Ten Years of College

Someone once defined college as “the best six or seven years of your life!” Well Young Life has now officially spent a decade in college and shows no sign of “graduating” any time soon.

In 2005 the mission’s leadership, recognizing the increasing need to minister to students after they had graduated from high school, launched Young Life College. That fall, ministry began on five new campuses, joining a small handful already thriving in their outreach ministries.

Mike Gaffney, vice president of Young Life College, has been leading the movement from the beginning, a time marked by many questions from others in the mission. “A comment I heard on several occasions during those early days was, ‘I wonder how long before people are asking, “Whatever happened to ‘that college thing’?”’”

Community, Adventure and Significance

One initial skeptic was John Byard, an area director outside Arizona State University (ASU). Like many others, Byard wondered about the wisdom of expanding the mission’s reach into universities, places traditionally reserved for leader recruitment.

But when a college student he worked with was not yet ready to be a Young Life leader, and the local area had nothing else to offer, “a light bulb went on” for Byard.

“When I saw this girl’s involvement in the tremendous community happening at ASU [one of the schools with college outreach before the official launch of Young Life College], I understood the importance,” Byard explained. “I went from being a nonbeliever to fully on board — seeing college students as a group we need to come alongside, walk with, reach with the Gospel and help grow in their faith.

“It was then I fell in love with college students, with their journey of faith, the depth of conversations you can have, the realness of life issues they’re going through.”

Byard moved to San Diego in 2008 and started Young Life College at San Diego State University (SDSU). The work there spread to Point Loma Nazarene University, University of California–San Diego and the University of San Diego. All in response to the need of college students, Byard said.​

“College students desire community, adventure and significance, so at club we offer that. Students want to know and be known. If they can come to a place of real community, that can be life-giving. We want it to be fun and filled with humor. And we want to tell them about who Jesus is.”

The message doesn’t stop there. “We tell college students about a relationship with Jesus,” Byard said, “but then help them figure out a way to give away their faith to their college peers, or to high school or middle school kids down the street. There’s an immediate ‘put your faith in action’ component. Last year a student met Christ in Young Life College and six months later is a Capernaum leader giving his life away with kids with special needs. Now he’s on the Young Life College team at SDSU and wants to come on Young Life staff. This is a kid who was getting high his freshman year of college.”

Knowing Scripture and Knowing Jesus

Similar stories abound at the University of Texas (UT), another school whose outreach ministry predates the Young Life College launch. In 2003, Brett Rodgers was an area director in San Antonio, where he had spent the previous 13 years working with high school kids. It was during this time he sensed God leading him in a new direction.

“I sat in the parking lot of the school where I had led Young Life for all those years. Ministry was going really well, but I knew it was over for me because I had two boys and thought, ‘Well I’m not going to get to do this anymore because I can’t be out four nights a week. I’m going to have to do something different.’”

Friends of Rodgers living in Austin invited him to consider working with college leaders at UT. The ministry in the city of Austin was small, but full of promise because of all the potential leaders at the university.

“They hired me to recruit and train leaders,” Rodgers said. He agreed — with the caveat that he could also care for kids who never become leaders. “I didn’t want to be boxed into just leader development; I also didn’t want to have an agenda with students, I wanted to just love on them.”

Under Rodgers’ leadership, both outreach and recruitment exploded. Leadership has grown from 30 leaders when he arrived to 580 today, while more than 1,500 students are involved in small groups led by 130 adults from the local area, many of whom are Young Life College alumni.

What helps the students flourish? “We start teaching the book of John to freshmen and I’ll go to my grave thinking that’s why it all turned. We teach them how to know Scripture and the person of Jesus.”

This knowledge leads to Rodgers’ greatest joy. “I love to see students taking hold of the Word of God and becoming givers, not takers. Young Life has an incredible platform on the college campus because we give students a place where they grow by giving themselves away. It’s the perfect storm.”

From Receiving to Giving

Sarah LaSalle is one who has moved into a season of service. The 25-year-old became involved in Young Life in high school, but at that point “didn’t have a serious relationship with Christ.” As she grew in her faith at college, she took a more active role, pursuing opportunities to serve in summer staff and intern roles at Young Life camps. During her internship at Woodleaf, she met Missy Scudder, a Young Life College leader at Chico State University in California. Scudder befriended LaSalle, who moved to Chico and jumped into the college ministry.

“When I went to Young Life in high school it was a great opportunity to learn more about Jesus, but it was in Young Life College where I went deeper. Before I went to Missy’s Bible studies, I would read the Bible, but I really learned from her a love for the Word.”

LaSalle grew in her faith and started to recognize her mission field. “God was pulling on my heartstrings to work with college students. Missy once said, ‘80 percent of teens who follow Jesus in high school drop off in college.’ That really broke my heart. I wanted to do something about it. I don’t want anyone to miss out on living life with Jesus.”

LaSalle sensed the Lord leading her to come on Young Life College staff, and left her familiar California surroundings this summer for a new adventure at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her passion is unmistakable: “I think it’s so important to know Jesus in college. It’s such a huge growing time and you’re on your own; you don’t have the same structure you normally have. It’s so easy to lose yourself in what the world offers.”

Someone thrilled with LaSalle’s arrival is John Evans, the Arklamiss (Arkansas/Louisiana/Mississippi) regional director. With eight Young Life College ministries in his region, the 37-year staff veteran has seen firsthand how Young Life College blesses students, and they in turn, bless the mission.

“To be honest, our region got into Young Life College to develop staff,” Evans said. “But in the process we learned some things and became convinced it was absolutely part of our commitment to adolescents. Relational outreach ministry to college folks is part of the Young Life DNA. I do believe some day it will produce staff, but that’s a secondary benefit.

“Someday, those folks who get involved in places like Ole Miss, Mississippi State or the University of Arkansas will be going back home,” Evans said, “and they will be the pathway to starting Young Life in many small towns over the next 30 years.”

The Time is Now

While no two Young Life College ministries are identical, there are similar threads that run throughout each campus. For one, Young Life College leaders recognize how critical the ministry is to incoming freshmen.

“Here’s an amazing stat,” Evans said. “If a young person doesn’t get plugged into a ministry in the first 72 hours of their college career, it’s unlikely they ever will. We now plan our regional schedule around allowing our college staff to be fully present that first week when students are moving onto campus. It’s absolutely critical they’re available to connect with the kids who were involved in Young Life in high school and attract some of those new folks who didn’t have a Young Life background.”

That’s an important reminder of a second thread: 60 percent of students involved in Young Life College were not involved in Young Life prior to college. This percentage holds true at SDSY, Byard said. “We have kids coming who have never heard of Young Life before, so it’s not because of name recognition. It’s because they’re being cared for and encouraged. Probably 50 percent of our club consists of non-believers. We certainly guard the fruit of Young Life kids who come into Young Life College, but we’re also throwing nets off the side of the boat and inviting new folks.”

From a leadership perspective, Gaffney is thrilled to see what the last decade has brought and bullish on the future of Young Life College. “We’re happy to report that 10 years later, the ‘college thing’ is still around and has clearly moved from an initiative to an essential part of the Young Life family. The good news is that our Lord is leading the way, and as far as I can tell, the college thing is here to stay.”​