This is a cool drone video showing just how central Pres House is on the UW-Madison campus. Steps away from Bascom Hall, Memorial Union, the Terrace, and State St.
Chris Sundahl is a graduate student at UW Madison. He shared this story at Sunday Worship on October 29th during a sermon series, “Questions On Our Mind: Where does it hurt?”
When I arrived in Madison in 2013, I did a bit of church-shopping. At one of those churches, I picked up a couple of friends that I wanted to talk about today. This church ran a snail-mail-based Bible study course with prisoners, and a few of them had included notes in their correspondence that they’d like a penpal to talk about their faith and the Bible with, and also help them through the times they were having. Being young and invincible and extremely eager to talk about my faith (since I was new to Christianity), I thought it was a good idea to take BOTH of these letters, and start writing to them, on top of all the coursework I had coming at me.
Nick and Josh are both white men in their late twenties, locked up for doing different things. Both had lost touch with many of their friends after being locked up, and I was one of the few people they had consistent contact with. Though I’d only write once a month or so, they’d always write back within a week of receiving my letter. We’d exchange little paragraphs about our lives, and talk about Bible verses and stuff. Nick sent me a lot of poetry and drawings. From the start, they wanted me to visit them. When you see the same people every day, I imagine one or two hours a week with someone else can be nice. I was cleared to visit pretty quickly, but both of them were past Beaver Dam, making it hard, since I don’t have a car. So we kept sending letters for a while.
I sent Josh a letter in November of 2014, after a year of correspondence, and then didn’t hear from him for several months. I figured he was “ghosting” me in analog, that maybe he didn’t really want to carry on the conversation. So I didn’t think about it too much, and carried on with my coursework. Then, after 9 months or so of silence, I got a letter from Josh. “If this letter finds you, let me know right away cause I have a lot of stuff that I would like to share with you!” he said. “I had a falling away from the Lord. But thank God! The Spirit is still strong enough to convict me to make my way back.” The next letter is missing from my records, but I remember that when I mentioned that I thought the lack of response was a signal to quit, he said it was the opposite. He said he’d rather I had written when I noticed his extended silence. He spent the next few months recovering from this slump. “My faith is not going well,” he wrote in December. “I don’t know what my problem is man, I do so good for a while but then continually fall back into the slump that I am in.” He was never very specific about the problem and I didn’t press for details, but writing the letters seemed to help him a lot. In that same letter, he said “wow I don’t want to be the old me anymore. I have to remind myself that I am remade. I really think this letter has helped. You know how you can just bury feelings that you don’t want to feel, so writing them down just lets me know what I have to do in order to fix it.” His tone totally turns around at the end of the letter, full of smiley faces and Bruce Lee quotes. “I’m going to go study [the Bible] right away. Thank you for being here for me to write, it truly helps me tremendously,” he writes. And all I had to do was write a letter!
In 2015 or 2016, I finally visited both of them, planning short day trips to the area. It was pretty awkward, as you might imagine. We were used to having days or weeks to respond to each other, and here it was a completely different mode of communication. Nick was a chatter box, filling up the two hours pretty quickly. My visit with Josh coincided with his dad’s, so I felt a bit like an intruder. That one felt a little bit longer. But it was nice to put a face and a voice to the names and handwriting of my friends.
A little bit after that, when maintaining two friendships by mail felt like it was getting a little harder, we switched to phone calls. It still wasn’t easy – settling in to a Saturday morning breakfast when you get a call you weren’t expecting and won’t be able to return, it’s a conscious decision to pick up the call instead of carrying on, especially if you’re like me and don’t enjoy having your plans disrupted, even by good things. But I usually picked up, so I heard about it when Nick got assigned to a job in Milwaukee near his family and friends, and when Josh severed his patella twice and needed to talk to someone about how slow his treatment was.
Now, Nick is still locked up, but we haven’t had a phone call in months. He gets visits from friends and family at work now on a regular basis, and his supervisor lends him a smartphone while he’s there. He posts on Facebook all the time now, and I have an occasional Message chat with him. He’s got less than a year left before he can go home on parole.
Josh was released in September, just as he was starting to walk around again. I missed the last call he made, and I haven’t heard from him since. I’m not sure how to get in touch with him, and I’m not sure he’ll contact me – he’s near his family and friends again, and he was planning on getting involved at a church as soon as he was out. He’s immersed in the bustle of the world again, and I’m not sure how high of a priority it is for him to contact me.
Have I learned anything from all this? I’m not really sure. I’ve been thinking about “building muscles”, as Erica says so often, and I put this at least partly in that category. Even though there might not be that many specific things I learned: “check in if they don’t write back for a month”, “pick up the phone at breakfast”, it’s more just something I’ve gotten used to doing. By building these relationships and putting time into them, seeing a side of life I might never have seen otherwise, I’m hoping that collectively and individually we’re becoming more of the people that God wants us to be.
Nick let me know when I Facebook chatted him that he knows at least a couple of people that could use a penpal. If you think that’s something you’d like to do, you can let me know.
We recently asked Pres House Alumni what they wished that had known when they were starting out as students at UW-Madison. They had some great alumni advice to share in 10 areas! Here is what they said:
Zuf W: Unless your goal is med school, law school, or an eventual PhD, bad grades won’t jeopardize your future success at all. I mean, good grade still matters (it certainly helps open doors when you don’t have much else to show) and hard work is always required, just don’t stress over a bad grade like the end of the world. Sometimes if not always, a well executed project through an org carries as much if not more weight than an A in a class. Comparatively, many people get A’s, not many projects succeed. I’ve had many friends who aren’t stellar students grade wise but have some fantastic experience and wealth of knowledge through personal pursuits/project work. They eventually all landed gigs in well respected companies.
Daniel T: I second Zuf Wang’s statement about grades, and would like to add: Don’t be afraid to completely change your major. If you’re stuck in something you don’t like, keeping at it won’t help anyone.
Andrew E: Grades aren’t the most important thing even if you DO go on to medical or graduate school. Generally, if it won’t matter in 5 years then try not to get worked up over it now.
Alice D: Grades don’t matter that much in life. Not worth the stress! Go to more office hours and you’ll learn a ton more, whether or not you end up getting the grades.
Favorite Study Spot
Alice D: Large table rooms hidden in the stacks of memorial library, the SAC during non-busy hours, and Sencha tea shop.Zuf W: Indie Coffee on Regent (if you don’t mind smelling like coffee for rest of the day) and late night corners of Mechanical Engineering building.
Daniel T: The Geology Library has Van Hise’s desk, so top that.
On Getting Involved
Natalie S: Join a club or group that you’re really interested in even if you don’t have a whole lot of experience to back up your interests. Don’t let yourself miss out on the chance to learn a new skill or discover a new topic, if could just become one of your passions.
Andrew E: Go on fall retreat! Join a club that you’re interested in. I wish I had known how hard it would be to find a place like Pres House after graduating. Take advantage of all that Pres House has to offer! It’s a truly unique community.Zuf W: It’s kind of like shopping for classes or gaining a new hobby. It takes a few tries to find the ones you really like, not just the ones that sound cool. Some persistence and dedication helps.
Daniel T: There’s more to church than being the people up front. Go be the guy who hides in the back, cleans dishes, runs slides, or mops up the basement when it floods right before church. It’s OK to not want to be the person up front, and there are roles for you in the organization. Conversely, if you want to be up front, that’s great too.
Jessie P: Last, find your passion or cause and do something with it–join an org, do a volunteer activity, go to church, sign up for spontaneous trips and events, etc. It becomes a lot harder once you leave campus to find similar-aged people who have the same passions, in the same area to talk and do stuff with! College goes fast, love every minute!
Alice D: Get involved as MUCH as you can… you’ll make so many valuable friendships (best places to get involved: Pres House, Hoofers, Slow Food UW).
Jessie P: Unless you are extremely lucky, you will not like or just not get along with at least one of your roommates. That’s okay. Stick up to the things you need or really want but you will have to let some things go. It will be uncomfortable to speak out about shared space, but it’s a lot worse to have a pan that is blue and fuzzy with mold sitting in your kitchen for a week. Trust me!
Zuf W: Failure should be expected and embraced, not feared and shunned. It’s only in failure do you find light on your path. Take many risks and expect to fail each time. In my opinion, that’s the best if not the only way to learn and grow grit.
Jeffrey R: You don’t HAVE to go to class. You GET to go to class. You get to apply yourself in the most meaningful ways and learn all about this wonderful world around you. Don’t dread it, cherish the challenge.
Zuf W: Read as much as possible outside of class. Squeeze time to read. I’ve used the excuse of heavy course load to not read. It certainly didn’t do me any good. Reading is how you get better at evaluating risks before taking them while you don’t have much experience taking risks. I turned to audiobooks when I found it difficult to set time aside to read. Your 10 minute commute to class adds up.
On Your Major
Jessie P: Majors–change it! Make your own path–get one major, get two, get certificates. Your exact degree is important but not as important as having classes that you love. Your grades will be better in classes you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy your engineering classes, don’t just stick it out but change to something you love.
Alice D: I wish I knew that trying to “identify” with your major can take away from all the other aspects of college. Find a major that works for you logistically, then take as MANY classes as you can in other areas. College is a rare opportunity to be able to find information on anything in the world!
Hannah M: Professors are just people. Don’t be afraid to approach them. Go hang out in office hours (not just right before an exam!) and ask questions beyond “I’m confused about what the question is asking” and “will this be on the exam”. Try talking about the course topic more broadly and ask big questions. You can have some great conversations with the best professors in the field if you just approach them. They will remember you if you do so. They are also great resources for career advice.
Samantha J: I wish I would have gone to TA/professor office hours more often!
Jessie P: If you find something interesting in a field that your professor works in, just go chat with them about it. You don’t need a ‘problem’ to go see them. They also like to chat. And, you will definitely learn more about it. Some of the professors at Madison are the best in their field–use them!
Drew I: I wish I’d known the value of long periods of uninterrupted study. Whether they be dedicated to homework, scriptures, or whatever skill was required of my work. I wish I’d known the benefit of seeking a place to turn off my cell phone, ignore emails, (for a period of time! Not indefinitely!) and focus intensely on the task at hand. I didn’t work to find a place like this until my last few weeks on campus, and I found quiet corners of Engineering Hall to work best, despite being a music student. This definitely doesn’t depend on location, more on mindset, but I happened to find having specific locations to associate with this mindset very helpful.
Other deep thoughts…
Hannah W-K: I wish I knew how shockingly diverse and mysterious this world is. I got lots of glimpses of this fact from amazing professors, mentors and traveling, but overall I was too stuck in a frenzy to define myself and write a kick butt resume to appreciate the ride of life. Professional development is important, but the drive to focus on extrinsic motivators in college left me with many moments of emptiness. Instead of feeling backed into a corner where each step felt like a potential wrong turn, I wish I knew that my global community was too large, too beautiful, and too messed up to ever paralyze me for long. Life is just too dynamic. Just like the earth, I grow and change. I wish I knew the journey is the reward.
David F: I wish I had been more courageous in saying what was on my mind.
Karen B: Have a clear picture of your best self — either your current best self or the best self you hope to become. Every day do at least some things that person would approve of.
Thanks to our fantastic alumni for sharing this excellent alumni advice!
Savannah Kenny graduated from UW Madison this past spring and is now a young professional working in Middleton. She shared her story at Sunday Worship on October 15th, 2017 during a sermon series, “Questions on Our Mind: What if I fail?”
My most recent faith journey began during a conversation with my parents after my freshman year of college. Somehow in that conversation they told me they both believed in God. I don’t know why I was so surprised.
We had grown up in Catholic church, gone to church camps, but because I wasn’t sure what to make of God I interpreted their silence on outright statements of faith as them not being sure as well. Growing up I took bible stories as stories. Lessons to make you a good person. But that conversation with my parents started me thinking about what it meant to actually believe in God and why that part was important.
Sophomore year of college school really amped up. Aside from the insecurity that came with being a female in engineering I also had ADD, and it was a fairly recent diagnosis. So basically I hadn’t fully dealt with the label yet.
Being the only girl around, and needing special accommodations on tests seeded a deep sense of unworthiness of my position in my classes. Everyone’s sense of surprise at me being in engineering, or their belief that I had gotten in because I was a girl started to get to me. “Maybe I didn’t belong in engineering” “Maybe I was high school level smart but not college level”. Any time I failed or struggled with something I thought to myself “you’re just not smart enough for this”. Because a lot of my self confidence with linked with being “smart” I was feeling very insecure.
On top of this my parents had been fairly overbearing growing up. So with the newfound freedom of college I was doing a load of things that were just not an option to me at home, things they would not have approved of. While I am not ashamed of everything I recognize that many of the things were not things that a centered person with confidence does. What moreso affected me was that my moral code was in the air.
I was trying to get into Biomedical Engineering at the time and the struggle of not getting in and reapplying was really validating my lack of confidence. Comfort and guidance from Christians during this time made me start to dispel the reasons I had not taken God seriously. I started reading the bible in an effort to get an unbiased opinion and started to analyze the lives of believers around me. I started to see the push back against believing in popular media, in friends conversation, and had the very real realization that I could have been enculturated into not believing. And this was powerful for me.
During this time, especially early in my sophomore year, I started seeking places where God was without really realizing it. I came to Pres house a few times and thought about joining the music team. I put my name on the email list but didn’t commit. Once my junior year came around. I was more open to the idea. I had just broken up with my boyfriend whom I had blamed a lot of my self confidence issues on and it was time to deal with myself and my decisions on my own. Face my questions and concerns.
During this time I talked to Erica over coffee about some of the things I could not get on board with in my parent’s church. Having that conversation and getting to know her and Mark presented a side to Christianity that I needed to see. A side that led to possibility for me.
Dispelling my confidence and trust in myself and my own logic was a painful yet amazing life step. I ended up not getting into biomedical but life went on. I found computer classes which I really loved and was good at and ended up graduating in Electrical Engineering. Once I was more believing than not, which I can pin point to right around the Pres house fall retreat my junior year, I felt extreme peace. That literally whatever God threw at me I would be ok. It was very freeing. A peek into ever-lasting and abundant joy and love.
My more recent struggles center around being ashamed, a feeling I definitely realized while trying to write this. I am still embarrassed by believing. What if I am wrong? What if I am a fool like some people say? But the story of Jesus and the backlash he received is comforting to me in this.
I still hear the small atheist/agnostic in my head from time to time. But for now I am building a list of my uncertainties and trying to delve into them with the faith that God will show me the way.
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