Editor's Note: The grant request from the Young Clergy Initiative (YCI) referenced in this article has been approved. The award was for $20,000 helping to cover College Connection retreat expenses for the next four years.
FRUITLAND PARK—Exciting. Scary. Lonely. Fun. These are just some of the adjectives commonly used to describe the rite of passage from high school to college. Even for young people who are spiritually grounded, the challenges that await them can seem daunting. This is where College Connection retreats come in.
The weekend-long retreats, which began in 2011 with 20 junior and senior high school students, are held at Warren Willis Camp. Designed to connect students with college ministries around the state, they include practical workshops, social connections, free time and spiritual searching. Many students have been to summer camp there, so the venue is especially welcoming.
|This year's College Connection retreat at Warren Willis was attended by 93 high school students. Along with learning about eating right and managing their finances, students had a unique opportunity to connect with representatives from eight Wesley Foundations.|
Tanner Smith, program hospitality coordinator at Warren Willis, said this January’s group consisted of 93 high school students, 20 college student counselors and representatives from eight Wesley Foundations: Florida State University, University of South Florida, University of Florida, University of Central Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida Southern College, Florida Atlantic University and Campus to City Wesley, which serves several Northeast Florida campuses.
“For years, youth pastors have lamented that young people get dropped off at 12th grade, so we needed a way to introduce these students to college life and people they might get to know,” Smith said.
“It’s easy for these young people to fall away from church,” he noted, but workshops focusing on freshman year survival—doing laundry, eating right and managing finances—help bridge the gap. Other subjects include spiritual development, journaling, scholarship applications and social expectations. “This is their time to make choices about how to be,” he said.
There are no “elephants” left in the room at the retreats. “We see the need for openness and unity,” said Smith. Partying, alcohol, drugs, sex, peer pressure and stress are all addressed.
“It’s designed to be a kind of Q and A. There was even a worship service (dealing with) partying,” he added.
Joanna Gill was a counselor this year and the year before. She is on the leadership team for hospitality at Central Florida University Wesley Foundation and has worked at the retreats since she attended as a senior.
“The experience as a camper really helped me transition from high school and living at home to being at college…it helped me deal with the excitement and the fear of the unknown,” she said.
|Gathering around the bond fire is a tradition for any camp. The camaraderie and fellowship of fellow students is an important aspect of College Connection retreats like this one held in January.|
From movies, you get kind of an idea about what college life will be like, but you don’t know how you being a part of it will work,” she said. “The retreat helped me with all aspects of it, not just the faith or worship or meeting people. But I did meet four or five people at the retreat who were part of UCF Wesley and that helped me on campus.”
Now, she’s leading retreat workshops—college wellness was her topic at the latest retreat. “We were breaking the experience down into informative pieces, which no one had done for these students before,” Gill observed.
“It was just people already in college giving them tips—how to build your schedule and other practical things. There’s a huge gap there that someone has to help with.
“Connecting students to campus ministries is really important because there can be a lot of loneliness freshman year at a big school,” she said. “They feel disconnected from the community and this experience eases them in…the Wesley community can be a family.”
The retreats also address topics like drinking. “Not talking about it just makes them more curious,” she added. “Talking about partying in general, saying ‘don’t do it until you’re 21’ and don’t overindulge and think about safety,” is all offered from the perspective of other students who have been there, according to Gill.
“College Connections does a good job of showing an authentic face, a human side of college students, to those who are headed to college,” she said.
Workshops offered at the 2017 meeting included a junior year scholarship master class on getting college expenses funded. Other topics were freshman year survival, college wellness, finding God in the wilderness of campus, time and stress management, mindfulness and meditations.
Identifying students who might become interested in becoming clergy candidates and lay conference leaders is also part of the retreat.
Rev. Christy Holden is secretary of The Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and director and pastor of Gulf Coast Wesley Foundation. She has been part of College Connection for five years.
“Each year my role has shifted some as the college students re-fashion the retreat and give it a fresh makeover. But every year, I bring a team of students to introduce people to Wesley…so that they already know one student and one campus minister before they get to campus,” she said.
“During retreats, students who come either by themselves or as part of a local church group have a lot of questions,” Holden said. “They ask, ‘how do I discern what God’s calling me to do? What are my spiritual gifts?’”
Holden also suggested it’s a significant opportunity for them to make decisions on how to bring their faith toward adulthood and ask honest questions about the social expectations at college.
“They might ask if it’s scripturally okay to be in a fraternity and enjoy it, but not go against the teachings they’ve had,” she said.
In time, many of these young people may give their lives to Christ but may not see themselves in a local church or pulpit. They may engage in conversations about a life of vocational ministry with service projects or missionary service. Workshop presentations on discernment can help.
“There were a good number (this year) who talked to me about ministry as a career and it has been increasing every year I have been involved. It's really exciting to see that much growth,” Holden said.
The cost for the weekend has been held at $40 per student, thanks to a grant three years ago from the Young Clergy Initiative (YCI). Smith is in the process of completing a grant request from YCI for $20,000 over the next three years in order to keep the retreats affordable.
--Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta