Here’s a simple truth: It’s pretty difficult to value yourself if you feel unseen by people around you.
This is a daily dilemma for many of the 60,000 college students in Seattle. And as fall beckons these students back into the rigor and demand of life on campus, what college students need most from the Christ-followers in their community are places to just be.
In autumn of 2021, on the heels of the pandemic, I joined the INN’s staff. The INN was a multicultural ministry that assisted college students at the University of Washington in fostering meaningful relationships with others and with God. I moved into Seattle’s University District eager to cultivate connection points for isolated students starved for in-person interaction. Having just relocated from Southern California for graduate school, myself, I felt a kinship with the college students in my neighborhood as I too juggled a juxtaposition of feelings that were anticipatory yet anxiety inducing, and somehow captured both my doubts and my self-assurance.
When I stepped onto campus for the first time, I felt like I just might conquer the world, while simultaneously sensing that just a few missteps would cause the very ground beneath me to collapse. Perhaps this positioned me for an authentic approach to college ministry where I quickly learned how glaring and grotesque the pressure college students face everyday truly is.
My experience working with college students showed me that providing opportunity and space for them to step back from the demands of college life is a crucial first step in helping them develop healthy relationships with others, with themselves, and with God. For those of us who feel led to connect this next generation to God, there’s no better starting point than helping them to just be.
Through ardent hospitality and unwavering curiosity, we may join students on their journey from being to belonging.
College Students and Inevitable Invisibility
The breakneck pace at which college students navigate their lives leads to what I describe as inevitable invisibility. Inevitable invisibility causes many, including myself, to wonder if anyone else truly sees us or if the work we do actually matters. The great irony of ambition is even if I receive the approval I subconsciously desire from others upon completing a task, I wonder if the only thing worth noticing about me is my output, perpetuating a cycle of striving to be seen. In a culture where “normal” is no longer near good enough, it’s easier than ever to succumb to this pressure to perform, reinforcing the message that anything remarkable about us is rooted in what we do, instead of who we are. This is astonishingly difficult to combat.
While the novelty of youth has always brought forth complexities, no generation has ever had the dreadful ability to compare themselves with practically anyone else in the world in real time. This hyper-connectivity has a way of accentuating what we lack instead of reminding us what we possess. And as we are constantly ambushed by a torrent of faces, voices, influences, and better looking projections of ourselves that seemingly have it all figured out, there’s also a voice in our heads that says sternly, “Pick up the pace.”
And so, we oblige. We hastily dance between lecture halls, devour snacks that masquerade as meals on-the-go, and maintain an image of competence and self-sufficiency while struggling internally to quell the sting of loneliness and comparison. I know this because I feel this way, and my work with college students has shown me that I’m not the only one.
Lessons in Stillness
As I grappled with these sobering realities, I wondered if it had to be this way. When I was presented with an opportunity to lead the INN’s annual mission trip to the Dominican Republic, I saw it not only as a way to invite students into a week of purposeful service and justice, but as a chance to combat chronic busyness.
By the time the 43 of us arrived on the southern coast town of Barahona, students were immersed in the euphoria of new experience. They were disconnected enough from life back home to be open to experimenting with new life rhythms. So on our first full day, I took my chance.
When we returned from church with our hosts for the week, I gathered our group and let them know I’d left the rest of the day deliberately empty. This was confounding to some students who were eager to “begin working.” In an effort to slow down, I invited students to genuinely consider the last time they didn’t feel anxious. To recall the last day they had nowhere to be and nothing to do. I gave permission to nap, encouragement to reflect and journal, a nudge to get to know a new friend or to relax poolside with the book they’d been too busy to read.
In our desire to excel as students, to perform as athletes, to impress as children, or to woo as partners, we often neglect spending extended amounts of time in stillness. In fact, we hardly pause long enough to hear ourselves think. But on that sunny Sunday afternoon in Barahona, as the palm trees swayed gently to the sound of silence, which blossomed into the sound of conversation, which erupted into sounds of laughter, I felt lighter, as if I’d finally relinquished my vice grip on the incessant urge to propel myself further into my own ambitions.
As the week unfolded, I don’t know if any of it would’ve happened the same way without the intentional stillness on day one.
Stillness can foster a sense of self-connectedness, allowing space to cross-reference our actions with what our hearts truly desire. Only in stillness can we confront our proclivity toward finding our value in performance and rest in the reminder of our intrinsic value. On that sunny Sunday afternoon, none of us did anything other than just be. No one earned their way to feeling valued by the person next to them. When students can just be and sense they belong in a space before they do anything to earn that sense of belonging, they know it’s unconditional. What results is the refreshing realization that when we belong, we’re less concerned with performance than we are with purpose.
Over the next week, tears were shed as women in our group led Girls’ club, a space designed to encourage and empower local girls and remind them of their worth and beauty. Deep relationships were formed as we led volleyball clinics, assisted in community development projects, and cooked with families who graciously welcomed us into their homes, swapping stories with us while joyously sharing plates of papas fritas.
On our way back to our place, the sound of chatter flowed throughout the bus as students listened to the person in the seat beside them, discussing the day and contemplating their own stories.
In all of this beauty, one of my favorite sights of the trip happened every morning at around six o’clock. As I sleepily sputtered out my doorstep, I witnessed students, alone, waiting for the first orange rays of sunlight to gently glow. Some just sat. Others read. Some wrote poems and others soaked in the sea. Students started to crave the stillness and relished in the capturing of that elusive feeling that, at last, they could just be.
In the afternoons, students—sweaty, delirious, joyful, and content—rested in the fact that they belonged.
How Churches Can Move College Students from Being to Belonging
People ask a lot of college students. College students ask even more of themselves. How beautiful is it then to have nothing asked or required of you in a space? In the sweetness of stillness, we become more familiar with what is actually going on in ourselves. Here, we can also become more familiar with God.
If our hope is that college students would ponder their own spirituality and enter into a relationship with God, then we must first allow space for them to become properly introduced to themselves. And this doesn’t happen in the pressure cooker that is the college experience. It happens, as the desert fathers and mothers knew, in the stillness.
If you feel led to connect with college students, consider how you can help them find these important moments of stillness. Perhaps you’re able to utilize the spaces you or your organization inhabit to create room for them. If your church is fortunate enough to operate its own coffee shop, that’s a perfect place. If not, perhaps you’re able to partner with a local coffee shop in offering discounted coffee to students. Whatever it may look like, I recommend showering students with sublime hospitality and adopting a patient approach. The journey from being to belonging can sometimes take years, but that process is streamlined if students have a place where someone knows their name, is curious about them, and doesn’t commodify them for what they can produce but instead peacefully diffuses the pressure they so often experience by allowing them space to be seen, to be still, and to belong.
In his book Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation, Richard Rohr says, “Silence creates a kind of sympathetic resonance with what is right in front of us. Without it, we just react instead of respond. We may serve others and have many experiences, but without silence, nothing has the power to change us, to awaken us, to give us that joy that the world cannot give, as Jesus says.” He concludes by stating, “You cannot capture silence. Silence captures you.”
For college students to feel valued and seen, they need places to simply be present, not to perform. In a society obsessed with capturing success, students need spaces to be captured by the peace that accompanies feeling truly seen by those around them. College students need their communities to assist in ushering them from being to belonging, and the church has a major role to play.
Cover photo credit: Lokesh Masania