College has taught me a lot about life. I’ve learned that people can be who you think they are or completely different. That it’s possible to pick a bone with anybody. That one of the greatest joys comes from making a new friend. That decisions have consequences, even if you’d like to believe differently. That it hurts more than you’d imagine to have a bad reputation. That there’s a greater plan, even if you can’t see it.
But more than anything, I’ve learned that finding out who you are is a process.
You don’t just wake up one day and realize, “Yep, I think I’m finally the person I was always meant to be.” (Or if you do, I still have yet to). No, I began finding out who I really was by realizing first who I wasn’t.
That all started at Patrick Henry College.
Now, it’s not my intention to sound cynical, because my story is just that: a story. These are my experiences, the bad and the good. This isn’t a tale of a girl who was smothered by her parents or harassed or anything dramatic like that. But, even though I attended PHC for one year and transferred over a year ago, the experiences I had there are still fresh in my mind. They aren’t as extreme as other students’, but they are mine nonetheless. Some experiences were inspirational, edifying, and encouraging, but many left me bitter, angry, and confused.
It took every day of my time away from PHC to realize and accept that my time there made me stronger.
When I started my freshman year, I thought I was a pretty typical PHC student: pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-Reagan, pro-Bible, etc. I was 17 and a recent homeschooled high school grad. Granted, I was (and probably still am) more liberal than most of my former classmates. (For example, I don’t believe it’s immodest for a girl to wear shorts or show her belly. I don’t think it’s wrong to have gay friends, listen to non-Christian music, or date). However, I was sure that little differences in opinion wouldn’t affect my experience greatly. After all, I’d taken several AP classes and attended two teen camps without any problem. I was beyond excited for college and sure that PHC was the school for me. From my impressions, PHC was a big, united, Christian family. It would be a great place to grow academically and spiritually, meet other solid Christians, and learn how to change the culture for Christ. So, I assembled and packed up my new business casual wardrobe and set out for an exceptional college experience.
The first several weeks were just as I had pictured them. Even though my parents and I had fought most of my high school years, the distance helped and we talked regularly. My boyfriend at home of four months and I were confident in our ability to endure the distance. All of us students were starting on a level playing field; everybody seemed to like everybody, nobody was “better” than anybody. That was normal, how college was supposed to be.
Then the glow began to fade.
Classes were still top-notch, but I began getting dress-coded at least three times a week. For those of you who don’t know, PHC students are required to wear business casual attire to class and in buildings between 8am-5pm (approximately). I used a tape measure (and my mom) to make sure I was within the guidelines, so I was positive I wouldn’t have any problems. But almost every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after chapel or in the dining hall, my RA would receive a text from someone who thought I needed to change. It didn’t matter if I was in the middle of lunch or in front of the dining hall; I had to go to my room and change immediately. I had no idea who was watching me and determining that I needed to change. It made me extremely self-conscious and defensive, knowing that people were looking for flaws in my attire and never knowing who it was.
I was discouraged and irritated that people were paying more attention to what I was wearing than where I was: at chapel.
Apparently expecting the person who had an issue to come talk to me personally was too much to ask. As a result, I did my best to avoid anyone who could possibly dress code me, and stuck to wearing flats instead of heels (unless my skirt was below my knees, I would consistently get dress-coded if I wore heels). And adding to my ire was the more questionable (relative to PHC) outfits of the upperclassmen that flew without a hitch.
Even after a few weeks, I was already seen as one of the more liberal, rebel crowd. Maybe it had something to do with my friend group that consisted of girls and guys. Maybe because I wore makeup and skinny jeans. Maybe because I wasn’t worried about sitting beside a guy in chapel. Someone else said it was because the group I hung out with consisted only of the “attractive” freshman. Flattering, but is appearance all a person’s reputation consists of? All I know is that I didn’t get to know very many people before I was grouped into a crowd.
The biggest thing that happened to me occurred when I stayed out once all night. Now, there were a lot of rumors as to what happened, but here’s the truth. My boyfriend of then six months drove down to see me for the first time in two months and we were planning on spending the weekend touring nearby Leesburg, going out to eat, and just have some face-to-face time. Nothing more, nothing less. The first night he was down, we went to where he was staying (since he couldn’t stay on campus), and fell asleep watching a movie. When I woke up at 3:30 a.m., I knew I had already missed curfew and was going to be in trouble if I came back then. So, I messaged my roommates and went back to sleep.
The next morning, I went back to campus to freshen up. Several of my roommates were upset I had stayed out without permission (in order to stay out overnight, you have to be cleared by your RA as well as the RD), and one apparently was appalled because she went to Student Life that evening. She didn’t come to me first, didn’t ask me what happened. Once I found out what she did, I asked her privately why she didn’t talk to me first.
She said she didn’t see the point, because “what was done in the dark should be brought into the light.”
To be completely honest, I think it had a lot to do with my already “rebel” reputation.
Student Life immediately requested I come to the office the following day at 1 p.m. (I guess it wasn’t possible to ask what time worked well for me; I had to be told). I went, and the dean immediately began raining questions down. Knowing it would cause only trouble to mention my boyfriend, I told them I fell asleep off campus with a good friend. When the barrage continued with extremely personal (and outside of PHC, inappropriate) questions, I politely asked if I could keep the details of the experience to myself; if they needed to “punish me” for staying out, they could.
Instead, they called my home phone and left a message on the answering machine, something to the extent of “your daughter is in the office, please call us back as soon as possible.” Then they phoned my mom and listened to the conversation while mouthing the words I was supposed to tell her. When I didn’t comply, they sent an email to my parents and told them I was being difficult and rebellious (I never saw the email, so those are my words, not theirs). After being in the office for over an hour and a half, they told me to come back the following day after they had determined my punishment. I was on the verge of tears and scared of Student Life and my parents, who were extremely upset and threatened to stop helping me pay for my tuition. I have never felt as scared, hopeless, and stressed as I did then. In the end, I was no longer allowed to stay out past 11 p.m. or stay overnight without parental permission.
I was 18.
If that wasn’t enough to deal with along with finals, whoever reported me to Student Life told all her friends who in turn told their friends. In a few days, the campus was abuzz with how badly I had messed up. The roommate who had reported me was praying for “Jesus to save my soul.” Apparently making a mistake condemned me to hell. I got so many condescending stares and cold shoulders–I have not felt that isolated in my life. Some people wouldn’t acknowledge me, others would gossip behind my back. That didn’t change much for the rest of my time there; I was a “sinner” and didn’t measure up.
It made me wonder how these people could demonstrate the love of God to the world when they couldn’t even manage to speak to a fellow Christian.
Now, I am not writing any of this to defend myself; I know I broke a PHC rule I had agreed to follow. That was wrong, and I am not complaining about getting caught or punished. I know what it looks like for a girl and guy to be alone all night. It hadn’t even occurred to me I could be a “stumbling block” to nonbelievers, because I truly wasn’t planning on falling asleep or staying out all night. It was an accident and I wholeheartedly accept the blame. Maybe I could have handled the situation differently somehow. But all that aside, I am writing because I see the real problem with this situation was how Student Life and the student body handled it. I felt like my pre-existing reputation as a worldly, liberal student is what turned something small (in the real world) into such a riot. What happened to forgiveness?
No one believed I had simply fallen asleep once they heard I was out all night with a man. No one seemed to understand I had been with a person I love, trust, and who would keep me safe (and who I am currently still dating). I wasn’t doing drugs, sleeping around, committing a crime, drinking (or drinking and driving), nor was I being reckless. I simply fell asleep.
Worse things than that occur on campus and are neatly swept under the rug.
Couples who dated inside PHC stayed off campus frequently together without a hitch. But I wasn’t dating someone from PHC. So, because I was not following the cookie-cutter courtship path most people followed (finding someone at PHC, getting engaged, then getting married), it was a problem.
My “sinner” label didn’t change for the rest of my time at PHC. But once the spring semester started, I decided I was done worrying about what everyone thought of me. Call me a rebel, I really don’t care anymore, was my most frequent thought. I did my best to follow dress-code and the other rules and immersed myself in my studies. That semester, my biggest source of stress was the drama.
Oh, the drama. It was like being in junior high school again. It was about who likes who, who said what, who would invite who to the next dance, who was cool, who wasn’t. I couldn’t handle the immaturity of it. I graduated high school to have deep conversations, not speculate about whether Tom likes Jane. More than anything, I didn’t want my personal thoughts repeated to everyone else (which had happened multiple times). So, except for one or two close friends, I distanced myself from those around me. I was lonely, but I didn’t know how else to keep sanity and privacy in a place where everyone wants to know everything about everybody.
Most of what I have said so far has been negative. That is because almost all my strongest memories of PHC are negative. I cried more in that 9 months than I ever have before. I was stressed out, depressed that PHC wasn’t the place I thought it would be, and worried about my credits transferring (I should have known they wouldn’t). I’ve only had two breakdowns in my life, but both happened during those months.
But all that aside, my experience turned out to be invaluable. Remember what I said about PHC showing me who I wasn’t?
I realized that I wasn’t the stereotypical, homeschooled girl I thought.
From seeing what I disliked, realized I valued loyalty, trust, honesty, and acceptance more than I thought. As a result, I try to embody those things more than I would have. I realized that I wanted a college where I can grow, not somewhere I have to tread fearfully. It should be somewhere I can make my own choices, not somewhere they are made for me. That knowledge, coupled with the other things I learned about myself, gave me a lot of confidence. Now, I am at a state university and 100 percent free to be me. It’s a liberating feeling.
And I haven’t said anything about the classes. They were phenomenal. To date, they are the best, the hardest, and the most rewarding classes I have taken. The professors cared wholeheartedly about the students and inspired me with their wisdom. My journalism and U.S. history professors were willing to talk about anything and consistently gave great advice. Two thumbs up for the academic departments.
But the greatest thing PHC gave me is my confidence in my faith. By observing both abrasive and loving Christians, I started seeing what it takes to be a strong, but likable Christian. (Note: Mat. 10:22 is obviously still valid, but that doesn’t mean we should try and antagonize the world into hating us). As a result, I have been able to express my faith in a secular environment without fear. I learned what intolerance looks like, so I try to be tolerant. I know what condescension feels like, so I try to be humble. I know what it’s like to be labeled as a “sinner” and it hurts.
Instead of changing the world with the battle axe some PHC students wielded, I found that simply loving without judging, caring without condescending, can be the most effective.
(Note: That’s not to say Christians should love the sins of others, but let a perfect God be the judge, not a fallible human).
Unlike some, my time at PHC did not draw me away from God; instead, the troubles I encountered made me learn so much more about Him, and consequently myself. However, please don’t attend a Christian school so that problems with other Christians make you closer to God. Go somewhere Christians stick together and grow together, where you are fighting a common enemy: sin, not someone else.
The longer this series goes, the more I’m starting to think Christian schools are just weird. I saw a lot of this at my conservative, homeschool-magnet college too.
I went to North Central Bible College (now University) and had a lot of the same experiences. I thought it was going to be like summer camp – everyone loved Jesus and I would grow – like at camp with classes. It fell very short. But it to was great. But I loved my secular school where you knew who the Jesus lovers were and who they were not. I don’t like plastic people:-/
Thanks for you story!
If people cannot speak to you personally about their “concerns” for your behavior, but must consistently go behind your back and anonymously report you for spurious “sins” you have supposedly committed, you need to ask yourself why you are in this milieu and what you are gaining by staying in it. Had I been your mother, I would almost certainly have advised you to withdraw from this ridiculous excuse for a “college” at or even before the end of the first semester. This is not junior high school; you are supposedly an adult and so are these other people. This kind of behavior is juvenile, duplicitous, and un-Christian, and no one should either indulge in it or be subjected to it!
Problem is, PHC has the reputation of a Madrassa for Christianese Culture Warriors, training them to Take Over Political Power and build a Perfect Christian Nation.
Except for the different Holy Book, this sounds a LOT like the Ayatollahs of Iran, the Taliban, and ISIS/ISIL. (And for an earlier generation, the Communists.) And remember what ALL of these did to those their Perfect New Order found “unacceptable”, i.e. those outside the Ideological Inner Ring like you or me.