What makes you feel worthwhile and valuable? This past year, I added this question to the qualitative portion of our Baylor Faith and Character Study with 18 seniors (for more about the study see here). I came across it when rereading Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development regarding some of the questions in her study. It is the perfect question to ask students at the end of their senior year at your institution. After all, if there is one thing that college students need to learn during their time in a Christian university is the source of their value and worth. Do our students learn the answer?
I had high hopes, since it was something I had to learn the first year I attended Rice University. I ended my high school senior year as a basketball and baseball player, valedictorian and someone with loads of friends. I ended my first semester of college as an occasional intramural player, a C student in an engineering major (which I later left), and a few new friends in a place where I initially knew no one. It became clear to me that I could not hang my worth on my accomplishments or relationships. So, I thought surely at a Christian university seniors would have learned the key theological source of their worth. I was essentially wrong.
Of the eighteen students interviewed, more than half found their identity in their relationships with friends and family (sometimes both). One student summarized her source of worth and value as “words of affirmation from my friends, my family, stuff like that.” Another student noted, “I’d say I think the people I surround myself with, so probably my friends and family for sure. I think that surrounding myself with people who are positive and encouraging and just generally uplifting. Those type of people make me feel valued and loved.” The key in these examples are that people are the ones that make them feel noticed and loved. As one minority student shared that she feels worth and value from “someone that sees me and sees my race as an opportunity and not as a burden. Makes me feel seen…., I think people that like genuinely want to know about my life and that care about my well-being.” The obvious danger for these students is that those relationships may fail to provide love at times and thus fail to supply a felt sense of worth.
The second largest number (7) found their worth and value in what I labeled “relational accomplishments.” These relational accomplishments varied from being what one might call the “life of the party,” such as the first student below to helping other people (the second student)
- The thing that makes me feel worthwhile and valuable is the energy and the joy that I um like to bring to a room and uh yeah. I enjoy, I don’t know, bringing a positive energy when I go places and I feel that I do that and yeah, that makes me feel worthwhile is bringing a positive energy when I can
- I feel the most valuable when I am kind of just helping others through life, I am really driven by other people. When helping others or kind of even just giving them like the shoulder to cry on or someone to listen.
Of course, if one ever fails at these relational accomplishments, one’s worth and value may plummet as well.
The third largest number of seniors found worth and value in more self-oriented accomplishments such as “being intelligent, achieving academically” or “knowing that I’ve done something that has purpose, a meaning outside of myself, makes me feel valuable.” One senior succinctly summarized this view, “I feel worthwhile and valuable, when I am able to succeed at the things that I try to do.” Of course, when one fails what happens to those feelings? Sadly, one student even had this view with regard to her relationship with God, “Like when I read the Bible and when I am praying, I feel very loved and valued by God.” She equated God’s love and value with practicing certain Christian disciplines.
Unfortunately, the last source of worth for only five seniors was theological. I hoped to hear more answers like this one from a senior, “The fact that I, that I was made in the image of God blows my mind, honestly. And it’s not like something you think about every day, I guess. But I’ve never really… because of that knowledge I don’t really feel like I question, you know, am I worth being alive? Or you know, things like that. So, yeah. That’s my worth mostly.” Another student looked less to creation and more to his status through redemption, “I think something that has always helped me is just knowing that I’m a child of God. And that in itself is very inherently valuable.” Interestingly, two of the five students combined that theological answer with an achievement and/or relationship answer, such as this one, “My identity in Christ, and how I live my life and how others see me.”
Thus, overall only three of the eighteen seniors identified their full value and worth as solely coming from being made imago Dei or being a child of God. On most anyone’s grading scale, that number represents an institutional failure, especially since to make theological or moral categories central to one’s identity, they must be “be constantly ‘on-line,’ or at least easily activated and readily primed for processing social information.”1 So, the preliminary answer to my title question, at least for Baylor University, appears to be yes (noting that these 18 are not a representative sample and more interviews need to be conducted)
I think this possible failure stems from the fact that no one is placed in charge of making sure students understand this point. Furthermore, providing a liberal arts education about all of your possible sources of worth and value is not necessarily helpful in getting this point across to students. Maybe we need to realize that this is one key Christian doctrine that really must be preached as the gospel truth and not simply presented as one possible option among many. It undergirds so much of what we need to accomplish in the academy, such as learning to treat everyone, no matter their professed race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, political party, geographical location, social status, etc. with dignity and worth.
So what can we do? I have a few suggestions for integrating this concept into university life. First, I think every professor should at one point in class, give a simple speech such as the following, “I know that we have a test this next week. I want to remind you that your worth and value as a person does not depend upon your grades, or what your parents or friends think of your grades. It depends upon the reality that you are made in God’s image with intrinsic worth.” It could even be a statement on every syllabus (interestingly our institution requires only legal admonitions on class syllabi).
Second, I think the student affairs leaders must find places to remind students when looking at student groups or building friends their whole first semester: “I realize that many of you have high social hopes here on campus, but we want to remind you that your worth as a person does not depend upon getting into a certain social group/club or amassing a certain number of type of friends. You are worthwhile and valuable right now before God.” Perhaps also, the first week of orientation should contain creative exercises that teach students this reality and help them internalize it.
Third, I think we need to get more creative in other ways. I remember visiting Ukrainian Catholic University, a place where Henri Nouen taught as a visiting professor. They had started the first L’Arche ministry for those with intellectual disabilities in Ukraine. As part of that ministry, they brought those with intellectual disabilities to chapel in order to worship with the students. I thought of no better example to demonstrate that one’s worth is not measured by intellectual or social accomplishments or one’s social circle or elite status. The intellectual community of a university may not include everyone, but its worshipping community should and the universal church does. We all derive our value and worth from being image bearers of God. Let’s make sure that by the time our students graduate, they do as well.
For a reading about how to help students ground their worth in the triune God, see the first three chapters of my book, Identity in Action.