Painful Evolutions Required: Wayne’s Story

Homeschoolers U

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

I am a graduate of Patrick Henry College. Moreover, I am a recent graduate – I didn’t go through the schism. Many of the stories critical of PHC come from those who lived through that time, and many of those defending the school come from those currently attending.

I hope to offer a perspective that “splits the difference.”

There will be many in the PHC community who will immediately write this off as the complaint of yet another of the “bitter alumni.” That’s an in-house pejorative frequently applied to PHC grads who openly criticize the school. To preempt this narrative, I would like to observe up front that I am not a disaffected former student taking out my recession-inspired frustration on the institution. At PHC, I worked hard, received good grades, and graduated with honors. I participated on multiple forensics teams, including the celebrated moot court squad, and was accepted to my top-choice graduate program. By most metrics, I had a very successful outcome.

In many ways, I regret attending PHC. In others, I do not.

(Some background: I did not have the extremely conservative homeschooling background many on this website experienced. My parents are successful professionals and committed Christians who truly live out the call of their faith to love others. They are two of the most exceptional people I’ve ever met. Accordingly, my homeschool experience was both spiritually positive and academically enriching. I’m also a straight white male, so my perspective is certainly limited compared to the experiences of others who have written here.)

As a student interested in pursuing a public-policy career, I thought PHC was a perfect fit. I was, unfortunately, incorrect. In my view, PHC must confront and overcome three major issues if it hopes to succeed in the future and avoid the serious problems of its past: 1) lack of meaningful academic engagement, 2) administrative authoritarianism, and 3) corrosive student culture.

Before discussing these, however, I wish to highlight some of the positive aspects of my time at PHC.

Positive Elements

During my time at PHC, I met a number of very exceptional people with similar backgrounds and, in many cases, similar convictions. (I still consider myself a committed Christian, though I have renounced the “evangelical” subculture). Furthermore, the school’s Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Frank Guliuzza, served as both a mentor and a personal friend to me. Over and over, Dr. Guliuzza exemplified the very best ideals of Christianity, offering both compassion to the broken-down and guidance to the highly motivated.

I do not know if I would have met the same concentration of incredible people elsewhere. In some ways, PHC’s lack of “diversity” ensured that many of us shared common ground and common experiences. Accordingly, when we faced challenges, we developed uniquely close bonds. I can say with complete honesty that I would die for many of the friends I made at PHC.

And despite the presumed inferiority of any supposed “liberal arts” education delivered within such a rigidly doctrinaire framework, PHC is not an easy school (something which many of its detractors fail to appreciate). The coursework is objectively rigorous (at least in many upper- level government major classes), and the success of the school’s forensics programs speaks for itself.

Having outlined many of the positive elements of my experience, I move now to consider the challenges the school faces.

Lack of Academic Engagement

I first developed concerns on this front during freshman year. Even as a new student, I understood that censoring Michelangelo’s “David” and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” – with black boxes around the genital areas – was contrary to the purposes of a classical liberal arts education. PHC’s overprotective and intrusive Internet filtering system extended to “tasteless” material (as defined by whom?) and blocked any discussions of drug legalization as a matter of policy. The perspectives of contemporary Catholics and Orthodox Christians were largely absent from the curriculum, as were the contributions of minorities and non-Western cultures to philosophy, history, science, religion, and the arts. Moreover, students were expressly forbidden from making a case for same-sex marriage, even as purely a matter of public policy (Student Handbook 5.1.2.9).

This is not how any “liberal arts education” should be conducted, but it is the inevitable consequence of maintaining a rigid Statement of Faith interpreted solely by the College’s senior leadership.

Administrative Authoritarianism

The school’s priority, above all else, appeared to be maintaining its pristine image as the “Christian Ivy League.” This objective naturally conflicted both with valuing students as individual persons and producing scholarly research which may challenge the established consensus.

I frequently felt that my political views and opinions, which emphasize personal liberty in one’s private life and affairs, were unwelcome on campus. Moreover, I was constantly afraid that any expression of views deemed “problematic” would be relayed to the ever-present Office of Student Life. It is impossible to convey the particularly sickening, stomach-churning dread that somewhere, someone is judging your attitude and spiritual condition. No student in higher education should face that kind of fear on a daily basis.

I hold the Office of Student Life directly responsible for creating a climate of paranoia among students whose views differ from the established consensus. There was no counterpoint to this authoritarianism; the college “newspaper” was censored beyond belief, clearly forbidden to print anything critical of the College or the administration (this last point was not the fault of the staff or supervising professor, but of the College’s higher authorities).

If I had been female, it would have been far worse. I witnessed the shaming of girls by their Resident Assistants – who obsessively sought, as a “Mean Girls”-style means of social retribution, to dress-code them for made-up modesty violations. I listened to chapel messages stating that the responsibility of women was to “control their beauty.” Further discussion of the gender issue is properly the domain of others, however.

As a final example, the administration recently decided to institute an electronic “card scan system” to monitor chapel attendance. The rationale? Attendance numbers reflected that 81% of the student body was attending chapel, rather than the (apparently more acceptable) 85%. I find such an approach – as well as the policy of mandatory daily chapel – a disgrace to worship.

Frankly, I find much of the “big issues” on campus laughable in retrospect – but at PHC, they’re spoken of with dead seriousness and an absurd level of self-righteous pomposity.

Corrosive Student Culture

This is necessarily a highly subjective question, but one which I feel warrants some discussion. A few highlights based on instances I personally witnessed:

  • My personal focus on obtaining good grades and planning for my future career was condemned by other students as unspiritual and utilitarian.
  • Some students outright refused to argue certain topics, even hypothetically, in parliamentary debate rounds (i.e. resolutions in which they may be required to construct a theoretical case for abortion rights). They were subsequently celebrated for their moral courage, rather than encouraged to think through both sides of crucial issues or advised to leave the league. (PHC tuition dollars funded the cross-country travel of these students.)
  • Student “Resident Assistants” betrayed personal confidences to the Office of Student Life, which in turn betrayed those confidences to other Resident Assistants.
  • A large subset of PHC culture expected that fathers give permission for their adult daughters to go out on dates.
  • Many students attributed mental health issues to “spiritual warfare” and “demonic activity,” creating a climate of distrust for modern medicine.
  • Students were taught, and routinely promulgated to others, the toxic idea that the school administration may claim spiritual authority over its students. The school rules expressly forbid public criticism of professors, based on the rationale that such activity “violates the Biblical principle of submission to the authorities whom God has put over us.” (Student Life Handbook, 2.1.2).

Conclusions

My objective in writing this is not to exact some sort of retribution. After all, I and my friends are graduates. I seek to identify some serious problems that persist at PHC and suggest that the school recognize these, taking steps to reform itself accordingly. Such changes are absolutely not incompatible with the Christian faith that the school professes, but may require some painful evolutions: as long as the school’s current administrative figureheads remain in power and remain committed to inflexibility, genuine reform will likely be stonewalled.

I deeply care about many of the people involved in my PHC experience – both those currently attending and those who have graduated. If you are a current student at PHC and this story resonates with you, I hope you realize that you are not alone. Others have wondered the same things, asked the same questions, and faced the same unknowns. Do not accept the narrative that all alumni are angry, pathologically bitter individuals whose post-PHC lives have stalled; I think I speak for many PHC graduates when I say that we sincerely care about you. Please reach out to us. Hear our stories before you make snap judgments about our character or motivations.

When all is said and done, there are two directions a Christian college such as PHC may pursue: embrace the simplistic model of Bob Jones University/Pensacola Christian College, and choke off dissent in the name of ideological purity; or take the path of Wheaton and many others, encouraging cultural engagement while recognizing that all students will not fit into cookie-cutter molds. PHC is clearly caught between these two competing impulses.

One can only hope the school chooses to take the harder, but necessary, road toward reform.

Change The World With Love, Not A Battle Axe: Alaina Gillogly’s Story

Homeschoolers U

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.

What I Saw Was Exactly What I Got: Ruan Meintjes’s Story

Homeschoolers U

Dear Homeschool Anonymous,

I wanted to take a moment and respond to your request for stories from PHC students. Thank you for your interest in the wellbeing of homeschoolers. I am encouraged that you seek to hear and understand all sides of the coin. In pursuance of your request, I briefly wanted to share my story.

I come from an immigrant family where English is not my first language. Both my parents are doctors who homeschooled my siblings and I from the 1st grade through high school. Before arriving at PHC, I had the opportunity to see much of the world. I’ve been chased by prostitutes through the streets of Hong Kong, seen people die on the side of the road in Africa, and experienced the opulence—and the horrors—of the western world. I say all this to indicate that PHC wasn’t my first brush with reality.

PHC is very different from any place I’ve encountered in my travels and experiences during high school. I found the people to be welcoming, kind, smart, and sincere. I further discovered that the faculty and administration were very clear about their mission. They were there to provide a world-class education for each student based on biblical values and a personal relationship with Christ.

What I saw was exactly what I got.

To this day (I’m a junior now) I’ve never found a taboo discussion, we were free to explore any topic with our professors or with our administrators. In the case that a controversy arose, we as students were encouraged to immediately engage the campus leaders and to confidently expect an answer within a reasonable time frame. I’ll give you an example.

A sensitive student life issue arose two years ago that affected a small group of students, including myself. I decided that I was going to be a plucky freshman and waltz into the school authority’s office to get some answers. Obviously, I’m omitting the details of the situation, but suffice it to say that I quickly got a respectful, reasonable, and professional answer. The issue was resolved. All it took to come to an amicable solution in that instance was all parties communicating clearly, quickly, and professionally.

In terms of fellow students, we get all kinds. Yes, we even have some liberals. Gasp. We have people who were homeschooled and hated it, homeschooled and loved it, people who struggle with sexuality, alcohol, depression, and the list goes on. I’ve only been at PHC for two full years now, so take my observations for what their worth. Never, in my time there, did I ever see a student marginalized because of beliefs or struggles. In fact, those with differing opinions from the majority of campus are respected, a close community of friends carries those who struggle with personal or professional difficulties, and those who thrive are celebrated.

Now, let me be clear, none of this is to say that PHC has no problems.

Whoever idolizes PHC as the problem-free school is either remarkably stupid or a big fat liar. Call it what it is. Here’s what I’ve seen. When my class hit the tarmac our freshman year, we were 90-or-so green, neubish, teenagers who wanted to get an education. I was ungracious, unkind, and made callous/painfully stupid moves more times than I care to admit. Now, as a junior, I’m still ungracious, unkind, and make more callous/painfully stupid moves than I care to admit. The only difference is that I’m two years further along the road to fixing those problems.

And the fact is that PHC’s campus is filled with people like me.

We’re growing and making mistakes as we’re maturing; all of which takes place on a very small campus. So we cause problems. I remember this one time in my dorm when there was a rather serious spat between a number of students that required Student Life’s involvement. That’s fine. It’s not a surprise to see people disagreeing. What was surprising though, was the amount of integrity with which school officials and students handled the unfortunate situation. I believe that this outstanding behavior is due in no small part to the remarkable people on campus, and their shared values. If folks are looking for the perfect campus, they aren’t going to find it in northern Virginia.

What they can expect to find, is a well-engineered playground for young people seeking maturity where mistakes can be made in the process of learning.

I’ve had a good time at PHC; the place leaves a good taste in my mouth. I’ve seen its ups and downs and experienced some of my life’s most extreme challenges there. I thank God for the school, and I will remain forever thankful for the people who do their best to run it. That’s my two cents worth. Hope it helps!

Warm regards,

Ruan