orientation (a reflection)

In the last week, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two campuses – West Virginia University and George Mason University – which happened to be holding New Student Orientation activities during my visits.

For the uninitiated, NSO is a summer event when freshmen make their way to campus, often with parents in tow, in order to… well… get “oriented” for the year to come. Depending on the school, this event involves registering for classes, touring the campus, learning traditions and other school “rules,” and perhaps even moving in to the dorms (if Orientation takes place at the end of summer).

Orientation also brings recruitment by countless organizations. Again, depending on the school, this can include extracurricular activities (frats, clubs, ministries, etc.), but it very likely also includes community establishments.

Such as banks, with their slick cups and pens and T-shirts and checkbook holders, recruiting students and their (parents’) money. You’ll also find newspaper subscription-hawkers, cell phone companies, and the ever-present bookstore, who will remind you from the beginning of your college experience that its convenience and support of the school make higher prices worth the cost.

Each business recognizes that this is a fresh crop, a group of pre-freshmen ready to be served! After all, a whole bunch of ’em just graduated in May, and while their faces are long forgotten their patronage is certainly missed.

(The credit card companies are generally absent at this point; they will instead show up within the semester, when parents aren’t around, with lots of free T-shirts or other flashy giveaways.)

This is Orientation.

But as missionaries, we look closer.

This is a land of fresh, wide-eyed potential. 18-year-old men and women walk these halls with maps they won’t soon need. Over the next four years, they will encounter a sort of life they haven’t known, with freedoms to do and be and become. The skin of high school, often so restrictive with its cliques and malformed “cool” and Babel-like single-language culture, will be shed. New friends, new acceptance, new opportunities are here, whether this place is 50,000 people strong or much smaller.

A college is bigger than its numbers.

Successes in the next four years will lead to the greatest joys imaginable, with experiences that last a lifetime or even lead these beautiful people to a new sort of life altogether. Reinventing oneself is not an uncommon event on a college campus.

These men and women will “find themselves” in all the best ways: within majors they didn’t know existed, within communities they didn’t know could exist, within new routines and challenging schedules and the maturity that makes life breathe easier. Leaders will rise up, either realizing the potential we always knew they had… or shocking everyone with ability we never knew existed.

Some of these men and women will find husbands and wives over the next four years, and many others will have their “antes upped,” as they are influenced by co-ed friendships to raise the bar on what they’re looking for in a significant other.

In even the first month of school, many will join clubs that will “stick.” Many will start a friendship that will last forever. Many will be invited to a Bible study. Many will find their church – or at least start looking with intentionality. Many will reflect on this new experience, grin, and look forward to an amazing four years.

In those next four years, plenty of these men and women will get a leadership position. Or two. They’ll get in shape. Get a kiss (even their first, in some cases). Get engaged. Learn to schedule. Get a 4.0. Get honored. Make 1,000 Facebook friends. Find a career. Study abroad. Let go a little, loosen up a bit, mature a lot, and laugh nearly every day.

Some of these nearly-collegians will be back smiling next year at Orientation, happily representing the glories they’ve found to a new batch ready to be influenced and trained. Some of these will be glories that would pleasantly surprise them today.

And some of those booths will be ministry booths, because the Collegiate Ministry communities will have welcomed in Christians and non-Christians and will have discipled and fellowshiped and converted and loved. Lots and lots of love. Plenty of boys and girls will come to school uncommitted and will leave vibrant, wide-eyed Jesus followers, and the whole world will be different because of it.

As missionaries, we look.

This Orientation also presents a land of unspeakable danger. 18-year-olds walking these halls at Orientation don’t realize the changes about to take place, and there are few good maps. Over the next four years, they will encounter a sort of life they haven’t known, with freedoms to fail and waste and destroy. The buffers of high school and family, often places of unappreciated coziness and naivete and ever-present help, will be long gone. New kinds of pain, new temptation, new harshness are here, whether this place is 50,000 people strong or much smaller.

A college is bigger than its numbers.

“Simple mess-ups” in the next four years will lead to the deepest pain imaginable, in some case pains that last a lifetime or even lead these beautiful people to take their lives altogether. Collegiate suicide is not an uncommon event.

These boys and girls will “find themselves” in all the worst ways: within temptations they didn’t know existed, within relationships they didn’t think could exist, within new routines and schedules and the stresses that can color days gray. Cults will rise up: cults of personality, cults of pleasure, and even real religious cults. (I’ve seen them all year long.)

Many will “play house” over the next four years, and even today at Orientation the girls flaunt bodies, and even today the boys muster courage and methods to take them up on it. Many boys and girls will lower their expectations, willing to do much and accept many that they wouldn’t have only a year or two before, in hopes of touch and friendship and love and promise.

In even the first month of school, many will be invited to parties that get them in over their heads. Many will get drunk for the first time. Many won’t be invited to a Bible study. Many will attend church for the last time for many years. Many will reflect on this new experience, shudder, and walk forward into four years.

In those next four years, plenty of these men and women will make a life-changing bad decision. Or two. They’ll get in heavy debt. Have a homosexual encounter (even their first, in some cases). Get an eating disorder. Get depressed. Reject their faith. Abort their education. Abort a child. Bring shame to themselves, their family, or their organization. Masterfully learn “the world,” in all its selfishness and evil and temporary gratification. Lose friends. Let go of too much, loosen up too much, mature too little, and cry on many, many days.

Some of these nearly-collegians will be back smiling next year at Orientation, as well, happily representing the “glories” they’ve found to a new batch ready to be influenced and trained. Some of these will be glories that would repel them today.

This is the brink called Orientation, as men and women walk the halls of campus with their soon-tossed maps and their soon-absent parents and their fearful hope in tow.

Written from Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, Florida

One Comment

  1. Perspective-refining and inspiring Ben. I’ve been watching and interacting with numerous freshman thru the NSO’s at UTA in the last couple weeks trying to see them with eyes of possibilities. This is a help that I’ll be sharing with my leadership team as we plan for the fall. Keep up the great work!

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