Trust in Saying Goodbye

Photo by Ashley Mendez

Photo by Ashley Mendez

Lilian’s going to college! Do you know how happy mom and dad are? You are about to begin a new journey in life, to find your own dream. Although we will not always be by your side, God is our fortress, He will surely protect you, guide you.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”
Mom 2011.8.28

This is what is written carefully by my mother (although translated here into English) in the inner cover of my black leather covered, bilingual Bible, a gift from my parents on my 18th birthday before going to college. Our family doesn’t really celebrate birthdays and events, nor give gifts, and so this Bible was a pretty big deal. And although the short sentences they each wrote in dedicating this gift to me were simple and seemingly insignificant, the weight they bear is heavy. This pre-college gift was a reminder, an encouragement and an exhortation. Their words were a reminder of the change and transition I was about to go through: turning 18, becoming an ‘adult’, going to college, leaving the city and home I’d known for so long. It was a transition for them too: their only child going across the globe, to a place entirely unknown to them. They would have to adjust to a rhythm of living only with one another, not constantly discussing the details and schedules of their child, being okay with not being in charge of taking care of her anymore. Amidst all of this change, they must have known that there was a deep mixture of confusing feelings within me: excitement, nervousness, fear, anxiety, joy… Being a family that leaves many things unsaid, they turned to the scripture for encouragement: that our God, the head and centre of our home was in control, He would lead me. They exhorted me to pursue my dreams, to be courageous in the new journey I was stepping onto with the full assurance that I could lean and trust in the Lord.

That was three and a half years ago. 37 classes, 27 midterms, a few projects, a few dozen papers and many all-nighters and meltdowns ago. As my fellow blog-editor Pauline puts it, I had 16 sixteenths of college ahead of me, and now I only have 1 sixteenth of college left before graduation. The dreaded g-word. As I sat at the Alumni Representative Committee table at the Grad Fair for three hours on Wednesday, watching students wander into the bookstore to pick up their “graduation regalia”, the g-word became all the more real: in 70 days, I am going to be dressed in my oversized Columbia blue gown, with a matching cap, probably some uncomfortable shoes, matching thousands of others. I’m going to be graduating. How did this happen? Where did the time go? As I continue to ponder, I realise over these three and a half years, I did not only have 37 classes, 27 midterms, and all those markers of academic achievement. In these seven and a half semesters, I’ve also celebrated dozens of birthdays, gone to 9 CFA retreats, sang in 15 Jubilation! performances, gone to countless prayer meetings, stayed up late talking about everything and nothing… and the list goes on. When memories flash into my mind of my “favourite college moments”, few if any of them are the times I checked SSOL for my grade, or when my professor taught about some enlightening topic. Rather, they are filled with the times when I cried with my roommate as we prayed over one another, when our team at Crown & Cross finally published our first journal, when we were playing cards in my suite and I lost 15 games in a row: memories of my community, of the people around me, those I share life with.

Of course, not all my memories are full of joy and fun, and there are numerous occasions in the past seven semesters when I would question: Why am I here? Why didn’t I stay home for university? Is this what my parents intended my “new journey in life” to look at? What if I fail to find my own dream? Is it worth it to be here? As a regular interviewer for incoming Columbia students, I am constantly reminded of the worth of Columbia, as interviewees excitedly rattle off answers to the question “Why Columbia”. They tell me about the amazing academic resources Columbia provides, its location in New York City and the great balance between campus life and city life, the cultural diversity that Columbia and NYC bring to the educational experience. Yet, each time an interviewee asks me “What did you find most valuable about your Columbia experience?”, my answer is always the same: community. As graduation approaches, and I prepare to step into yet another “new journey” and transition, I become more and more aware of the rarity of this experience of community, and the value it has brought me these past three and a half years.

Community at Columbia has helped me learn more about myself. This may sound like the most cliche statement ever, or something pulled off of an admissions office brochure, but entirely true. Perhaps due to our diverse backgrounds, the entirely different environments we each grew up in, my community has on numerous occasions placed me in situations that are entirely new to me. Watching myself react and respond to these circumstances has been an eye opening experience to who I am and who I was raised to be. I have been surprised, for example, when my patience ran thin or when I felt unexpectedly angry or disappointed because I had simply not encountered such trying situations, or when I felt a deep hurt that was new to me because I had rarely invested in and cared so much for a person before. Seeing my discomfort when criticised by those around me has taught me about my pride, revealing to me what feeds it, exposing my deep desire for recognition and affirmation. At the same time, my community has also helped me see strengths I may have and often feel reluctant to vocally admit. Recently in our bible course, which this semester has a focus on pre-graduation, our ministry fellow spoke about recognising gifts and talents that God has given us in order to be able to use them well, and how so often we are inclined to deny or shy away from being confident about what we are good at. In this sense, community at Columbia has taught me about myself both by challenging me and placing me in foreign and new situations, but also showing me through encouragement and appreciation how God can use me and my strengths.

Community at Columbia has helped me learn more about God. This is not only true about my Christian friends that I have made through involvement in my fellowship, a cappella group and Christian journal, but also my non-believing, searching or uncertain-about-God friends. I would never have imagined how formative my time at Columbia could be towards understanding God: I remember distinctly a few weeks ago discussing and debating topics of predestination and God’s Love in a productive and thought-provoking way, realising how difficult it will be to leave Columbia knowing that such conversations would be so much more rare outside of this community. Discussing difficult, theological issues is something that makes my community so valuable, but the way our lives are so intricately related and intertwined strengthens this so much more. As I see the experiences my friends go through, the transformations in their lives and the lessons they learn, I become more aware of the strange and mysterious ways God works in and through us. Being at Columbia has also taught me a lot about prayer: how prayer works, the many ways prayer happens, why people pray, what people pray about and the power of prayer manifested in people’s lives. In turn, prayer has become a greater part of my life, and God has become more real. I’m increasingly aware of how my relationship with God has deepened since my time at Columbia, and exponentially so, as my relationships within my community have deepened.

Community at Columbia has helped me grow: as a friend, a daughter, a student and a child of Christ. Not only have I learned more about myself and God, but I’ve learned how to desire and affect change within me. Living in close proximity with community, having to struggle through seasons of depression, handle failure, face adversity with others, lays me bare in front of my friends. It not only helps me recognise my weaknesses and gifts but pushes me to want to be better, and be held accountable in growth by my community. As Proverbs 27:17 says: “Iron sharpens iron, and a man sharpens another.” This could not be more true. Seeing the way those around me express love or seek God on a daily basis has also inspired and challenged me to improve and to be more diligent: the unwavering love pouring out from my roommate even in times of academic stress, the fervency through which my friends seek the Lord in prayer despite bleak circumstances, the joy that exuberates from those struggling through family tensions… all remind me of what seeking God daily looks like. Community at Columbia has also pushed me to be more vulnerable and open in sharing with others: especially through my fellowship and a cappella group, where sharing has been emphasised as key to growth. I’ve found something incredibly peace-invoking about being completely honest with those you are close with. I am able to strive to encourage and be encouraged to walk closer with the Lord, as I become more known to those around me, and them more known to me. Yet, this honesty never comes easily. With honesty is the difficult notion that to be vulnerable is to acknowledge my imperfections and my far-from-holiness. Being vulnerable is to admit that not everything is “great” and that I struggle in my walk with God. At the same time, being vulnerable and accepting my imperfection has allowed me to grow and see the need and importance for Him. This acceptance has given me a new understanding of grace and of leaning on God, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance in my day-to-day battles.

The director of my ministry at Columbia likes to say: “Look around you at your friends sitting in this very room. This is your community here, your family here. And a few years down the road, don’t be surprised when they’re part of your wedding. These are your friends for life.” This may sound dramatic, idealistic and an oversimplification of “college community”. But in around 7 months time, I will be a maid of honour at my roommates’ wedding, alongside many amazing men and women who have been so core to the community I have at Columbia. What is confusing and still unimaginable to me though, is also by the time 7 months roll by, we will no longer be living in this community.

Three months into the year of 2015, and still the most often asked question I get is “So what’s next? What are your plans for after graduation?” Gradually, I’ve grown used to mixed emotions when I answer “I have no idea”: there is always some anxiety, a little bit of piece, even a dash of excitement when I consider the options (or the lack thereof) I have in front of me. I do not know what country I will be in, where I will live, what I will do or who I will be with. As I reread the verses of Proverbs 3:5-6 that my mother had written in my Bible and I had held on so tightly to whilst getting ready for college, the feelings of uncertainty are familiar. I recognise the taste of transition and of change in community. As I look back on my college community, I see the wisdom of these verses. With hindsight I can see that God has always had plans to prosper me, that He has used my community at Columbia in ways that I could never have imagined, and that I should have trusted Him entirely even as I doubted my purpose at Columbia. With new transitions ahead though, it’s not easy to trust. I am easily fearful of what change will entail and sometimes uncontrollably anxious because of the uncertainty ahead. I want to lean on my own understanding and secure people in my life that can extend the community I’ve found so valuable. But, perhaps this is God trying to tell me how much He cares for me. Who knows, in another three and a half years, I could be reflecting once more on His grace and provision and the ways I have grown deeper in my relationship with Him through the help of my community.