litter the curbs, and shopping centers are overrun with students and their parents making one last supply run before they part ways and the semester begins. The first home football game disrupts traffic for miles, and the nightlife becomes markedly more – lively. This is what life is like in a college town, which pulses according to the rhythms of the university at its heart.
But, what is life like for college freshman? What is it like for the newbies who hug their parents goodbye in the dorm parking lot, square their shoulders, and turn to face a lifetime’s worth of choices, questions, and opportunities compressed within the space of four years?
Recently two books have provided a behind-the-scenes look at life on U.S. college campuses. In one, My Freshman Year, anthropology professor and author Rebekah Nathan tells of how she enrolled as a freshman at a university to experience student culture first-hand. In the other, Binge, former Time correspondent Barrett Seaman investigates student life at a dozen universities over a two-year period.
For anyone who hasn’t been on a college campus recently, the pictures these authors paint of campus life may be shocking. They devote entire chapters to alcoholism, the hedonistic and casual nature of many students’ sexual habits, and the dramatic increase in the number of students taking antidepressants and requesting psychological counseling. Although some students are observed abstaining from alcohol and thoughtfully pursuing meaningful relationships, these seem to be the minority. The overriding impression of these authors is that most students spend their time in college on one long bender, feeding appetites at whim.
As anthropologists, the authors of each of these books record what they see — and much of it is downright depressing. But, for those of us who minister to college students, our hope lies in seeing what, for all of their powers of observation, these two authors don’t record. As InterVarsity staff we rely on what the apostle Paul called “the eyes of the heart.”
The difference between an anthropologist’s perspective on students and our perspective on students in the InterVarsity community is that we know that these students have, as Paul said, “been made a little lower than the angels.” It is a radical truth for many students to hear that they are not simply material, but have spiritual as well as physical appetites. And, as spiritual beings, created by a loving God, their lives have meaning, value, and purpose.
This fall InterVarsity staff are interacting with thousands of college freshmen all over the country, and through conversation, mentoring, and Scripture study are offering students a whole new way of thinking about themselves as spiritual beings.
As I walked through the UW campus the other day I saw hundreds of new students walking and talking together. I won’t deny that some of what I saw and heard lacked depth. It’s easy to draw the same kind of conclusions about students as the authors of My Freshman Year and Binge record. Freshmen aren’t generally known for their sage wisdom and restrained lifestyles. But, a prerequisite for our work as InterVarsity staff is to see freshmen as Jesus sees them. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince.