College Trip and Academic Discipleship

A reflection from Dr. Barb Isbell, Registrar and Professor of Theology.


From October 24-27, I was privileged to join 28 Cambridge high school students on a college trip to North Carolina, where we toured six college campuses (Elon University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, Wake Forest University, Davidson College, and Belmont Abbey College). During these four days we walked (a lot!), laughed with one another, explored new places, learned about colleges and ourselves, and experienced our relationships growing deeper and stronger through our time together.

One of the highlights of the trip was the opportunity to meet up with six Cambridge alumni and hear about their college experiences. They talked about the differences between Cambridge life and college life, such as having more time to focus on school work because of the different schedule, the necessity of learning how to manage your time in high school so you don’t fall into bad time management habits in college, how Cambridge’s rigorous academics prepared them well for college classes and set them apart from their classmates in terms of their ability to study and write well, and much more. It was encouraging to see Cambridge’s mission of Academic Discipleship carried out from alumni to students, as they shared how working hard, forging deep friendships with their peers and connections with their faculty, and engaging actively in extracurricular endeavors now will pay off during the college application process and in college life.

My most memorable experience from the college trip did not really have anything to do with colleges, however. On a miserably rainy day, I was blessed to have a lengthy in-depth conversation with one of our students about spirituality, salvation, and the highs and lows of the Christian journey. As we discussed James’s assertion that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20) and the understanding that these works are not what save you but are instead an overflow of your faith, the evidence that you have a true and living faith, the student asked the question that many of us have asked (or been too afraid to verbalize) throughout the years—“what do you do when you can’t see the works in your life, because your faith seems lifeless?” Ah… how to answer this question without seeming trite, and without appearing to have it all together?

What came to me in that moment was a metaphor for the Christian life of a river, flowing in its allotted path. At times the river is so mighty and powerful that it overflows its banks, as good works overflow from great faith. At other times it seems that the river has almost run dry; it is barely a trickle in the riverbed, certainly not overflowing. At these dry and barren times, our only “work” is to call out daily to God to send his Holy Spirit to rain down and fill our parched spirits. That simple act of faith is enough. And then we wait and watch, and soon we will see the river gaining new life, picking up speed and depth as it continues its journey down-stream, and one day we will look back to see the river overflowing its banks again, and we will know that God has done a great work in our life.

Isn’t it amazing how God ordains our steps? I never expected to sit on a liberal college campus and have a conversation about faith, works, and salvation, and yet God knew that not only was that what the student needed at that time, but that it was exactly what I needed as well. You see, the metaphor was not simply to encourage the student; it reminded me of where I’ve been, and where I hope to be again. Trust a student to teach a theology teacher a little something about faith… as it turns out, Academic Discipleship goes both ways.