OtherSpeak: How One Timid Mennonite Lost Her Fear of College

OtherSpeak is an opportunity for Confessions readers to share approved content of their choice, particularly from outside the range of Shari Zook’s experience.

This post was submitted by Sarah Yoder Beiler, who went to college in Charlottesville, Virginia, and still lives in Charlottesville today. She has a perspective worth hearing.

I went to college to become a better teacher. I had been to CMTI and Faith Builders summer term and Teacher’s Week. I had read Rod and Staff’s bulky green Handbook for Creative Teaching cover to cover. In spite of those efforts at self-education, I still had a few students whom I was not equipped to teach. There was, for example, the case of the otherwise brilliant third grader who could not read.

So I went to college. I went to a secular college, because that was the only kind I could afford. I went warily, cautiously, making full use of those eyes in the back of my head that I had developed throughout seven years of teaching. I was prepared to be assaulted by ungodly philosophies.  To my surprise, the Math teacher made jokes about – I couldn’t believe it – Math. The Music Appreciation class taught me to enjoy music – including hymns. In Early American Literature we read so many sermons that students grumbled, and the professor patiently explained that Christianity is the main subject of early American writing. The courses that were designed to show me how to teach math and reading to elementary students did just that. The courses on lesson planning and classroom management turned out to be very helpful in subsequent Sunday School lessons I taught.

To be fair to the fearful self that I used to be, I admit that I had one Literature professor who made disrespectful remarks about Christianity. One professor out of dozens. After several students in the class said that they were Christians, the professor began to swallow his sarcastic comments mid-phrase, nearly choking on his own unsavory words.

Throughout four years of secular college, I did not compromise on my beliefs, did not pretend to be other than what I was, and never felt disrespected for my faith. Was I an anomaly? I do not know. I only know what my experience was, and I know that experience took away my fear.

I wish that I would have a second chance to teach that third grader how to read. I don’t know for sure that I could teach him now, but I know my chances would be a hundredfold better than they were before I went to college. Those professors really know some things about how people learn to read.

– Sarah Yoder Beiler

Do you agree or disagree? Whether or not your experience matches Sarah’s, what do you wish you had learned sooner in life? If you could take any educational course you’d like, what would it be?

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4 years ago

Sometimes experiences in secular colleges can actually be less damaging to our faith than in colleges that claim to be Christian, but in name only.

4 years ago


4 years ago
Reply to  Kendra

How courageous to walk into an experience you felt anxious about!

I had similar experiences at a secular college. Most students and professors were helpful—when they realized that I (skirt-wearing, head-covered) needed them. One English professor even donated her time to come teach a lesson to my high school English class.

Rosanna King
4 years ago
Reply to  Rebekah

Yes, students and professors were friendly and helpful. I learned that needing and asking for help is a good way to value and accept others. I lived without a car during two school years and occasionally asked a male classmate (who was sort of a social outcast) for rides. He didn’t have the highest opinion of Christians due to some negative experiences but I believe asking him to help me brought him closer to the kingdom than if I would have tried to help him.

Shank Heidi
4 years ago

This is so true. I am saddened by people who live in fear of the world we are supposed to be a light to.

Sarah Beiler
4 years ago

Well said, Heidi. Some of the fear is simply fear of the unknown. I grew up very ignorant of general American culture, and now that I am better acquainted with it, I am sometimes appalled at the myths about American culture that are spread among those who are isolated from it.

Lucinda J
4 years ago

This is a great post, Sarah. Even though I am currently attending a Christian college, I would agree that secular colleges are not out to destroy people’s faith, and I greatly respect the quality of education offered. I think we are too often held back or made critical by fear. P.S. I did struggle with a lot of doubt when I attended class at a secular college, but those doubts came from inside me, not because someone was attacking my faith.

Rosanna King
4 years ago
Reply to  Lucinda J

Same here – on the doubts coming from within, rather than from a direct attack.

Rosanna King
4 years ago
Reply to  Shari Zook

I like your skinny throat comment. I think college is extra dangerous for Anabaptist young people because the water they swim in causes them to have “smaller throats”.

4 years ago

Thank you Sarah for sharing your story. I attended secular college but that was back in the 80s and things are so different now. I like what Shari said about eating the “fish and spitting out the bones.” We need to be very careful what we chew and use wisdom not to mistake what is actually ” meat” for bones. This is something I wish I learned earlier.
That be said if I could take any educational course I think it would either Anabaptist church history or English Composition. I really need to improve my writing skills.

Rosanna King
4 years ago

I agree with sooo much of what Sarah says here. I too found that soo much of what I was told about the outside world was false, spoken out of ignorance. This left me wondering if some other things I was taught were TRUE including what I was taught about who God is . . . Did I believe what I believed only because I was taught it to be true? If so I was in trouble because the people who had taught me about God had also made “truth” statements on matters that they were completely ignorant of. I believe that the “lies” we tell within the church are more dangerous than any deception on campus, because it is the “untruths” from within that make a person vulnerable to the “lies” on the outside.

University tested my faith, and if it were not for the reality that God keeps His children, I wouldn’t have made it through. The truth about God keeping us is seriously downplayed in Anabaptist circles while there is a lot of fear about being led astray and emphasis put on keeping oneself safe. I put myself in an environment that was inherently unsafe where I was simply not strong enough to keep myself, because I believed that it was the path God had called me to walk and that He was big enough to keep me.

Direct attacks by faculty on Christian faith and practice are extremely rare in the U.S. (it’s actually illegal). And when they do occur they tend to be faith builders. I believe the subtle danger of constantly being in an environment which pretends that God does not exist, is more dangerous. My last two years I attended a university where spirituality was cool, all faiths were welcome, except Jesus, and tolerance was the highest virtue. In my estimation believers in Jesus comprised less than 3% of the student body. Probably even fewer of the faculty. An Orthodox lady who worked in the office gave me a ride home one day and asked me – how in the world my community would let me come to a place so dangerous to my faith? (maybe they wouldn’t had they known how dangerous it was and how weak the foundation of my personal faith was or maybe they would have prayed harder and encouraged me with letters and visits).

Personally I learned that peer pressure affects me way more than I had thought. It is easy to believe when everyone around you believes, it is harder to believe when most around you do not. It was extremely helpful to connect with other Christians on campus and realize that I was not alone. This is another area where many Anabaptist young people are set up for failure as many struggle to recognize “family” as all their life they’ve been taught to see anyone outside Anabaptists as worldly. Alone we fall, we must recognize our siblings in Christ to survive in an environment that denies the existence of God. The closest Anabaptists were 50 miles away, and the percentage of Christians in the general population lower than most U.S. cities. In that godless environment I counted anyone who was willing to say Jesus Christ is Lord as my sister or brother.

I went to church every Sunday except one during my school years. I desperately needed to be in a space filled with people who believed in Jesus once a week. Sometimes while hearing truth over the pulpit – I heard it like a pagan, and realized I had begun to believe something that wasn’t true and only recognized it when I heard truth that revealed the lie.

I came home from university physically, emotionally, and spiritually unwell. It has taken more years to heal and come home spiritually than I was away. Through the healing power of Jesus and the care of His people, including counselors, mentors, pastors, friends, and a life coach I am where I am today. God has been very, very good to me.

Sylvia Horst
4 years ago

Going to college was something I too was afraid of. And it turns out that I can see the reasons for caution, but also that it was not as bad as I feared it would be. I do agree with Rosanna that it would not be a good idea if you are already shaky in your faith and if you don’t have a strong support system. But God is very capable of ‘keeping’ you if you are following His call on your life and going to college because He called you to it.
Secular college has been a very stretching experience for me. In December, I just finished my associate degree at a local community college. Now I’ve just begun my bachelor’s degree in Christian Counseling at Liberty University (online), which is a Christian university. My one instructor is actually asking me to use Bible verses in my assignments. It is such a refreshing change to have instruction coming from a Godly worldview. After all, I want to be a Christian counselor, so I want to learn effective ways to help from a Christian perspective, not just secular behavior modification.
By far, my favorite classes have been the psychology classes, but I also did enjoy the biology/science classes too. Math–not so much, but it had to be done. English classes helped me become a better writer, Effective Speaking gave me tools for when I need to speak in front of a group. All in all, college has been a good experience for me.
You don’t have to lose your faith in college!
Thank you Sarah, for your perspective.

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