When you characterize college students, do the following words resonate with you? Drinking, drugging, hooking up, speeding in fancy cars, cutting classes.
Some college students might be defined in this way; however, after decades of working in higher education in several states and at all levels through graduate studies, my experience suggests that most students are more complex than these stereotypes.
Each fall semester, my students at Edison State Community College write what I call a peace essay in which they chronicle a time in their lives in which they have faced a significant challenge and the ways in which they have dealt with that issue, coming to peace with it, or not. I also tell them that they may vacillate in their thinking.
I still recall so many of those essays: losing a buddy in a war zone, giving birth in handcuffs after being falsely accused of a crime, being sexually assaulted by a relative.
As we all seek peace after the turbulence of 2020, I’d like to share with you the words of some of my fall semester students.
· Rebecca Spencer in “Miracle or Misery” details her battle with leukemia, “It’s been five years since my diagnosis. According to those early Google searches, I should either be dead by now or nearing the end of my life. Thankfully, I am still here and still ‘undetectable,’ thanks to that miracle chemotherapy pill that I swallow every day.
“I look at my life a lot differently now. I have reconnected with some of my earlier dreams and passions. Though obtaining my college degree was always a dream of mine, I never was quite motivated enough to take that step until I faced death. What had always been ‘someday’ became ‘do it now.’* I have taken up painting. I may not be able to help my husband Chris care for our six acres of land like I used to, but I can paint the beautiful flowers that I see.”
· Haley Muter reports that “the degeneration of my body started my sophomore year of high school” after being diagnosed with juvenile arthritis. She quotes Richard Nixon, “The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire” as she describes the toll the disease took on her body: causing her to lose 35 pounds and depleting her energy. She struggled “to do just about anything” including needing help from her mother to change clothes when her arms and legs were too weak to accomplish that task.
“A lot of people can’t imagine a pain that never goes away,” and “I am very envious of those people,” Muter writes. “Life can be hard, but even when there were days I couldn’t get out of bed, I had to find something that pushed me to be strong. I often thought of my family, my friends, and even my dog,” wanting “to be happy and healthy for them even when I didn’t want it for myself. There are too many smiles, beautiful sunsets, and laughs to stay in bed miserable all day. All have a fire that they must go through in their life; my ‘fire’ was just different from that of others.”
· Jaden Stine was “Lost with No Direction” as he grappled with a decision about a career and a university following graduation from high school.** He knows that family and friends “want what is best for me, but when I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, which way will they push me? Will they push me toward my dreams or the safest route for my life, ensuring that the world doesn’t come crashing down around me?”
He asks, “Would I rather put my whole heart into something and be proven wrong or never pursue my dreams and always wonder, ‘What if…’? The problem with high school is that is I … can dissect a frog, but who is there to tell me what I should do with my life?” He concludes, “The great thing is we get to choose what we do for ourselves, and whether or not we fail or succeed, the sun will rise again tomorrow.”
· In her essay entitled “Rainbow in the Abyss,” African American Penny Ross indicates that after having spent her “black life — my natural hair, my dark brown skin, and my desperation for respect and equality — all the things that somehow frighten many white lives,” she concludes that the morning news “reminds me that my struggle is real, growing even harder and is more politicized than ever.” There, however, is a “peaceful resolution” for her: “If in the depths of my abyss, I was sent a rainbow. It is because God is not dead.”
· Optimist Victoria Derstine declares in “Peace in Motion,” her peace essay, “Once you lose peace, what is there left to do but find it again?” Her story revolves around her Christian beliefs and her relationship with a former boyfriend and his relationships with others. She debates physical intimacy and emotional intimacy and arrives at the conclusion, “I don’t tell this story as one where I had to forgive him or my friend he dated because neither did anything wrong to me. They simply did something that made me come to terms with my previous idea of my own little bubble in the world. God doesn’t design this world for us to stop or stay in motion. We are constantly being acted upon by other forces. I had to find peace, again, with new knowledge.”
· And in conclusion, Cora Purves details how she dealt with death, the death of her grandfather. At first it was denial: she expected someone to come into her room “with my grandpa trailing behind to say, ‘Surprise! It was all an elaborate prank, and your grandpa is right here!” Later, dreams which featured him came. She declares “I have never been truly religious,” but through the dreams, she feels that she knows “my grandpa is at peace with his death and that I should be, too.”
In her “Dreams of Peace,” she acknowledges that “Coming to peace with anything is tough, but coming to peace with loss, for me, was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do. As long as I can keep his memory alive, I am happy and at peace.”
*Rebecca graduates from Edison State May 2021 and won first place with the Edison State essay competition.
**Jaden graduates from high school in May 2021, as valedictorian.