This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Education.” For more stories on this theme, see the January issue of The Mennonite.
In my home growing up, it was an expectation that my brothers and I would attend one of the Mennonite colleges for at least one year. My years at a Mennonite college were so formative and valuable that my husband and I decided to create the same expectation for our own daughter and son. Here are some of our learnings.
- Start young. Introduce your children, as you are able, to the Mennonite schools long before it is time for them to make a choice. On family vacations, we would work in visits to campuses of Mennonite colleges throughout the United States and Canada, even if just to drive around the campus. We took our children to concerts by college choirs who were singing in our area, and sometimes hosted choir members in our home. Our children attended music festivals and peace conferences that were held on college campuses. They went to alumni reunions with us often, and could sing along on the alma mater as toddlers. By the time they were juniors in high school, they had some awareness of each of the Mennonite schools in the United States and Canada.
- Do online research and request admissions materials. Learn as much about each of the schools as possible through their websites and written materials. Make a list of questions about each school, and don’t hesitate to ask for more information. For example, we asked several schools how they awarded credit for college-level high school classes, and how those classes would fit into particular college degrees.
- Visit as many Mennonite schools as a prospective student as possible. Through our experiences, we learned that it is best to begin these visits when students are juniors in high school. That allowed us to include one introductory day in the fall at a closer school, a spring break trip to a far-away school, a summer vacation to another far-away school, a fall break trip to two far-away schools and a winter visit to a closer school. Most of the colleges provide help in reimbursing travel expenses for college visits, if you request it.
- Why visit more than one or two Mennonite colleges? Each of our Mennonite schools is unique, with its own ethos or character, and its own strengths. It is hard to really get a feel for them without being on their campuses and interacting with people there. When our son arrived for one of his college visits, a professor asked him what led him to visit that college. Aaron answered honestly, that his mom was making him visit all of the Mennonite colleges. But by the end of our visit to that college, what Aaron had discovered was so attractive that the college became one of his final choices. Even if a college did not seem like a good match for my child’s needs, I wanted them to visit there so that they would be able to understand a little of the experience of friends who did attend there.
- Work with the admissions staff so they can include what you want on your visit. This is harder if you are attending one of the large group introductory days, or visiting when the college is not in session, but you should still be able to meet at least one professor. If possible, try to visit at a time when you can attend chapel, a student life event, a concert or rehearsal of one of the music groups, or an athletic event, depending on your child’s interests. If you know current students at the school, ask for your child to be able to stay overnight with one of them or meet with them for a meal. You might give the admissions staff a list of top priorities and secondary priorities for your visit, especially if you want to include an experience that isn’t part of the regular campus tours.
- Explore your child’s area of interest but don’t be limited by that. It is important to visit with professors in the areas of study in which your child is interested. But don’t rule out a school immediately if they don’t have the specific major your child wants. Some of the colleges are very willing to help students design their own major—our daughter did that. Look into the possibility of attending a Mennonite college for one or two years (especially taking courses that will form Mennonite identity), then transferring to another college to finish a specific major, or waiting to focus on their area of interest in graduate school. Or consider Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, which is a Mennonite residential community on the campus of a major university, with a huge number of majors available. And remember that many college students change their major after taking some of their introductory classes.
- Ask your child what kind of Mennonite experience will be most valuable for their growth as a Christian and a person. Does your child long for an experience surrounded by a high number of Mennonites? Do they hope to interact with peers from a broader variety of backgrounds? Do they feel an affinity with a more evangelical piety? A faith that embraces questions? What aspects of Mennonite belief and culture are most important to your child? Carry the awareness of their answers with you as you visit the colleges and interact with people there. Each college has unique and valuable expressions of Mennonite identity.
- Don’t assume that a Mennonite college will be unaffordable. Financial aid often covers more than you expect. Be sure to talk with someone in the financial aid office at each school you explore, because there are differences between the schools in how they award financial aid. Some put more weight on the student’s grade point average, and others put more weight on ACT or SAT scores. If your congregation provides financial assistance to students attending Mennonite colleges, at least a portion of that will be matched by all of the colleges.
- Invite a friend to go along on college visits. Especially if you are traveling a long distance, why not take along one or two of your child’s friends, especially if they are unlikely to visit on their own? It might be more comfortable for youth to visit a college with someone else they know.
- If you can’t take the time to visit a school along with your child, ask around in your church and your community to find out if there are Mennonite college alumni who might be willing to take your child to their alma mater. Alumni can be great influencers, and many of them go back to visit their school occasionally. Or, ask the colleges if there are parents of current students who live in your community, and then ask them if they are visiting their children and might be willing to take your child with them.
Janeen Bertsche Johnson is campus pastor, an admissions counselor and alumni director at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. She and her husband, Barry, and both of their young adult children are graduates of Bluffton (Ohio) University.