By: Andrew Cornelius, Director of Campus Life
Every year, Northwest Nazarene University has the great opportunity to welcome a new group of first-year students to campus. These first-year students have selected NNU to be their higher education home for the next few years. The first weekend of New Student Orientation is packed with excitement, nervousness and hope for what the next few years will hold. I wish we could fully prepare the parents, families and guardians for the range of emotions they will experience the first weekend, and, honestly, their students’ lives ahead. Yet, as I interact with parents, families and friends hugging their children as they wrap their ceremonial NNU scarfs around them, signifying the “hand-off” from them to us, I am reminded that their tears, laughter and sadness are all held together by their love and commitment to their belief in their students’ future, dreams and goals.
It is during NSO weekend where students begin to encounter the habits and rituals of the NNU community. From walking across the campus Quad to interacting with faculty and staff, they get their first glimpse of a community that is committed to their growth and success as a student. Maybe the tears of joy and sadness aren’t about fear, but the reality that new habits, routines and patterns are going to be encountered as they leave campus and their students stay.
Change is never easy. So why ask a student to attend a higher education institution? Why would a student and family risk so much for furthering education? Why would a family or student decide that a university experience is worth the cost, time and effort—a worthy investment, let alone a private college such as NNU?
These questions rattle in my head as a higher education scholar-practitioner. These are the questions that keep many university faculty, staff and administrators up at night.
I offer this as a response (as someone who is a firm believer in Christian higher education):
Economic outcomes are enough to create a democratically and civically engaged society. I don’t want to diminish the rising costs of tuition or downplay the role of finances for families and the burden this creates. However, I want to suggest an argument parallel to the economic benefit that is challenging the nature and purpose of American higher education.
College is often less about the outcome and more about the process of growth and development to engage missionally in a broken world. Christian higher education institutions are committed to the work of transforming habits of heart, soul, mind and strength that exemplify the character and love of Jesus Christ. NNU is committed to fostering and equipping students to live as Christ would live by empowering, challenging and supporting their dreams and aspirations. If we believe a key principle in NNU’s education is to equip students to become the Christlivened version of themselves, the question then follows… “How does NNU shape and form students to become faithful servants of Jesus Christ?”
I would suggest that the way we help students grow is in the formation of habits. NNU provides space for students to engage in new contexts and experiences that are intentionally designed to create life-long habits and skills that will help them become more engaged members of society. NNU’s culture is saturated in routines, rhythms and habits.
If you’ve been on our campus at 10:00 to 10:10 a.m. on Wednesdays, you would have seen the scurry of college students making their way into the Brandt Center. You’ve heard the ringing of the Bell Tower upon the Leah Peterson Learning Commons resounding “Be Thou My Vision” … which honestly… is a little off-key. Students, faculty and staff rush in to chapel to make sure they get their weekly chapel credit. We communicate through the habit of chapel that a community centered around the proclamation of God’s Word is beneficial to experience the fullness of God.
If you have been on or around NNU’s campus on the last Friday of October, you’ve seen students lined up in front of the Conrad Commons eagerly waiting to receive their TWIRP package with information for the weekend ahead. If you are in the Boise Valley on the last Saturday in October, chances are you have seen 500 NNU students rushing into an Idaho Steelheads game or ice rink with the expectation of hanging out with their friends. We communicate through the habit of Student Life events that community and celebration and gathering is a gift from God.
A student sets their alarm for 7:30 a.m. for their first class that begins at 8:00 a.m. They head to The Bean for a cup of coffee, knowing caffeine may be the only catalyst to keep them awake after a late night. Class begins, and the professor opens with a quick devotional thought and a question that initiates conversation. The student is then required to interact with classmates that live in another residence hall, interact with students whose major is different than their own and present their discussion to the wider classroom community. We communicate through the habit of dialogue in the classroom and the interaction with people different than ourselves that learning from one another makes us better.
The end of the year has come, and the date is May 6. The smell of fresh-cut grass fills the air as families and students check their weather app to ensure graduation will continue outside. Students help one another with their caps, gowns and hoods. Their grandparents’ iPhone 6s’ screen reflection obscures the view for the family behind them as they excitedly try and take pictures of their graduate walking across the platform and receiving their diploma. We communicate through the habits and rituals of our commencement and graduation ceremonies that their life after college has just begun.
The classroom, campus events, chapel services and day-to-day, all impact our students. They often don’t recognize that their life at NNU is a routine, a set of habits explicitly and implicitly shaping their hearts, minds and souls. As a Christian higher education institution, we believe that God is in the work of our “regular” operations. God is in the midst of our students’ lives, and if we, as faculty and staff, can name God in those places, students become agents of reconciliation for a broken world. In the future, when you hear the grumblings of higher education “naysayers,” know this: God is working through NNU and its community to shape and form students to be agents of reconciliatory love for a broken world. NNU is partnering with the Triune God to help create, shape and foster habits that create a well-lived and disciplined life. Through the habits of listening, sharing community space and advocating for their neighbors, NNU students are uniquely situated to step confidently in their next steps. Again, maybe it’s less about the economic impact of a college degree and more about the character formation that takes place when a student says “yes” to NNU.