Don Follis: This is the month for a broad smile and hearty welcome
Years ago I decided to transfer from a state university to a private Christian college. A man whom I respected heard about this and said to me, "Why would you want to go and study there?" He thought studying religion was a waste of time. Talk about disempowering.
Since this is a university town, thousands of young adults are coming to town this month, as they do every August. And thousands of kids from here in town are going back to one of the public or private schools in the area.
Having been a student and having watched students come and go from the university for 35 years, I know some positive emotions students want to experience during the next few weeks.
For starters, students want acceptance. When I was 18 years old, I walked into a huge lecture hall at Kansas State University and a haltingly took a seat beside a kid I had never met. He smiled and said, "Welcome."
What a powerful, affirming word: welcome. That felt terrific. After class we decided to get a Coke in the student union. I hailed from out near the Colorado border where the buffalo roamed, while he was from Kansas City. But the city and rural boys accepted one another as equals. We had lots of Cokes that semester.
Everyone wants approval. One of my friends told me during his final year of medical school he had decided to pursue pediatrics. His own father, a cardiologist who had weighed in by then, was "almost in shock," he said. The father wanted his son to be a surgeon, not a "lowly physician for children." After he told his father, he said his father would not even speak with him for weeks.
I talked with my friend, telling him how proud of him I was of him for making it through medical school and said, "Children will be so fortunate to have a man of your caliber treating them." I told him I was sorry but his father was dead wrong.
And I said on behalf of thousands of sick children who would be treated by him as their pediatrician, "Thank you so much. You made a great choice."
Everyone wants respect. At one point in my studies at the Christian college, my first cousin and I had a class together called "Critical Introduction to the Old Testament." The final project required hours of study, a 20-minute report in front of the class and then questions from classmates and the professor.
My cousin was smart but shy. The professor was known to be a hard grader who demanded well-prepared work. When my cousin was chosen to be the first presenter for the final project, she told me she was very nervous and felt she would botch her presentation because she gets so nervous in front of people.
But she was superbly prepared. Way more than I was. Her report flowed off her lips. I'd never heard her speak in a context like this, and I was impressed.
In front of the class, the professor gave her glowing remarks and asked her how long she had prepared for her presentation. When she answered, he said, "I have great respect for the way you approached this. Your presentation was excellent and your insights profound." My cousin glowed when she told me later she felt so respected by the professor.
Everyone wants to be understood. During one college class I took, a girl took issue with the professor. She was spunky, and I liked how she took him on. But he liked to be right, and he shot right back at her, raising his voice. She countered with a soft but insistent voice. The professor would not budge.
Finally he said, "Look if you don't like it, that's just tough." At that point she gave up and quit talking. After class I walked up to her on the sidewalk and told her I was sorry about the way the professor talked with her. She burst into tears.
"He was not listening," she protested. She was right. If you never listen to what a person is truly trying to say, you will never realize how important it is to be understood. I've always felt that professor missed a great opportunity to understand a student.
Everyone wants to be supported. I knew a man who studied bassoon performance in the music school. You can laugh at the impracticality of that, or you can do what he told me his parents did.
"They thought it was great," he said. He told me they supported him and never once told him they were nervous about what he would do with such a degree. So he pushed in toward his love for music, a love that served him well his whole life.
Whether you encounter university students or students from pre-school through high school, they all are seeking encouragement, comfort, and love. Believe me, there is someone in this city during this month of August that needs your blessing. They need your smile. They need someone — a teacher, a parent, a new friend or even a stranger — to hold the door for them, smile and say, "Welcome. Come on in."
Students from the least to the greatest need to know they are loved for being alive, not for what they do or how they perform.
So let's all start practicing our line: "I'm so glad you are here."
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via http://www.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.