Berrien Springs is awesome! No, I’m not being sarcastic. Yes, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Yes, there are only 4 or 5 places to eat out. And yes, the air on campus sometimes smells like cow dung. haha. But those are the very things I love about this place. Well, I could live without the dung smell, but it’s a package deal, I guess. What can I say? I’m a small-town girl!
But the culture of this place came as a bit of a shocker to me. I’m not talking about small town culture where everybody knows everybody’s business and they’re all up in your business. That stuff I can handle. Actually, I don’t mind it so much – that’s just what happens when you live in community eh. I’ll take that problem over the New York syndrome any day (where you’re constantly around people but nobody knows what’s going on in your life). Although maybe something in between would be perfect…
What shocked me was that there is an Adventist bubble culture! It’s taken me months to try and synthesize my thoughts on this and still I’m struggling to describe it. In part, I think it’s because I’m not sure what is characteristic of seminary culture and what is universal to the campus and moreover, what is true of other Adventist colleges in America because I’ve only ever experienced the seminary here. In conversation with students in undergrad and in other professional schools, though, I’ve come to think most of it is campus-wide at least.
My shock centers around interpersonal relationships and last week I was finally able to find the word to describe the missing element: Authenticity. Would I go so far as to say that everyone is a phony? No. But it’s like there’s an extra layer of…I don’t know what…that you have to get through before you’re actually talking to the real person! And it’s not that this is the only place where I’ve experienced that, but this is the only place where well over 90% of my interactions are marked by that challenge.
It may be too early in my experience here to pinpoint the source of this lack of authenticity. But by the time I complete my studies here, I fear I may have slipped into the culture and wouldn’t be able to articulate my findings. Oh the humanity.
Maybe it’s something to do with the smallness of this place? People are careful to expose themselves because rejection by a few people in a small place significantly impacts your chances of acceptance. Maybe it’s related to the perceived standards Adventists hold? Everyone simultaneously wants to push the limit and yet lives in fear of crossing the line, but they don’t know where the line is.
Whatever the cause, that extra layer of who-knows-what has proved a challenge to my integration process. At first I thought it was that I needed to make more friends, meet more people. There was some truth to that! But now I must meet many more people to find the 10%… Or, it takes more time to get through that extra layer so as to have meaningful interactions. So much work!
This extra layer phenomenon is so pervasive at my school that I don’t think one person could change it. But this is not one of those situations where if you can’t beat them, join them. So I’ll have to accept the challenge of developing authentic relationships even in this place. May God help me!