The Day We Fall Silent is The Day We Don’t Care Anymore: Nikki’s Story, Part Four

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Nikki” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part Three

Part Four

I wanted to close my story by explaining how the PHC administration shuts out alumni, many of whom feel that they share a community with current students and would love to help them.

Remember, there is a division between many current students and the so-called “bitter alumni,” the PHC-coined term for any alumnus who voices criticism of the school. This division is actively encouraged by the administration. Student Life (through the RAs) tells students that alumni criticisms are baseless because they only come from “angry, bitter” people who are seeking to “destroy” the school. Since current students know few alumni and certainly have no idea what kind of people they are (or what alumni faced at PHC, since stories about things like the Schism are also rewritten by the administration when they are passed on to current students, if they are passed on at all), current students have in large part adopted this narrative that was actively spread to them.

The best example of this phenomenon happened last fall, when alumni voiced opposition to Stephen Baskerville’s Faith and Reason lecture, a mandatory, campus-wide lecture that condemned protective orders and domestic violence laws. Over 100 alumni (out of PHC’s roughly 600 total alumni) signed a statement asserting that the lecture “displayed an unacceptable lack of academic rigor” and unacceptably “encourage[d] students to doubt victims of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and abuse when those individuals come forward with their stories.”

Many current students became extremely hostile to alumni for voicing these criticisms (and began actively defending Baskerville’s lecture), a reaction caused in large part by the message Student Life was disseminating, i.e., that only “bad” alumni had anything negative to say about Baskerville’s lecture.

Alumni who want to invest in the student body thus face an uphill battle.

They must either be the “perfect” alumni who say the right Christianese, smile when they’re supposed to, and wholeheartedly support the administration in public (and thereby become one of the handful of alumni who get invited back by the administration for certain events) or they have to fight through the alumni-bashing and hopefully form connections with students who are willing to question the administration’s approved narrative. I call the first category the “holies.” And please know—some of the holies are fake, saying and doing what they need to publicly and keeping their opinions to themselves, whether out of a fear of social reprisal or because they believe they can do more good that way. But either way, the PHC administration has created an actively anti-alumni atmosphere, and I believe it has done so because it is easier to control the student body when the students do not have the support of and connections with the wider alumni community.

After all, it would be much easier for 19-year-old students to stand up to the administration if they knew there was a strong contingent of alumni also willing to go to bat for them. And it is also easier for the administration to control the narrative provided to students when their memory of the school, collectively, can’t go back further than 4 years.

Despite the administration’s dislike for alumni, we have a lot to offer current students. Therefore, almost three years after I graduated from PHC, I and several other PHC grads tried to start an alumnae organization. Our hope was to provide mentoring to current female students interested in a career. Many of the alumnae who joined the organization did so precisely because they had few female mentors during their time as a student (PHC does not have many female professors). PHC also has few career counseling services, and the alumnae organization was meant to provide needed support to current female students who would like to learn tips on how to write a resume, prepare a cover letter, or find an internship in their field. Additionally, many alumnae had struggled with the PHC-approved narrative that women were to be wives and mothers first, with career a distant and somewhat-frowned-upon second.

Many, many PHC alumnae expressed to me their desire to share with current female students how the limiting rhetoric at PHC does not reflect reality.

There is value and happiness in pursuing one’s career goals, whether as a mother or non-mother, something few PHC women get told while they are students. And finally, some alumnae also wanted to encourage current female students to keep pursuing their ambitions, even when it sometimes feels discouraging at PHC. In the so-called “real world” women are valued for their work and minds much more than inside PHC’s confines—a statement that I expect will shock most of PHC’s current students. Remember, it is a question of degree, as mainstream American society still displays sexist traits as well. But at PHC, you are never allowed to forget your gender. It is constantly brought up in jokes and banter and general commentary, whether inside or outside the classroom. As a woman, you are always different, by which I mean, you are deemed more emotional, motherly, romantic, lady-like, and fragile than the “manly men” of PHC. Traditional femininity isn’t something women get to choose for the fun of it or because it expresses their desires for how they look. It’s both presumed and required. And smart women who don’t fit the mold (in other words, who seek leadership and display traditionally “masculine” qualities) are bad.

That’s why it’s taken 14 years for PHC to even get a female student body president.

I remember one recent grad, who is now at a prestigious grad school, telling me that she loves grad school in part because she never feels that she needs to dumb herself down to be accepted by her male peers, something she had felt the need to do at PHC. I think that statement captures my grad school and general work experience, post-PHC, as well. It’s wonderful to be in an environment where you are not pre-assigned characteristics based on what’s between your legs. Whether they consciously articulate this sentiment or not, many alumni, I think, want to encourage PHC students that there is so much out there for them, if their PHC years are not going as planned or it has not been easy, it’s ok. It really is.

I systematically reached out to dozens of former PHC women to see if they would be interested in this organization, and their reaction was almost universally positive—but note, the positive reaction was nearly universal because the organization was about helping current students. I think it is telling that many alumni had no desire whatsoever to support the administration or even step foot on campus again—there were too many painful memories associated with the school. This is a distinction that I think current students fail to grasp. For many alumni, there is a world of difference between current students needing help getting an internship and the administration that has systematically bullied those students (and alumni) who did not fit its narrowly conceived notion of “a proper Christian.” I expect that there are dozens and dozens of alumni who would not lend a helping hand to the administration but who would pull strings and make phone calls on behalf of a job-seeking student in a heartbeat.

Sadly, the alumnae organization was stonewalled from the beginning.

Dean Corbitt expressed privately to others that she did not think I was fit to lead the organization (information quickly shared with me due to the ever-present PHC grapevine). She threatened to “pull the plug” on our first event, a meet-and-greet between current female students and alumnae, because I had invited too many (and yes, this is her word) “fringers.” I’m not sure what a “fringer” is. I do know that I had invited dozens of women from many different PHC graduation years and cliques, many of whom were former RAs and none of whom had reputations for disciplinary problems during their time at PHC. They were also extremely talented women who had achieved career success in many different areas and would be an asset to students interested in employment in those areas.

But it would seem that it does not take much to become a “fringer” in Dean Corbitt’s book.

Her need to control was also excessive. She was “offended” when I did not send her a Facebook invite to the event—because I assumed a college administrator had no need to oversee the Facebook postings of an alumni-sponsored event—and she personally contacted several of her favorite alumnae to make sure they would come. Apparently, my assurances that these individuals had already RSVPed yes to my invitation was insufficient. During the event, she played favorites excessively, turning her back on well-respected alumnae (who I assume she deemed “fringers”) and engaging in conversation only with those she approved.

Although I was hosting the event and was there for several hours, I did not get as much as a hello from her.

A few months later, she had all of the alumnae organization’s events indefinitely postponed, and I was told I should only speak with current students if I received explicit permission—anything else would be deemed a “refusal to cooperate,” something that seemed to have vaguely ominous repercussions attached to it.

Anytime I offered to provide an event to fit a specific need (resume writing, major-specific counseling, tea time with ladies who have attended graduate school, etc.), Dean Corbitt told me that the school was doing quite well, on its own, providing career counseling services. Later, I would learn that Corbitt was especially angry that I had “allowed” an anonymous contributor to QueerPHC (a blog describing the experiences of queer students at PHC) to attend our events. Obviously, no discussion of the blog’s content had ever occurred during our events. In fact, the blog was barely known at the time. Farris would not threaten to sue it for a few more months yet. It would seem that, were Corbitt to get her way about an alumnae organization at PHC, every attendee must be vetted according to Corbitt’s standards. Of course, that means that any leader of the alumnae organization must know all the gossip Corbitt has accumulated about various alumnae to even be able to apply those standards.

I was stonewalled for so long, I finally decided to confront Corbitt in person and ask her exactly why she disliked me so much, since I had never even spoken with her during my time as a student. I am sharing her response because I think it indicates how little it takes to be marked as a “black sheep” at PHC and how Corbitt uses her personal opinion about you to limit your ability to be involved as an alumnus—even when she cannot point to a single instance of wrongdoing on your part.

In response to my questions, she said I seemed “unhappy” during my time at PHC and that my senior testimony was concerning. Before the conversation was over, she also criticized the fact that I was pro-gay-rights and told me that it was not safe to let me speak to freshmen, who the administration has a duty to protect from dangerous and damaging information that they are not yet ready to handle. Strange—one would think that after being homeschooled, a form of education that is supposed to be vastly superior, PHC freshmen would be prepared to speak to a liberal alumna of their school. I wonder if PHC freshmen appreciate the fact that Corbitt doesn’t think they are capable of maturely wrestling with any information I might provide them that is contrary to the beliefs they currently hold. Is this really a rigorous liberal arts education at its finest?

In any event, I had expected her to deny, deny, deny. I confess, her matter-of-fact response startled me.

My time at PHC was marked by dramatic upheaval in my family, months of military-caused separation from my boyfriend (now husband), and long work days due to the part-time job that ate up my every weekend. Was I happy? Certainly not in the always-smiling image of bubbling Christian joy that I suspect she would have preferred. But I was hard-working, caused no problems, and was extremely competent. I graduated summa cum laude, landed the job that paved the way for entrance to a prestigious grad school a few years later, and became financially independent of my parents during an economic downtown. Despite all that, this woman, who never so much as greeted me in the hallways during my entire time at PHC, thought she knew I was unfit to lead an alumnae organization whose sole goal was to link alumnae with current students because I seemed “unhappy” to her three or more years ago.

And then there is my senior testimony. For those who do not know, seniors have the opportunity to give a 10-minute testimony to the student body during chapel, provided you give an outline of your speech to the administration beforehand. Some are quite well done, some are atrociously boring, but there are a few consistent themes, year after year. The most prominent theme is a call for the student body to be less judgmental. The speakers will either talk about being victims of judgmental students or about learning to become more emphatic themselves. It’s interesting how, no matter how many times students are told to be less judgmental, year after year, without fail, a good number of senior testimonies will still focus on exhorting the student body to stop being so judgmental. It’s also common for one or two students to transfer out each year, usually after freshman year, citing the school’s judgmental attitude as their reason. In any event, although I certainly agreed at the time that judgmental attitudes were prevalent, I decided to take my senior testimony in another, more unique direction. I’ll link to the audio here and let you decide how dangerous it made me. (You can also read the transcript here.)

When I was starting up the alumnae organization, I was told, multiple times by many well-meaning people, that the administration would kill it. I kept hoping that something would change, that this would be the time that someone who wasn’t one of Corbitt’s darlings could actually do something good for the students. So many PHC women were interested in helping out, the organization had a lot of potential. When it became clear that Corbitt would never allow me or an organization I was part of near the students, I stepped down from my post, put the reins of the organization in other hands, and sat back and waited for months and months. Maybe something will happen now. It looks like it might, and I hope it does. I would rather some organization exist to help current students, without my involvement in it, than no organization at all.

But whether the alumnae organization gets off the ground or not, the reality is that PHC’s administration cares more about controlling the information students receive than about letting students form relationships with alumni who might be “bitter,” might no longer adhere to the restrictive statement of faith, and might no longer share the school’s right-wing ideology.

If the only way you can remain on their “good” list is by believing the same things you did when you were 18 and showed up on campus (or at least by never publicly changing your mind on anything), PHC has snubbed its nose at a huge number of its alumni, including many of the former golden children who were the RAs and RDs the administration counted on.

So this is why I’m one of the “bitter alumni.”

I don’t stick to the approved narrative that PHC is a wonderful school full of wonderful people. I’m not going to sing the praises of a school that does not deserve them. I’m not going to pretend that PHC is some kind of citadel of Christian learning, that it respects its students, or that it accepts those alumni who have varied beliefs and experiences.

After being part of the PHC community for 8 years, I know better than that.

I also know better than to expect many current students to understand. It took me years to accumulate the knowledge I now have, let alone to realize that Christian leaders at institutions I was told to respect are often just as fallen, misguided, and dangerous as the “atheists and sinners” I had been warned about all my life. So if you are a current student at PHC, please know that those of us in the “bitter alumni” camp don’t hate you. We actually care very much about you. We criticize the school and its behavior because we see it hurting you, in ways you might not even recognize for years, just as we often did not recognize the school’s behavior as harmful during our time as students.

The day we fall silent is the day we don’t care anymore.

One of the most common themes in the stories PHC students and alumni submitted to HA over the last several weeks is loneliness. If you are a current student and you feel that way, if you want to talk with one of the “bitter alumni” about those gut feelings you have and the doubts you are shoving to the back of your mind, feel free to reach out to me by messaging HA. They know how to get hold of me.

End of series.

Better Late Than Never — The Senior Testimony I Never Gave: Adina’s Story

Homeschoolers U

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.