Twenty-seven years ago this month, my mother dropped me off at Gordon College for La Vida, Gordon’s required outdoor wilderness education program. She was sending me to the mountains to start my college career, and she did it with a brave face. What I didn’t realize until many years later was that her entire four-hour drive home was spent crying and praying as she let her baby go. For her, that drop-off was the summit she climbed before sinking into a grand valley of unknowns. For me, however, I was heading into an adventure, reaching toward new heights as I climbed the highest peak of the Adirondacks.
Four years ago, while living abroad, my alma mater asked if I’d return to lead student life at Gordon College. I said, “Yes.” Three months before we moved and one month shy of my 40th birthday, I learned of a group of seven women who were planning to climb Kilimanjaro—a mountain I had always aspired to climb. I asked if I could join them. Somehow it seemed fitting to try to reach a new summit just as I did when I was 18 and starting at Gordon. Although we didn’t know each other very well, we committed in faith that together we would reach the roof of Africa—all 19,341 feet of it. As the second oldest in the group and the least in shape, I began to fear the unknowns: Would I make it? What if I got hurt? What if I got altitude sickness on the last day and my dream of 20 years failed?
These same feelings of fear and failure plague students when they start college, and other worries plague parents (like my mother) after they leave their child at a residence hall. Will my child find community—friends to help her up the steep inclines? Will she flounder, or will she flourish?
As moms and dads around the country prepare to send their kids off to college this fall, the mountain metaphor might serve as a helpful reference point for how to think about the experience. For those of us inside higher education, our job is to walk alongside these students and families, equipping and empowering them to navigate the new terrain. As such, I offer the following counsel:
1. Trust the Guide and the guides.
When you summit Kilimanjaro, you leave at midnight in the pitch black. It’s a very surreal and uneasy experience. You don’t know the terrain, so you have to trust the person in front of you. You put one foot in front of the other very slowly. The person who kept us going was our leader, Emi. As he walked beside us, he analyzed each breath we took, he watched every step. When I slipped and crashed down the jagged volcanic scree, scraping my hands and bruising myself, he was there. He let the others go ahead. My mind was exhausted and my knees sore, but Emi never stopped talking to keep me alert and awake the entire descent. I couldn’t have made it without him.
Every summer during my student life staff retreat, I am tasked with preparing the staff to guide students the way that Emi guided us. I have our entire team pray over every student’s name. For those incoming students, we pray God would allow us to empower them to serve and lead into their strengths while they are at college. I began this practice after I learned of a beloved politics professor, David Lumsdaine, who passed away right before I came. As they were cleaning out his office, the staff found a folder that contained the names of dozens of students with specific prayer requests. He prayed for those students daily and was a guide that trusted the ultimate Guide.
For parents preparing to send kids to college, you have trusted God in your son or daughter’s life up until this point. Remember that he is still their ultimate Guide and that he also places other people in their lives to journey with them at critical times.
2. Remember that prayer is a powerful form of community.
One of the things that kept me going on my Kilimanjaro trip was prayer from and for my children. Before I left, I made them a map of the trail with each day’s goal marked. I was represented by a Popsicle stick with a picture of me taped to it so that each day, they could move me up the mountain and say a prayer. As they prayed for me, I prayed for them in return, and thinking of home kept me going.
In the same way that Lumsdaine prayed for incoming students, parents, too, can participate in praying for their students from a distance. Although some moms and dads feel the urge to communicate directly with their students—hovering as helicopter parents—sometimes the most powerful form of community and connection is the quiet one—prayer.
Marie, a senior, remembers when her mom left her on campus during orientation. It had been a difficult year for Marie, but her mom didn't know why. All she knew was that in order for her daughter to grow, she had to let her go. She lived on the other side of the country and instead of calling her daughter constantly, she found herself on her knees. “She could let me go in the physical, but spiritually she was holding me close,” Marie told me. In the process of being let go of by her family, Marie found herself being picked up by a new community that helped her heal from an abusive relationship and gave her the courage to share openly about it with her parents.
Even from a distance, prayer has the potential to expand your child’s community and to bring healing that they might not otherwise receive.
3. Trust that the bag you packed is well-equipped.
Dostoevsky once said, “People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, from home, is perhaps the best education. If a person carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days.” Parents, you have packed your students’ bags with memories, prayers, and wisdom that they may not fully grasp in this moment but will grasp in time. Over the next four years, as your child moves up the mountain, what she needs is the space to recognize the good stored in those bags. And if she is lacking some equipment, don’t rush to bring it but rather recognize that the greatest learning will take place without your aid.
Last week, for example, I had the opportunity to hear from parents who were concerned with choices their daughter had made. Because of federal privacy laws, I could only listen and offer counsel to the family. Often parents want to know everything regarding their student’s grades, discipline, and faith formation, but this is a season in life in which parents and students have to develop trust.
This particular student was wrestling through questions of evil and suffering and had made a poor decision in the midst of her spiritual struggle. It’s a privilege for my colleagues and me to walk with students through both faith and doubt, and in that moment, I could honestly say to the parents, “Here are the wonderful things we see in your child that we know you have instilled in her.” Practically, that meant encouraging them to create a contract with their daughter that would reflect their trust of her while she, conversely, would put practices in place to build trust with them.
Every family has its brokenness, but every family also has gifts they’ve placed in their student’s bag—gifts of sacred memories that will help to keep them safe.
4. Let them risk, fall, and reach new heights.
On our first day on Mount Kilimanjaro, we started out too fast. Within an hour, I was almost in tears as I realized I couldn’t keep up the pace. As I tripped on stumps, uncertain of my footing, and slid down muddy paths, doubts and fears began to flood my mind and I thought, “There is no way I can do this for seven more days.” That first night, our guide told us that over the coming days, the weakness we felt would become strength. Our fears would turn into motivation. Our steps would find solid footing.
Pushing through pain and failure is part of college, too. At Gordon, one of the most competitive programs is the Presidential Fellows program, where students go through a rigorous application process to serve with a cabinet member for a year. The team comes alongside students who win and also those who don’t—those who “fail.” One of them, Tom (a pseudonym), was devastated by his loss of the fellowship. It took him a week to come out of his shell, but mentors stood by him. They informed him that some past decisions had consequences, helped him understand his weaknesses, and then focused on his strengths. He in turn learned from the experience and poured his energy into getting an internship for the summer that refined his character and stretched him professionally. Now he is dreaming of a semester abroad—an experience he wouldn’t have thought about if he received that fellowship.
As parents, be present when your students fall, but give them space to push toward the future. And remember that God desires to shape our kids’ character through our failures as he molds us into the men and women he has created. As Sir Francis Drake writes in his prayer, “Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, / To venture on wider seas / Where storms will show your mastery; / Where losing sight of land, / We shall find stars…”
5)Recognize that it takes a village.
On Mount Kilimanjaro, the “kissing rock” is a ten-foot crossing, only a foot wide, with a very long drop beneath you. They call it the kissing rock because the only way you can get across without falling is to embrace the rock up close. The night before we crossed the kissing rock, I couldn’t sleep. I felt a tightness in my chest that I now know was a slight anxiety attack. The next morning as I looked up at the steep ascent, the anxiety persisted, so my teammates began to talk to me, almost non-stop, even as they themselves were struggling to make the climb. Before I knew it, we had reached the “kissing rock.” I looked across and there was my new friend, Natasha, reaching her hand across with a smile and saying, “You can do it, Jen.” As she reached out, I suddenly found new courage and even took time to kiss the rock as I crossed. Natasha laughed and pulled me to the other side.
Each student comes to college uncertain of what “kissing rocks” they will have to face. I think of John (a pseudonym), who suffered a major heart attack at 20 years old while playing recreational sports. Thanks to the strength of his friends and a skilled emergency medical technician, he was brought back to life. Rebuilding from that experience was difficult. And yet as I watched our chaplain be present to his family, his roommates stick with him during the dark nights of the soul, and his professor encourage him to do undergraduate research the following summer, I was once again reminded of the importance of the village.
Years ago, I came home that first Christmas of college different than when my mom had left me at La Vida. And each Christmas after. I am thankful my mom recognized that in order for me to grow, she needed to let go.
Parents—your students, too, will also grow in new ways. Whether your kids go to public or private colleges, they can find their village—through local churches, formal campus parachurch organizations, and informal campus groups. Thank you for letting us educators into the village you have created with your family. Our hands are extended. We cannot promise that the summit will be without crags and slippery places. Your kids will make choices along the way that require risk. They will fall and sometimes fail. They may doubt and question and sink into valleys of uncertainty. And they will need to choose to rise again. Your students need the tools you’ve packed in their bags, but they also need to find their own way and learn to rely on the ultimate guide: Jesus Christ. He is alongside them, listening to every breath, watching every step, leading them toward the summit.
Jennifer M. Jukanovich serves as vice president for Student Life at Gordon College. Having lived previously in Rwanda for several years, she and her husband and their three adopted children feel particularly grateful for the adventures of this new season. She can be reached at Jennifer.jukanovich (at) gordon.edu.