Overcoming the Darkness

Editor's Note: What follows is the second in a five-part series looking at the ministry of Young Life College at campuses across the United States and abroad.

Four years ago, you could count the number of students involved with Young Life at San Diego State University on one hand. Actually, one finger; in 2007, only one student on the campus of 35,000 was known to be active in Young Life.

That same year, 75 SDSU students were arrested for trafficking in cocaine and marijuana as part of the largest drug raid in collegiate history.

The drug, alcohol and party scene cast a long shadow over what seemed to be a dark, unreachable campus. So, Young Life decided to send John Byard to shine some light.

Now, more than 200 students attend Young Life College club each week. Young Life College Director Byard's only explanation? They are drawn by the irresistible love of Jesus.

At the speed of light

Byard and his family moved from Arizona to California three years ago fully aware of the situation at SDSU, but also certain of God's call.

"I was confident the Lord was with me, but not confident we'd have a club of 200 from zero so quickly. He moved much faster than I thought," Byard said. "I've seen the Lord redeem what happened at the school. He's orchestrated many different things to move the campus in the right direction."

The students themselves are among the tools God used to get the school on the right road. Young Life Staff Associate Sullivan Saunders and junior Victoria Kent are good friends but also partners in ministry.

Before joining Young Life staff, Saunders attended the University of Alabama and watched her own Young Life leader build a Young Life College ministry there from the ground up. She met Kent the first week of Kent's freshman year and has seen God use her in amazing ways.

"She came to SDSU looking for a Young Life community," Saunders said. "She's been such a light in her dorm and to her group of friends. She's never shied away from unbelievers. Young Life College has been huge in keeping her eyes fixed on Jesus."

Kent added, "College can be a dark time. You can get lost in dark things. To have a place where you can see light and have somewhere to go when you feel like you have nowhere else to go, I think that's changed a lot of kids."

Questions and answers

Junior Andrew Sewell was only marginally interested in Christianity until Kent invited him to his first Young Life College event at the beginning of their freshman year.

"I was sitting in one of the commons rooms in our dorm and I heard someone saying, "Anyone want to go to a bonfire?" Sewell recalled. "I wasn't doing anything else. It turned out to be a Young Life College event. So I was introduced to Victoria and Young Life on the same day.

"She kept inviting me to club. The bonfire was pretty awesome, so I went. I really liked a lot of the guys there. They were willing to open up and were interested in my life."

Intrigued by Byard's club talks, Sewell met with Byard to ask him some questions. The spring of his freshman year, Sewell accepted Christ. He went through Young Life College's leadership training program his sophomore year and this past summer served on summer staff at Woodleaf.

"As I met with John, all my worries and fears were answered," he said. "I knew this was something I'd been missing out on for all these years of my life. I knew I needed His mercy. Young Life has allowed me to be my real self. There's no façade."

Leading in community

Kent and Sewell are on the Young Life College leadership team together, where Sewell runs the audio/visuals for club each week and Kent is in charge of freshman outreach. Another team helps organize community service projects like barbecues for the homeless in city parks.

"Not everyone knows what Young Life is, but they think it's a good group of people doing positive things on campus," Kent said. "Being a part of the leadership team has been really affirming for me these past few years. I feel like I've been tested more since I've been away from home. But it keeps me accountable. Young Life has been my backbone."

Saunders agrees the leadership program is an important piece of the Young Life College ministry.

"It's essential to what we're doing in Young Life College," she said. "I think it's important to be reaching people outside so they can see a great community of people loving each other well and having a great time. We really are going to where students are. A large portion of our club is non-believers. We have a vision for the school and are constantly talking about what ministry should look like. We want to listen to the leading of the Lord."

Byard marvels at the dramatic change he's seen in the campus over three years — from a history-making drug bust to a growing family of believers who loves their lost friends and shows them saving faith.

"One of the joys we've seen is students who chose to come to SDSU because they heard that Young Life is here," he said. "We're a presence on the campus. We're connected to other organizations; we've had an impact on the Greek system. Students have met Christ their first semester on campus. There are so many stories of lives being changed because of Young Life.

"We've created a culture of community on campus. We're a family that people want to be around."

WHY Young Life College?
  • Each year an estimated 75,000 freshmen arrive on college campuses with Young Life experience. Young Life College wants to be there when they arrive.

  • Research indicates 61 percent of college students become inactive in their faith involvement, and various denominations estimate that 64-94 percent of their high-school students stop attending church after they graduate.

  • Sociologists suggest that adolescence now extends well into the 20s. Young Life College is uniquely positioned to have an immediate impact on campuses because:
    • Young Life understands adolescent culture.
    • Young Life staff and volunteers are experienced in working with this age group.
    • Young Life staff and volunteers establish relationships with former club kids who are now in college.
    • Young Life is established in many communities and/or has a healthy reputation to build upon.

Learn more about Young Life College. ​