My freshman year was pretty horrible, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
I didn’t really know what to expect going into freshman year. To be honest, I think I was pretty scared– scared of not doing things “right” and ruining my chances of getting into medical school to become a medical missionary. These fears turned real a month into classes, when I found myself hopelessly behind in an important pre-med class. For the first time in my life, I had to actually face the possibility of failure and its consequences. Uncertainty spiraled into really bad anxiety, and I think I lived in a state of constant panic attacks for about a week before my first chemistry exam. I remember running practice tests before that exam, and somehow my heart found a way to race faster each time I graded one. I was filled with dread because each one was barely above a passing grade; I eventually just accepted that I had done everything I could and the rest would have to be up to God.
My situation might not sound very bad, but you have to understand that I had never gotten a grade below A in my life, not to mention fail an exam. I was conditioned to thinking that my work ethic, native intelligence, and grit were sufficient for basically anything. To fail in college— at Harvard, of all places— when it seemed to really count was absolutely terrifying. Deeper questions about my identity, trust in God, and purpose in life were all shaken up, which seemed to bring my situation into the realm of a small personal crisis.
So you can imagine the mix of shock, elation, and surprise that flooded my body when I got my first exam back and saw a big fat “A” scribbled in red pen on the front. It was too good to be true, a minor miracle. There was really no way that such a score reflected my own capabilities; it had to be from God.
In that moment, God began teaching me what has become a core lesson of my time in college: I am insufficient, weak, and unqualified, but God is all-sufficient, all-powerful, and worthy. And He has promised that He is faithful to provide in the midst of my frailty. It took a long time for this lesson to become ingrained in my heart though; while consistently miraculous test scores reminded me of God’s faithfulness, years of doing schoolwork out of self-sufficiency and pride were not quickly broken down. I continued to struggle with class-related anxiety for the rest of freshman year and it’s not until now, as a rising junior, that I can say I somewhat enjoy being at school. Yet despite my slowness to learn, God has literally never failed me. God met me there in those nights when I cried alone in my dorm, when I struggled through every homework assignment, when I couldn’t rest. Test scores became the stage on which God displayed His faithfulness amidst my insufficiency. Those initial panic-filled weeks and the months of recovery that happened afterwards were really hard, but I know God better because of them.
At the end of the day, I believe that God’s faithfulness was not just in providing for my exams, but in letting me struggle in the first place. When I moved into Harvard as a freshman, I didn’t need good grades or a group of friends or fun experiences. God knew that I needed to be humbled and brought into a position of utter dependence on Him. I’m too full of pride to have learned apart from hardship, so He let me go through hard stuff. By doing so, He set a tone of dependence for my entire college experience. I really believe that His faithful provision often looks more like trial than abundance, because it’s in difficulty that we are sanctified into His likeness.
In Colossians 3:1-3, Paul writes this: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
One of my mentors once told me that the command to “set your minds on things above” doesn’t mean that we are to be constantly aloof and think only about heavenly matters. What happens down here on earth, in your time in college, matters to God. Instead, it means that we should look at life from an eternal vantage-point and choose our pursuits accordingly. How should the reality of eternity with Jesus change our view of college life?
In the scheme of eternity, what do we get out of college? We get a whole bunch of experiences and relationships that will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, deepen our knowledge of Jesus and make us more like Him. In the end, what matters about our time at school (and in all of life) isn’t our GPA, the summer internship, or even the degree. What will matter in eternity is how we grew more like Jesus while on campus. And if growth happens amidst challenge, we ought to press into difficulty and ask Him to provide amidst our weakness.
So if there’s any wisdom I can offer for those preparing to enter college, it’s this: embrace hard things. Sometimes God allows difficulty to occur in our lives in a way that we cannot control; other times we have space to choose to stretch ourselves. While in college, welcome the hard stuff and challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone, understand your insufficiency. Take a hard class, try something new, go love someone who is different from you. The Christian life has nothing to do with being comfortable, and discomfort can be used by the Holy Spirit to deepen your faith. It’s the essence of 2 Corinthians 12:10, when Paul writes: “…I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” By pressing into challenge, the reality of your weakness and of God’s strength will become apparent. Dependence on Him is a sweet, sweet place to be.
Embracing challenge doesn’t have to preclude a healthy, balanced life; I have an awesome support system at school through my Christian fellowship, solid mentors, friends, and family. Much of the learning I’ve experienced is because of them. So find the support you need, understand what is necessary for you to live a fully healthy life at college, and then choose hard stuff. Do all of this knowing that from an eternal vantage point, your sanctification is far more important than ease.
As a quick aside, it’s important to recognize that while all suffering is difficult, not all suffering is the same. There are some kinds of difficulty, like the challenges that I experienced in freshman year, which are not extremely threatening or beyond comprehension. But there are others which are and should not be sought after. Some hard things– like mental health struggles or tragedies or evil– cannot always be rationalized and may not be resolved in this life. God is still good and sovereign in the midst of such trials, but they are distinct from healthily pursuable and fruitful challenges.
In Colossians 3:3, we are promised that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Imagine your time in college, your entire future being wrapped up and hidden in the power and love of Jesus. Nothing can touch you or pull you beyond His care. As you choose hard things or endure challenging circumstances, you can be certain that He goes with you.
Here are some of the passages that I’ve clung to during my time in college. I hope they are encouraging to you!
“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” -Isaiah 41:8-10
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” -Philippians 4:4-7
“‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” -Isaiah 40:25-26
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” -1 Corinthians 12:9-10