It’s been a whirlwind of activity lately, both on and off campus. Last week was spring break, so I got to spend the week with 29 of my best friends in Davidson, North Carolina, on a Habitat for Humanity work trip. We were able to help Our Towns Habitat for Humanity do about a month and a half’s worth of work in just five days, and we made some great friendships and personal connections along the way.
On a trip like the one I went on last week, I often take a behind the scenes role. I see it as the students’ trip, so I try to let them step forward and have the experience of helping out. I pitch in when an extra hand is needed, but I have the belief that I should never deny a student the opportunity to learn and grow by doing something that they could be doing. As a result, I spent much of the week going around the job site reminding people to drink water and take breaks. When we are in our 20s, we tend to forget that our bodies are not indestructible, so breaks and water are often neglected. I’m proud to say that not one person passed out from dehydration last week! I also had fun walking around with a big strong magnet on a stick, picking up nails that had fallen all over the ground. My motto all week was “saving your toes, one nail at a time.” While doing both of these tasks, I got to talk with each of the students, and often our joking and checking in with one another led to some serious discussions.
One of the most common discussions that I have with students is about what I call “Becoming and Believing in Ourselves.”
The first part, “Becoming,” is all about figuring out who we are. The period of life called emerging adulthood (roughly the years between 18 and 25) is a time of tremendous personal, psychological, social, and spiritual growth. Students come to college with a lot of questions, many of which are rooted in their growing sense of personal identity.
“Who am I?”
“What’s my purpose?”
“What does the future hold?”
These questions, and questions like them, offer students an opportunity to make choices, and those choices lead to a greater understanding of their truest selves. In my conversations with students, I am often struck by how serious these questions are for them. I sometimes forget how much such questions troubled me when I was their age, and I’m thankful for the reminder to never stop asking questions of myself.
Becoming is, in one sense, the easy part. Becoming happens almost without us thinking about it. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our bodies, minds, and spirits are developing (for good or bad), each day that we live on this earth. Believing in ourselves is a different story.
So many of the young people I encounter every day are struggling with believing in themselves. Because they may not be sure of the answers to all of the questions above, they may feel that they haven’t “arrived” yet, or that they are inadequate to the task of facing the world as an adult. Or, they may have a false sense of belief in themselves, accepting a self image that is distorted, and doesn’t reflect their true self. Athletes who put a disproportionate amount of faith in their ability to make it through the world based on their strength and endurance, or students who have chosen a major based on a belief that it will make them a lot of money in the future are just two examples of this overconfidence. Confidence isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be destructive when it is inflated, and doesn’t reflect the person that God has called you to be.
Both of these tasks, Becoming and Believing in Ourselves, are of critical importance during this life stage. It is the job of mentors, chaplains, parents, professors, and other caring adults to help emerging adults navigate these waters. With a guide who has “been there and done that,” the pitfalls of this life stage can more easily be explored. Not that it will be all sunshine and roses, but it will certainly be better than without a guiding friend.
Accomplishing a task like helping to build a house goes a long way in helping students Become and Believe in themselves. I’m always amazed by the students who go on a work trip with little to no knowledge of construction–some of them have literally never even used a hammer before!–who suddenly become experts in using saws, hammers and nails, and many other tools. To see a young woman who has always believed that she’s “too girly” to do manual labor transform into a confident hammering pro (complete with muddy jeans and sawdust-covered hair) is a wonderful thing. To watch as a young man suddenly grasps the concept of being able to walk on a roof after being afraid of heights all his life is a joy to behold. Building homes also builds lives, both for the homeowners of Habitat, and for the students who volunteer their hands and their hearts to the job.
So, every year before I go on a work trip, I say to myself (and my long-suffering wife), “I think that next year I may not go on a work trip.” Then, at the end of every trip, I come home and say, “Forget what I said, I’ll be going again next year.” It’s not because I enjoy bugging people about resting and drinking water, or that picking up nails is that vital a task to be completed on the job site. What I really get out of these trips is the feeling that I have done something useful, helping my small group of emerging adults make it through this time of their lives, as they both Become and Believe in themselves–one nail at a time.