A matter of taste

Special Issue | What's student life like at theologically conservative Christian colleges? WORLD sent three reporters in their 20s to stay in dorms, eat at cafeterias, and sample classes at colleges growing out of three different Christian traditions, in three different parts of the United States. Their observations should remind high-school seniors and their parents that matching schools and students involves not just collecting pertinent facts but considering personal tastes

Issue: "New Orleans: Starting over," Sept. 24, 2005

Kristin Chapman reports from Beaver Falls, Pa.; while Jamie Dean is in Lynchburg, Va.; and Lynde Langdon is in Bartlesville, Okla.

On a Friday night at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., dozens of students form long lines at a half dozen food stations in Reber Dining Hall, sizing up dinner selections and filling up trays with eclectic combinations like pizza, Cherry Coke, and Lucky Charms. The longest line forms at the spaghetti bar, while another crowd waits for hot subs. For perpetually hungry college students, there's something for everyone-and it's like that with college choices as well.

As college-bound high-school students and their parents size up Christian colleges this fall, they'll find as many selections as they would in a well-stocked dining hall-and each school has a different flavor. That's why rankings of colleges are not all that useful: One student's trash can be another's treasure.

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Amelia Wigton, a senior at Liberty University, says a taste for biblically grounded professors first attracted her to the 9,000-student Christian school in central Virginia. Exasperated with hostility toward Christianity at state schools in her native California, Ms. Wigton left the palm trees of Mission Viejo for the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains: "The first time I heard a professor here open the class with prayer, I was literally in tears."

Ms. Wigton is a resident assistant (R.A.) in Campus East, a set of recently built apartment-style dorms across the highway from the main campus. Four bedrooms open to a tidy living area that is filled on Thursday nights with energetic girls from the first two floors of the dorm. They gather for prayer and fellowship, a practice that is mandatory across campus each week, and one of the best ways for students to form meaningful friendships, according to Ms. Wigton.

Before enrolling at Liberty, she had heard the common generalizations about the school founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell: All the professors are fundamentalists, and conduct codes are strict. She found truth and exaggeration in the reports. A conduct code called the "Liberty Way" does dictate a dress code on weekdays in academic buildings: Women may wear pants, but not shorts, and skirts must be knee-length, while men must wear collared shirts and pants or neat jeans. R.A.s enforce a midnight curfew during the week and perform room checks three times a week to make sure students keep rooms neat and clean. That's one of the more unpopular sections of the code among students, along with the prohibition of watching R-rated movies on or off campus.

One generalization Ms. Wigton found untrue was that all Liberty professors have the same theological perspective. While professors do sign a broadly evangelical statement of faith at the nondenominational school, Ms. Wigton says instructors' views vary on doctrinal particulars. The bustling campus bookstore boasts a wide range of thought, from Joel Osteen to John Calvin, and from Tim LaHaye to Jonathan Edwards.

Donald Small, a student in Liberty's seminary and a 2002 graduate of the university, says most students are committed to their faith and to following the rules, including prohibitions against drinking and smoking, but that students still often struggle. As a prayer leader during his senior year, Mr. Small said he counseled young men struggling with purity in dating relationships, and even pornography. A built-in accountability system provides a network of support for students who need help, he says.

When describing the dating scene on campus, Mr. Small strikes the same note as many other students, saying professors and administrators put a "huge emphasis on finding your spouse at Liberty." The leadership's marital push is a running joke among the student body, though Mr. Small says many students do get married. As for Mr. Small, he hasn't found a wife during his seven years on campus: "I'm thinking of asking for a partial refund."

Mr. Small says Liberty does a good job of organizing voluntary service projects for students every Saturday, but says some do confine themselves to the "Liberty Bubble," secluding themselves in a Christian environment without engaging the outside world.

Matt Gallant, a commuter student, spends most weekends trying to burst the bubble. In a small classroom on a Friday afternoon, Mr. Gallant, sporting gelled hair and a Dukes of Hazzard T-shirt, encourages 40-plus students to find ways to share their faith: "The only way we can fail is if we let our fears keep us from telling others about Christ." At the end of the evangelism study Mr. Gallant encourages students to join him in traveling to nearby Radford University that evening to evangelize at the secular school after a basketball game: "If you want to go, I'll cover gas."


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