Last week we heard about the impact of the Student Center on a freshman and today we hear about the impact of the Student Center on a recent graduate!
By Parkes Ousley
Throughout my pre-college years, my spirituality was my defining characteristic. When I was at school with friends, I was the religious kid, the one who cared. I was the one who went to church every week, twice a week, and the one who participated. I was one of the only Episcopalians.
At home, I was just part of the machine, one of the cogs in its place, functioning like the rest. My dad was a priest, my mom a cradle Episcopalian, and my sister an avid Episcopalian as well. Our spirituality wasn’t just our own, but it was our families. It was shared between us, and united us. And as great as that sounds, and it was great, it left out one important piece of spirituality; the true feeling of ownership and personality.
Before college, whether I was at school or with family, there seemed to be some slight disconnection, some unidentified pressure that inhibited my spiritual growth. At school, I held it back myself, sometimes knowingly and sometimes out of habit and subconscious fear of sharing my true feelings. My friends already showed inhibition around me enough as it was. They were scared of me and my ability to shame them. If only they knew I sought connection, not judgement, when I asked them about spirituality, lives at home, and their weekend activities.
At home, of course, I was free to share faith, but my family’s close connection didn’t provide the struggle and conflict which is so good at stretching and growing people. I was met with challenging questions, but I was in such a safe and familiar space, with people that had always had all the answers, that I never wrestled as much as one needs to to take full ownership of their faith.
Then came my move to Austin and my transition into the Episcopal Student Center. I was asked to be on the music team before I ever set foot in the building, and at first I decided not to, because I wanted to take a break from Church to try and give myself a way to struggle. I was searching for tension, and figured not having a church home may do that. Alas, I accepted the offer and jumped headfirst into the community. Man what a great, and lucky, opportunity.
I found out very quickly that the ESC was the exact wrestling mat I’d been searching for for the past few years. I’d always been a (more or less) high church Episcopalian, and the first change was leading music with a guitar and piano, rather than following an organ and wondrous chorus. I quickly fell in love with the different style of service and began to more greatly appreciate the different parts of our service. The different way of worshipping showed me there is a lot more that makes our Church and service beautiful than just choirs and old language.
I also quickly realized that I was surrounded by a ton of people my age. I’d always longed to be in a youth group, and finally in college, I found a community that consisted of people all right around my age. Not only did they have language and lifestyles that I could relate to, they also understood me at a higher level than the average aged Episcopalian could. I felt a little more connected. Not only that, but they were, and are, all great people with so much to love and share. Not only did I make great friends, I found great mentors. I know I learned a TON in college, but if you ask where I learned the most, I couldn’t tell you for sure if it was in the walls of my various classrooms on campus or in the walls of the church. I felt like every time I walked in on Sunday and Wednesday nights, and every random snack grab or study session in between, I became a dumpster of knowledge and information, where people would just unload a lifetime of thoughts, ideas, feelings, and their current test material. People studied by telling me what they learned. People asked me questions about class that I couldn’t answer, reminding me I needed to spend more time studying.
Even greater than that knowledge though was the wealth of life I received. People taught me things that I can’t learn in class. They taught me to have fun. They taught me to lighten up. They taught me how to love, both others and myself. They taught me how to mess up and not take myself so seriously. They taught me more how women work, like so much more… They taught me that I can learn from anyone or anything. They taught me that I’m not at all perfect, not even close, but that it’s okay. They taught me that being smart isn’t just about getting A’s in classes and success isn’t defined by my parents, or society, or anyone else but me and what I desired. They taught me to take control of my path and set my sights on what I desired and put the pedal to the medal until I get there or realize I’m chasing the wrong thing. They taught me that depression is real and okay. And they taught me that it’s possible to recover, even when fighting an uphill battle. They taught me being Episcopalian is not something to hold back, not something to hide from friends or strangers for fear of being judged or avoided. They taught me that what really matters is how I love, and if I love deeply, nothing else really matters.
The ESC provided in so many ways. They reinforced and challenged my faith. They asked tough, tough questions, some of which I still haven’t been able to answer. There were meaningful mission trips. There were pilgrimages. There was thoughtful discussion everywhere. They had food; snacks and meals and food for thought. There was coffee, and more coffee, and tea, and more coffee still. And just when we thought we had finally had all the coffee and snacks, more came. Endless caffeine and calories to keep us going through the long days and nights and hell weeks. There were homecooked meals provided twice a week, and leftovers for the following days. There was a computer room, a TV room, big couches for napping, bowl chairs for reckless napping, a “Fishbowl” for quiet discussion, a cry room, a closet for my instruments, and the most beautiful chapel for prayer, contemplation, singing loudly, and all our weekly spiritual practices.
My faith is extremely stronger now than before I dove into this community. It’s much stronger than it would’ve been had I not decided to accept God’s call into this place. I have uncovered so much more than I thought I could in these past four years that flashed by my eyes. I have answered many questions, fought with demons I needed to fight, and begun to wrestle with those that I didn’t even know existed. I have learned about myself, about my faith, and about the great community around me. And while none of it is perfect, I wouldn’t want it to be. I have a newfound respect and value of the struggle, of the journey.
Out of all the growth I experienced, I think the single greatest thing I got from the Student Center, the thing I’m most thankful for, is a true sense of self. I’m no longer a cog in a machine or an other. Whether I’m in a community that looks and sounds like me or in a place that doesn’t share my thoughts and beliefs, I feel unique. I feel special and worth something. I feel like I have something to offer. I feel whole.
I feel loved.