Becky StarkenburgBecky Starkenburg

By Rebekah L. Starkenburg, Vice President for Student Formation and Dean of Students

Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023
Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse
Holland, Michigan

Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.  (from Psalm 30:5)

I’m a huge fan of Virginia men’s basketball, and you may know that back in 2018, when most of you were in 7th grade, UVA was the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. Let the record show, Virginia would go on to win a national championship the following year in an epic tournament run. But, nonetheless, that colossal loss stung. Bad. 

Coach Tony Bennett made various media appearances following that loss. And in those press conferences and others following other UVA losses, you’ll often hear Coach Tony Bennett quote that old psalm - “weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” 

What gives a D1 coach - which I suspect is a leadership job with a ton of pressure - the capacity to speak this way in the midst of failure? What gives him the ability to say, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning?”

For the last decade or so of my life, I’ve been kind of obsessed with joy. You all know, I work with college students. [Which by the way - I have loved getting to know some of you this weekend and I am delighted to be your dean of students. It’s a privilege to serve here at Hope College, one of the finest institutions of higher education, one with a bold vision for the future, a beautiful campus, a fantastic faculty, and a top notch student body. I may be biased, but you’ve chosen wisely. And, you belong here. You’ve been accepted to Hope College during a year in which we were more selective in our admissions process. Each of you deserves to be here and we believe you have the capacity to thrive.]

But back to the point - I’m a dean of students and I’ve worked with college students for over 25 years, and I love college students and I love thinking about joy, but many people these days say that you all are suffering. According to one survey, 44% of you report symptoms of depression, 37% report symptoms of anxiety. A Gallup survey in March of this year found that more than 40% of students currently enrolled in an undergraduate degree program had considered dropping out in the past six months. Most cited emotional stress and personal mental health. Just to show you the scale of this - stand up if your last name begins with A through I. This is roughly 40% of you. 

One piece of good news is that if you have depression and anxiety on your college bingo card, you are not alone. Knowing that you are not the only one who is experiencing something can be extraordinarily helpful in finding support. 

But, there is even better news for us as we cross this threshold into the 2023-24 academic year. News that will help us navigate not only depression and anxiety, but all the emotions we experience. News that will connect us to joy. Wisdom found in the context of the historic Christian faith.

Now, before I go further, I want to be sure to say that mental health is a very real aspect of overall health and for some of you medication and therapy and other interventions are and will continue to be a vital part of health and healing. I support that wholeheartedly.

But it’s also true that when you start something new, all kinds of feelings are kicked up. My son is at the start of his sophomore year in college, and I asked him to tell me something about the difference between how he felt a year ago v. today. One of the things he said was: “When you are ending high school and starting college, most of your mental energy is focused on looking backwards. Backwards at high school and all of the memories. You miss your friends. You are leaving your family. A year from now you’re going to have a whole future open up to you and your brain is going to shift to starting to see the future. It’s a big change in how you are.”

So my friends, today, there are a lot of emotions as you look back. And the looking ahead that you are now doing is probably really short term. How could it not be? I can imagine some of you are probably just worried about getting out of this convocation ceremony as soon as possible, or if you’ll sleep okay tonight in your new bed in Kollen or if they’ll have a vegan meal at Phelps. But in a year from now, your entire horizon will open up to your future. It’s pretty cool. 

I have grown to believe that joy - even divine joy - is one of the most important things you can cultivate as a student on the pathway to that new horizon. Sarah Coakley is a prominent scholar, and in an address this spring across the Pine Grove, she said this about anxiety: “It is a restless incapacity to trust, to hope, to lean into the ever-inviting divine joyousness that always and already undergirds all our being and doing.” 

In other words, joy is under everything, and it comes from God. Joy is not happiness. Joy is not toxic positivity. Joy is not ignoring our mental health, it’s not hiding from our pain, it’s not ignoring conflict with others. Scholar-theologian Karl Barth said that “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude. To be joyful is to expect that life will reveal itself as God’s gift of grace.” Joy is an orientation that allows us to see that the world runs on gift. That the real truth about the world is that God has created a world of abundance and generosity. And joy is living as if that is real.

I’m always on the lookout for this kind of joy. Honestly, I think it’s what brought me to Hope College a year ago. The joy of learning, the joy of work, the joy of community here is palpable. My deep love for college basketball has also led me to watch out for this kind joy in coaching. Coach Scott Drew led the Baylor Bears to a national championship in 2021. He ran that season on joy. He said it right after the nets were being cut down, and he’s since gone on to write a book about his approach. For Drew, joy is an acrostic - Jesus, Others, Yourself. When basketball, or life for that matter, is approached with Jesus first, others second and yourself last, there is goodness, thriving. Pretty basic.

I don’t know if Scott Drew knows it, but he is riffing on Martin Luther King Jr - “Seek God and discover him and make him a power in your life. Without him all our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest nights. Without him, life is a meaningless drama with the decisive scenes missing. But with him we are able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. With him we are able to rise from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy. St. Augustine was right - we were made for God and we will be restless until we find rest in him.” 

Students, I don’t know if all of this talk of joy is landing with you, but I can tell you that a college life that is rooted in joy is a college life that is truly life. And I think we all want a life in full color, three dimensions, in person. It’s a life that is rewarding, satisfying, and fun. This is a life that I think we are called to together as a learning community. A life of joy allows us to see the gifts that despair misses. A life of joy leans into the real truth about the world: that God has created a world of abundance and generosity.

When I was in high school I had somewhat of a fight with my high school English teacher, Mr. Navis. I came of age in the early 90’s probably like a lot of the parents in the room and I was a BIG fan of Wayne’s World - it’s a movie. I was convinced that Wayne’s World was quite literally the best film ever made. My wonderful English teacher challenged me on that and he said - Becky, you are going to find other stories in your life that are more beautiful than “Wayne’s World.” I didn’t believe him. He said, you are going to find a love of learning when you find these beautiful stories. You may not feel it now. (And I agreed, for me learning in high school was about point accumulation, gaming the system, grade achievement - maybe you were like me). But, Mr. Navis said - sometime during college you are going to love to learn - and when you do, send me a postcard. It happened. But I can tell you it didn’t happen in my freshman year! 

Today marks the day that we turn toward your life as a student here at Hope. That is what a convocation is for. I want to invite you to let that be a life of joy. I know that many of you may not experience the fullness of the joy of learning this year. I didn’t in my freshman year. Of course, I hope you walk into your FYS classroom this week and immediately experience joy. But my guess is that you are a little like me. Finding joy is a process. It’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some patience. 

So as you start, I have some advice. I guess it comes with being a dean of students, people often ask me - what advice do you have for new students? Well, in a talk about joy, I will tell you this: you can’t manufacture joy. It is a gift that comes to you. But I do think there are things you can do even now to create the conditions in which you’ll be able to see the joy when it comes. And it will come. I am going to give you a list of concrete things you can do now that will help you see the joy in every context you encounter here at Hope. And, trigger warning: some of these might make you a bit uncomfortable. 

Okay? So here goes: The top ten pieces of advice from Dean Starkenburg to the Class of 2027 upon the occasion of Hope College’s 162nd academic year.  Some of these come from my students as well. (drum roll please):

  1. Leave your phone in your room and go to the library. Your phone is a great tool and a constant enemy. Learn how to cage it. 
  2. Go to Chapel. The Spirit is alive and well at Hope’s chapel. And, it’s a powerful and good thing to sing with other people and receive the gift of being in that space. Don’t miss that opportunity.
  3. Care for your body. That obviously means find ways to move each day - come back to the DeVos, go to the Dow, find a trail to hike. But also, I suspect some of you will drink alcohol while you are here. Don’t let it become the center of your life. There are a lot of Hope students who will tell you that you can have an amazing and joy-filled college experience without it. Same with sex. Some of you will have sex at Hope. Some of you already have in high school. Know that you don’t have to have sex to have a meaningful relationship. Sex is best done within the bonds of committed long-term intimacy. Instead of hooking up, get to know one another as people and form friendships. And then, if you do have sex, always, always, always respect each other’s boundaries and bodies. Protect the joy of others, and a big way you do that is by asking permission at every step of physical intimacy. And when you get a no. Stop. Anything else will steal your joy.
  4. Find friends in different communities. Pursue people. Get to know the people on your floor or in your cluster and crossover to other subcultures. Don’t wait for people to come to you. Go find them and welcome them into your life. As my friend Victoria who wrote a book on holy friendship would say: Make it weird and tell people why you like them, what you see in them. 
  5. Enjoy the beauty of Michigan. All four seasons. Decide now you are not going to complain about winter. Embrace winter and find a way to have great adventures in all four seasons.
  6. Eat three meals a day. You have to learn how to hack the dining hall. 
  7. Get 7 hours of sleep a night. It will change your life. 
  8. Get your stuff done during the week. The first week or two, people are telling you what to do and where to be. After classes start, things will be really different. You’ll need to schedule your days. Today or tomorrow is not too early to time block on your schedule for time to get work done.
  9. Communicate with grace. With your professors, with your friends, with the person you have a crush on. Actually, over communicate with grace. Here’s the thing: we don’t tolerate hate speech here at Hope College - because like high school you are all in school together, but not like high school, you are also living, eating, sleeping, dwelling in the same space 24-7. Every one of us has to work to create a community that is respectful of one another. So, I ask you, starting now, to remove racial slurs, homophobic statements, sexist comments, hurtful speech from your vocabulary, from your texting, from your Snapchat, from wherever it comes out of your heart and mouth. You will rob others and yourself of joy if you don’t.  
  10. Learn with courage. Be curious. Don’t let fear of not knowing something rob you of an opportunity to learn. Listen well and with humility. Think about it this way: you are paying good money to learn here. So, every time you short circuit your own learning you're actually leaving money on the table. So learn without fear, and instead have courage.

That’s my top ten. I know from talking with students and hearing their stories that these ten pieces of advice will help you be well, to experience joy, and to see the abundant life we get to live here together. 

Oh, and I have some bonus advice for the parents and/or families in the room. Your piece of advice is simply this: Pray for us. Your job now is to pray for this college and for your student every day. Earlier our Dean of the Chapel read from Philippians. “I thank my God every time I remember you, in all my prayers for all of you I always pray with joy.” I guarantee you will remember your kid. A lot. There will be all kinds of memories that pop up at all the wrong moments, and the tears will come. Trust me, I just navigated a year of sending my first kid off to college. These 800+ students will be on your mind quite a bit this year. And, especially your one student! I want to ask you - when you leave here, and you remember your student, will you thank God and pray with joy? And will you pray for this community every day? 

Faculty, staff, families and students: the truth is that this beautiful world runs on gift. This world runs on abundance and generosity. And, quite honestly, if we excavate into the deep down things - it’s that we are so beloved by God, that we are so beloved by God - that’s the real gift that’s underneath it al. Let’s find ways to receive that love and generosity and share it. And I think if we do, we will all be able to testify together that “weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”