“Goodbye and Good Luck!”
For many, high school graduation marks the end of childhood as graduates typically transition to college, military service, or the world of work in the few months that follow. Consequently, many once-important relationships quickly fade to fond memories as the young adults shift their attention and energies into what lies ahead of them. However, those of us who are left behind need to recognize that we still have an important role to play in supporting and caring for these young people. Parents and other adults who care about the graduates, must navigate the changing relationship and find new ways to relate and keep in touch. In fact, our ongoing contact could prove to be a critical component to the young person’s successful transition into adult faith and maturity.
Support from Back Home
Hopefully, you’ve been able to see how your words and your relationship with your younger friend has made a difference in their life. What you may not be aware of is that your words can still make an impact with those same young people even after they leave for college (or relocate for any other reason).
Youth researcher and author, Kara Powell writes in her book, Sticky Faith,
“Contrary to public opinion, graduates don’t want to be “out of sight, out of mind.” Contact from at least one adult from the congregation outside of the youth ministry during the first semester of college is linked with Sticky Faith [i.e. a personal and active faith that makes the transition from youth to adult life]. Hearing from an adult from their home church—whether it be via text, email, phone, or something you’ve perhaps heard of called “the U.S. Postal Service”—seems to help students take their faith to college with them.” (Powell, Sticky Faith, p. 122-123)
Your continued contact can provide a powerful link to a trusted, faith-nurturing past while the young person finds their way in their new, unfamiliar context full of different people, multi-faceted challenges, and competing values and ideas. Sticky Faith researchers report that the top three difficulties Christian students identify during their first year in college is (1) making friends, (2) dealing with aloneness and (3) finding a church (Powell, p. 123). Although, caring adults back home can’t “fix” these difficulties for their younger friends, they can still play an important and supportive role. Depending on what your relationship looked like before, you can still provide words of encouragement, listen with care and offer counsel when appropriate. Ironically, most new college students become so busy with the demands of their new lives that they often pull back from supportive relationships of the past (e.g. parents, friends, mentors), right at a time they would most benefit from emotional support and a safe context for processing all they are facing.
Although it’s quite common for college students to stop taking initiative with relationships from the past, that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate connecting with people from the past. I still vividly recall words of encouragement from back-home friends and mentors when I was struggling through some difficulties during my college years. The specific details of those messages weren’t as important as the fact that those cards and conversations were tangible reminders that I was loved and supported. It was encouraging to know that trusted others (i.e. people who knew me from the past) believed that God would help me through the challenges I was facing.
Practical Steps to Keeping in Touch
So, if you’re interested in continuing to invest in your younger friends, let me offer a few suggestions regarding how to make the most use of your words of love and encouragement.
- Pick a medium(s) that works for both of you. Ask your young friend what form of communication will work best for them. Popularity of communication channels are always changing and what may have worked well in the past, may not work well in the future. Also, branch out and utilize multiple streams of communication (e.g. social networks, picture sharing, messaging, etc.) You could even go “old school,” by putting pen to paper and using the postal service. This will ensure your words get attention in ways that electronic messages never do. However, make sure you pick a medium that you feel comfortable using. Don’t let technical barriers keep you from regular contact.
- Be consistent but expect inconsistency. The college student’s schedule is one of the most fluid and dynamic schedules in modern culture. College students have more “free time” than when they were in high school and they have more flexibility than when they later enter the work world. Consequently, college students are served when we can offer (but not demand) regularity in our efforts to communicate. That said, we need to recognize that it is unlikely that consistent communication will not likely be achieved. The student may have every intention of keeping in touch, but college-life is too chaotic and rich with spontaneity to expect consistency on the young person’s part. That’s why dependability, on our part, is so important. In their world of rapid and constant change, providing a regular and reliable haven of safety and communication is a powerful gift.
- Occasionally spice it up. Given all the options available for communication, make a point to mix it up occasionally. If you usually text, try writing a longer email or scheduling a phone call. If you usually have catch up via Skype, try firing off a tweet or text to let them know you’re thinking and praying about them. If you can remember to wish them well before an important exam or event or ask how things went shortly after, your words will be even more meaningful.Also, never underestimate the “blessing potency” of a treat-filled care package. Care packages are nice because there’s no cultural expectation for the student to return the favor. Also, when loaded with enough treats to share with their friends, a care package from friends “back home” can create a positive bridge between the student’s past and the student’s present. Learning to integrate their past and their present is one of the most critical developmental tasks young people need to navigate during this life stage. Tangible and loving reminders of the past can help ensure a healthy integration.
- Commit to the year (or longer). If you’re serious about wanting to bless your younger friend(s), make a decision to intentionally and regularly reach out for at least a year. Often, the transitional demands of the first year of college are the most challenging and students are at their most vulnerable points as they lack the supportive relationships, structures and rhythms of their earlier lives. By committing to (at least) a full-year of intentionally reaching out to the student, you are giving the student a life-line of security during a critical period in their development.
Although it’s impossible to predict the timing of the ups and downs of college life, a consistent rhythm of communication over the whole year will increase the likelihood that your younger friend will be able to access you and your care when it’s needed most.
Your Relationship Still Matters
While your relationship will certainly change with your younger friend’s departure to college (or wherever), it doesn’t have to end. In fact, your continued offering of love and care throughout their next year could be one of the greatest gifts you give to that person. As author Susan Scott writes, “The conversation is the relationship” (Scott, Fierce Conversations), so keep the conversation going—even if you’re carrying 90% of the weight—and see how God continues to use you as a blessing in the young person’s life.
Dr. David Zovak
Leadership Development Specialist – International Schools of China
Leadership Development International (LDi)