From kindergarten to twelfth grade, year after year, there’s a numbered step that tells students what to do next. But after high-school graduation, they are suddenly faced with one of the biggest decisions of their lives: where do they go from here?
College price tags, family expectations, and high-school experience all play large roles in what a Reformed student may decide. But more deeply, their perspective on the role of education will shape their decision. As four OP members look back on their varying post-high-school paths, they come to some similar conclusions.
Paige Vanderwey, a member of Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan, graduated high school in 2015 and took a non-traditional path. Although her parents were college graduates, they didn’t see college as the only route for their children. Instead, Vanderwey explains, they taught her and her siblings to value ongoing learning in whatever form it took in their lives.
“My mom didn’t homeschool me to prepare me for college, she homeschooled me to prepare me for life,” said Vanderwey. “If I was just going to high school to get ready for college, that was not the right attitude.”
After only one semester of classes at a university, Vanderwey had the opportunity to travel to the OP mission in Uganda. Upon returning, Vanderwey felt the Lord leading her to the mission field, but had no immediate opportunity to return. Deciding not to go back to the university, she found herself at a crossroads and eventually decided to enroll at Gillespie Academy, a one-year post-secondary program in Ontario, Canada, that is focused on theology, philosophy, and communication.
“Some people tell me I wasted a year of my life, because it wasn’t the normal route. I think it changed my life,” Vanderwey said. “I committed a year to studying the one whom I worship and glorify. Eternally, that is of great value.”
She found a stark difference between the classroom cultures at the university and Gillespie. At the university, every class had a row of kids in the back who were sleeping. They didn’t want to be there. But Gillespie had a different vibe. “It was an atmosphere of kids that wanted to learn, wanted to know more, and were striving to know the Lord in very specific and focused, serious time,” she said.
The time at Gillespie was transformative for Vanderwey. “I see things differently, I think differently,” she said. Currently laboring again in Uganda, Vanderwey uses there the critical thinking skills and principles she learned at Gillespie. Both in the States and now in Uganda, Vanderwey sees a lack of the “art of discussion.” And it has consequences. “If you don’t know how to discuss, how to ask questions, you can’t share what you believe, and ultimately, you can’t even know what it is that you believe,” she said.
On the other hand, the ability to be a lifelong learner, always asking questions and thinking critically, is both a spiritual and a practical help.
“We are learning every day of our lives no matter where we are,” she concluded. “Ultimately, education is to know God and make him known—that’s our goal and our purpose throughout all of life, including education.”
Kyle Will believes that although education and college don’t always go hand in hand, college is often assumed to be the only choice for the high-schooler—or, at least, the only right choice. A member of Cornerstone OPC in Houston, Texas, Will felt pressured as a high-school senior to just follow the crowd and go to college. “It was the thing you were supposed to do if you were going to be successful,” he said.
But that pressure isn’t helpful, he argues. In high school, Will thought he wanted to attend college for a degree in information technology (IT) and web development—until a high-school internship convinced him that IT was not what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing. He decided instead to open a business with an experienced partner in something that had always been a hobby: automotive performance.
Will recently sold his half of that company to open a truck and SUV dealership, a switch that allows him to spend time with his growing family. During the switch, the pressure from others to go to college returned, despite the fact that he transitioned into a job he enjoys.
He admits that being self-employed is not without its challenges. “I’ve learned to trust God a lot more because there is no guarantee a paycheck is coming in two weeks. It certainly makes you consider that God is faithful, and he will provide,” he said.
Instead of pressuring high-school students to attend college, Will would stress the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all path. “It’s a good idea to explore your natural talents and abilities and figure out how you can best use them in a way that creates a good life for you, contributes to the world, and glorifies God in doing so.”
When students see education as an end in itself, they might waste time, energy, and money on something of little value to them. They might only go to college because they think “that’s what they’re supposed to do, not because they need it.”
After a close call with the wrong career path, Will is relieved that he didn’t invest time and money into a degree that wasn’t right for him. He urges high-school students to get experience in the fields in which they are interested before they graduate high school. “Whether it be shadowing, working part-time, or volunteering in several different fields, it’s invaluable experience, because if you pick one path and invest in it and it doesn’t work out, then you’ve lost a lot.”
Explore your interests and propensities, he says, rather than just looking for a well-paying career.
A well-paying career was near the bottom of Madeline McLean’s priorities. McLean, a member of Providence Presbyterian in Greensboro, North Carolina, spent her entire senior year of high school wondering what to do next. With an interest in someday being a “wife and mother [who’s] home with my kids,” she wasn’t exactly mapping out career possibilities.
But, encouraged by her mother to evaluate her abilities and gifts, McLean decided to audition at Campbell University as a piano pedagogy major. “I knew the Lord had given me ability and inclination toward music, and so I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to study it in a much more disciplined environment.”
McLean says the self-discipline her course of study gave her has been an unexpected and invaluable by-product of her higher-education experience. As the classes and lessons honed her natural gifts, the experience also showed her areas in which her character needed to grow and pushed her outside of her comfort zone.
She advises high-school students to “prayerfully consider the skills and the gifts God has given you.” Pointing to Paul’s emphasis on the varied gifts of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, she thinks high-school students should evaluate where their gifts might lie. Then the education decision can be based on what would “grow the abilities and talents the Lord has given them [in order] to serve him, serve the community, and serve the church.”
As McLean graduates this year, she seeks to balance education as both a means to an end and an end in itself. “The problem with our culture is that people view [education] much more as a means to an end than anything else,” she concluded.
Nathan Moelker agrees. A member of Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and a junior at Geneva College studying both English and computer science, Moelker is bent on preserving the joy and wonder of education.
“Education has been dominated by utilitarianism,” he said. “What we need in education is a love of learning for its own sake and training for its own sake.”
Rather than asking how to get the job that pays the most, Moelker advises the graduating high-school student to “look at yourself and see what God has gifted you to do and pursue it in such a way that you don’t kill your own curiosity and desire to learn. Whether God is calling you to be a plumber or a pastor, the world he has made is a wonderful, complicated, confusing but amazing, beautiful thing.”
Although he believes that finding a job is important—Moelker hopes his double major will allow him to enter law school or seminary after graduation—he notes that there are many people attending college who do not want to be there, and who probably shouldn’t be. When in doubt about the future, students are encouraged to break down education into a money calculation—to their detriment. “People try to find themselves by asking, ‘What will make the most money? I’ll do that.’ And that is very spiritually unhelpful,” Moelker said.
He encourages high-school students to know their gifts rather than their financial bottom line. When they do, the “how” of learning will fall in line, too: “Delight in and learn about God and his world—that is how we use our gifts well.”
Whether one leaves high school to attend college, learn a trade, raise a family, or start a business, a heart inclined to learning is a biblical attitude for Christians.
Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. (Psalm 119:97–99)
And certainly, as these men and women discovered, their decisions needed to include more than how much money they will make in five years and also more than what they feel will fulfill them.
Although discovering vocation or abiding passions is good and helpful, students’ goals as they graduate high school should not be primarily to discover who they are as a person, but who God is and how they can glorify and enjoy him.
The author is a writer and editor living in Louisiana with her husband and son, members of Grace Presbyterian Church PCA in Metairie, Louisiana. New Horizons, July 2018.