Even though I’ve done it 33 times, the start of a new school year never gets old.
As a 20-year pastor at a Christian college campus church, we looked forward to the arrival of “them”—the new freshman class. The church would organize itself for move-in day. It was our belief that sweat equity in hauling stuff from a cramped trunk up three flights of stairs would be the quickest way to welcome these new students to the college community. Sometimes, parents in tears thanked us as they watched a team of 10 unload in less than five minutes the truck it had taken a day-and-a-half to load.
One time, a single mom just broke down and cried. In her words, “Now I know I’m leaving my child in a place that cares.”
After 20 of these sweaty move-in days across my years as a pastor, I moved across the street and began to experience them as a university president. The stakes changed. Getting them in the dorm and pew is no longer my primary purpose. Others are focused intently on that. So, for the past 13 years, I’ve been asking different questions about the beginning of the year.
Enrollment is harvest for a university. Did you bring in the class you expected? What is the quality of the class, the relational dynamics at work, the leadership potential, the diversity, the Christian commitment? These are all important identifiers for the way the coming years will go. Trevecca made a concerted effort several years ago to be more direct about our identity as a Christian university and also align aid to students who were seeking a school like ours. This has strengthened our identity and, I believe, defined our incoming freshmen.
So now my role in those packed-full early days of a new academic year is to welcome the parents, walk them through the scary stuff, encourage their tears in letting go, assure them that we love their students, and send them on their way.
Then we begin working directly with the freshmen. Denise and I do things like eat in the cafeteria a lot, go to every Welcome Week event that we can, compete in a cardboard boat race with plenty of smack talk going on (that’s mostly Denise), get covered in paint at Paintapalooza, watch a movie on the Quad, and look for the shy ones who are missing home a bit and need a presidential affirmation.
Then, I open the year with a chapel address that sets the tone for the year. (Yes, parents can livestream the chapel services.)
We find that intense presence in the opening days goes a long way in getting things off to a good start. After that first couple of weeks, students are into classes, clubs, events, homework, and the routine of the school year. We ease off a bit and start focusing on the issues that a new record class can create—housing, cafeteria lines, student registration, bulging gen ed classes and wifi overload.
And before you know it, fall break is here, and the campus gets quiet for a few days. That’s when I have a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned in my 33 years of serving college students, first as a pastor and now as a University president.
- Students bring U-Hauls where they used to bring suitcases. All that stuff won’t fit in a dorm room.
- The average student needs support for seven wireless devices, up seven from when I started.
- That same look of wonder is still in the eyes of freshmen beginning a new chapter.
- I love my work and count it a joy to serve.