HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Adina” is a pseudonym.
I never gave a senior testimony at Patrick Henry College — not because I was an introvert or hated public speaking (I was a government major and I love an audience), but because I was afraid of what I could and could not say.
Now that I’ve had time to look back on my experiences at PHC let this be my senior testimony.
I started at PHC way back when there was still a “strong” distance learning program so I was physically on campus for only my Junior and Senior years of college. I fought fiercely against the stay-at-home-daughters movement all through highschool to be able to attend PHC at all, and my first two years of college I studied at home through DL for several reasons. First, it was significantly less expensive than moving to Virginia, and second, I would be able to spend more time with my family (read: remain under my father’s direct authority and command) for an extra two years.
Those two years spent in DL were hardly much more than an extension of my homeschooling. I’d in my living room reading and being intensely antisocial, though the latter was not entirely my own choice. I was one of two girls at my church at that time to actually *gasp* attend college. I loved my classes, read all of the assigned reading, and couldn’t get enough of what I was learning — but there was no real change in my life. My story here will therefore only be about the last two years of my undergrad career.
I arrived on campus a starry-eyed, twenty-one year old, insecure junior, thrilled to finally be “on my own” at my dream college trying to conceal as best I could that I was one of those uncool homeschoolers who’d been raised wearing skirts, surrounded by ATI and stay at home daughters, and was currently mired in a dreadful pseudo courtship situation.
I honestly don’t know what I was expecting when I came to PHC, but I got something very different. My insecurity and self doubt made it extremely difficult for me to make meaningful friends for quite a while and I was too embarrassed and jealous of those around me to really confide in anyone or let myself get close to anyone. I spend the majority of my first semester hiding in the stairwells to study and avoid people. I even took to sleeping under a table in the dorm study room to be away from my roommates.
From hundreds of miles away my dad tried to control my relationship with my boyfriend and I foolishly let him. He would talk with my boyfriend for hours on end about intensely personal things about which no one has a right to ask anyone but perhaps their closest friend. My boyfriend would come away emotionally drained and exhausted, telling me he didn’t think he could endure any more. Our relationship wasn’t worth these cross examinations and detailed regulations from thousands of miles away, he said. Though I hated it, I never thought to question my assumption that courtship was how every godly relationship was supposed to happen, and hearing him say he wanted to give up tore my heart apart. What little confidence I had plummeted. I’d lived twenty-one years learning to shut down emotionally when my dad started talking and this man I loved couldn’t seem to endure it for event a few months. If I could deal with it for a lifetime without gaining anything, why couldn’t he pull through a few months to get me? I felt trapped and worthless.
What I had thought was a vibrant relationship with God deteriorated to nothing as everything came crashing down around me and my dream college became a nightmare. I hardly slept and I felt so depressed I cried every morning when my alarm went off. I got sick almost immediately after moving to campus and remained sick for three months. First a normal cold, then bronchitis, then the flu, then strep throat — but I think I only missed four or five classes total. Unless I was completely knocked out sick, I would still struggle to class and chapel, and then huddle with my blankets and soup until the early morning trying to keep on top of all my classes.
I made few friends my first year because I’d trained myself to keep people at arms length, and the friends I did make seemed incessantly needy. I was drained from dealing with my struggling relationship, the nearly constant venting and advice-giving my friends seemed to want, my work and school schedule, my health, and my lack of sleep. I felt invisible, angry, confused, alone, and by the end of my first year I was completely disillusioned with PHC. I’d expected a place of release, freedom, encouragement, and happiness, but instead I’d only found depression and intense insecurity.
The summer between my junior and senior year was both heaven and hell for me. Heaven, because I stayed in Virginia to work and lived with one of the few close friends I’d made, and hell because my boyfriend and I broke up. We got back together less than a week later, but the breakup deeply affected both of us. In a way though the breakup was a turning point for me. It was the lowest point of my existence, and from there I was able to build.
When we got back together I finally realized that the way my parents had been handling my relationship with my boyfriend was abusive, inappropriate, and damaging. While the breakup had been partly my fault, it had also been theirs because I’d allowed them a level of control in my life that was horribly harmful and they’d ran with it. And so for the first time in my life I stood up for myself. I told my parents that my boyfriend was my future and that our relationship deserved respect. I told them that I would make my own decisions for myself as an autonomous human being – and then I ended the conversation.
I cried and shook like a frightened puppy after that conversation. At twenty-two, a senior in college, I was terrified that somehow God would send fire from heaven to strike me dead for my “defiance.” But nothing happened.
My senior year I moved off campus into an apartment with my best friend, worked part time, held down an internship in DC, went to class part time, and finally began to enjoy my life. My boyfriend and I rebuilt our relationship, I consciously let people into my life and took others out, reached out for help when I needed it, established boundaries in my relationship with my parents, and began attending church regularly again. I timidly told my story when my friends returned for the fall semester and I heard nothing but encouragement, congratulations, and support. Where I’d expected smirks or confused back-pats of pity, I instead found nods of agreement and understanding. I suddenly realized all that I had in common with those around me. Many of us were stumbling through the first stages of independence, struggling against being suffocated by controlling parents, and reeling from the revelation that God was not who we’d been taught he was.
I was still very unsure of myself at times, but I began to learn things I’d never known before. Respect is a two way street, relationships must have boundaries, disagreement isn’t dishonoring, and respect doesn’t mean obedience. For the first time in my life I also realized that my relationship with my boyfriend was exclusively our responsibility. My parents had no right to try to control it, and I was hurting myself by letting them have that power. It’s still hard at times — almost paralyzing — to look at myself and see that I am learning these things so late in life.Sometimes I wonder if I’ve been forever screwed over.
When my class began giving senior testimonies I didn’t know what to say. As I looked back over my previous two years all I saw was pain and disillusionment. Really that is an unfair characterization since I did have incredibly bright, happy spots as I would later see, but my life was so tumultuous at the time I couldn’t see any pattern of progress or goodness. I saw the wonderful friends I’d made there — both among the student body and the faculty — but I couldn’t get past the fact that my life had fallen apart while I was there and I felt like I was left trying to put it back together alone.
Now having put some distance between myself and my time at PHC I can see what was really going on. If you’d asked me what I thought of my time at PHC while I was there I would have most likely said it was all awful and nothing could make me ever willingly repeat it. Now I can see that the destruction PHC brought on my life was a God-send. It’s true, I did fall apart at and because of PHC, but it was the painful falling apart that I needed.
I’m reminded of the section in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader chapter 7 where Eustice loses his dragon skin. He peeled off layers himself and thought he was free each time, but until he was deeply torn by something else — someone else — he was not truly free. My dragon skin was the buildup of twenty one years of legalistic religion that completely obscured God’s true nature, and PHC was my Aslan — painfully and agonizingly tearing away what I’d been confined in to reveal who I was truly made to be.
I will be the first to say that PHC isn’t for everyone. There are people who have gone there and had terrible experiences and I don’t pretend those don’t exist. I’ve seen students be cruel, heartless, inconsiderate, and downright wrong in their treatment of people, and I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me and think that I’m saying anyone who comes away with a bad taste in their mouth after coming to PHC is lying. I’ve known people who got incredibly annoyed with the level of immaturity displayed by some of the students there, and I’ve seen it too — I won’t deny it. Sadly I was probably that cruel, heartless, inconsiderate, immature, downright wrong student at times. It took two years at PHC to change me.
What I will deny is that PHC is furthering the abuse that has taken place within certain extremely conservative homeschooling circles. You see, it was at PHC that I was first treated as an equal. I was respected at PHC. I was there that I was told that I could be whatever I sent my mind to. At PHC I learned to have a voice for myself, and together with some of my closest friends we took those first baby steps towards understanding who we were and that we deserved respect and should have the final say in our own decisions. It was first at PHC where my mind was more important than my gender. This is my experience.
I can’t finish here without bring up PHC and patriarchy (I hate even typing that word). PHC is associated with patriarchy, I won’t deny it. But the association is a good one, not a bad one (let me explain before you fry me – I hate patriarchy. It is an evil, cruel, disgusting manglement of Christianity that disgusts me). PHC is associated with patriarchy because it is one of the only colleges that the broken children of patriarchy are allowed to go.
When I came to PHC, the dust of patriarchy clung to my clothes, despite the fact that I thought I’d already shaken it off. It was PHC that helped me truly clean the scum of patriarchy and legalism from my life. It was my professors and my classmates that made that long hard journey with me. PHC’s proximity to those caught up in the patriarchy movement give it the ability to understand and meet the needs of those who come from that background. Had I gone off to a different school that wasn’t so close to the homeschooling community there would have been no one to understand my background and sympathetically help me along my journey out of that type of upbringing.
PHC played a very important role for me and for many of my friends as well. It looks conservative enough on paper that controlling homeschool parents will “allow” their children to attend there when they wouldn’t ever dream of letting them go to any other college (that was my experience — PHC was hard enough, I know my parents would never have let me go anywhere else, and I wasn’t in a place in my life to do something without my parents’ “blessing”). Once at PHC, those students who come from that type of background are able to unlearn everything wrong they’ve been taught and re-learn who God really is and what Christianity means in a setting of mostly sympathetic, understanding fellow students and professors.
PHC is a safe place for these homeschoolers to venture out of their background in a world of otherwise understandably confused people who wouldn’t know how to help. The skirt-wearing courtship-enduring freshman me wouldn’t have survived very long anywhere but at PHC.
As imperfect as PHC can be, in my mind it will always be the “halfway house” between my upbringing and where I am today. It was painful and agonizing, but ultimately the best thing that ever happened in my life and I thank God every day for the destruction I underwent at PHC. It saved me and I would be a mess if I hadn’t have gone. It is for this reason that I want PHC to continue on strong: so it can continue to save the broken children of homeschooling.
Now you’ll have to excuse me because I have a date with my fiance.