Thriving at College: An Interview with Alex Chediak

from Apr 07, 2011 Category: Ligonier Academy

What are the ten most common mistakes college students make and how can they avoid them? Alex Chediak answers these questions and more in his newly released book, Thriving at College. Recently, Michael Morales, Dean of Admissions for Reformation Bible College, interviewed the author to explore the issues facing college students today.

Michael: Alex, we’ve had your assistance with some administrative duties at Reformation Bible College and have been blessed by your enthusiasm for being involved in the lives of college students. Can you give our readers some of your background in education?

Alex: I received a Bachelor’s degree in Ceramic Engineering from Alfred University, and a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from U.C. Berkeley. For two years I studied biblical Greek, preaching, missions, and related courses taught by Pastors Tom Steller and John Piper at The Bethlehem Institute (now called Bethlehem College and Seminary).

Michael: As you know, Reformation Bible College will be giving away your book Thriving at College: Make Great Friends, Keep Your Faith, and Get Ready for the Real World! (Tyndale) to every student accepted into our undergraduate programs. Why write this book? What led you to believe such a book was needed—what were you seeing or not seeing in the collegiate life of young Christian men and women that compelled you to write this?

Alex: College is this glorious, crucially significant “in between” stage. You’re on the threshold of adulthood. Most enter college under their parents’ care and financial support. But if it’s done right, they’ll graduate as men and women ready to assume an adult role in an interdependent society and as a functional, contributing member of a local church.

In short, college should be a launching pad into all that goes with Christian adulthood. Yet for some it’s a time when they abandon the Christian faith, never to return, giving evidence that they never really belonged to Christ (I John 2:19). For others, their faith remains intact, but college is a somewhat frivolous season of entertainment, recreation, and amusement—an expensive vacation funded by Mom, Dad, and student loans. And many learn to privatize their Christian faith, worshiping God on Sunday but never seeing their academic life as an expression of their devotion to God.

I was particularly prompted to write this book by the widespread phenomenon of delayed adolescence – young adults failing to launch. A third of all 22-34 year old men are still living with their parents. Many college students have an entitlement mentality, as if a high GPA, a summer job, money, and success are all supposed to come easily (like the trophy in Little League they got for showing up). There’s an inflated sense of self-worth, a sense of personal greatness not grounded in actual accomplishments. Thankfully, that doesn’t describe all young adults or college students, but the trend is sufficiently common in our day that many commentators, Christian and otherwise, are taking notice.

I wrote Thriving at College to help young people transition well – to not just keep the faith, but to dig deeper than they ever thought was possible. To not just stumble upon a major, but to wisely discover their calling. To not just have a blast with friends, but to cultivate lifelong relationships of substance with those who most provoke them to trust and love God. To put away childishness, to make wise choices, and as missionary William Carey once said, to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.” In short, to make the very best of their college years.

Michael: Can you offer our readers a basic outline of your book and how you think students can best utilize it (straight read-through before college or referencing section by section while at college, etc.)?

Alex: Sure, here’s the Table of Contents. The preface and introduction set the stage, followed by ten chapters, each of which unpacks one common mistake (the “put off”), and one key principle (the “put on”). In addition, the book is broken up into four sections: general issues (maintaining the Christian faith, adjusting to the logistical realities of college, coming from high school), relationship issues (with friends, professors, girl/boyfriends, and parents), character issues (developing integrity, responsibility, reliability, and a healthy work/recreation balance), and academic issues (doing well in classes while not being neurotic about grades, selecting a major, possibly changing majors, finding internships, and wisely using summer and winter breaks).

The text of the individual chapters is broken up with interesting factoids as well as questions from actual students followed by brief responses. Tyndale actually hired several students, in different majors and attending different kinds of colleges, to read the chapters and supply questions. In addition, the actual text contains many real-life illustrations/examples from actual students. (Names and details were altered to protect the guilty.)

Sections can be read in any order, and each chapter can stand alone. I figure many students will read a chapter here, a chapter there, as issues pop up on their horizon. Others will read it straight through.

Michael: Given the subtitle, it seems clear you wrote this book primarily with the young Christian in mind. Do you think this book could also be used as a gift to the non-Christian friend or daughter entering college? Would you also recommend that parents read your book?

Alex: Yes and yes. While the book is grounded in an explicitly Christian perspective, living by biblical principles is a blessing to anyone who does so, whether they’re a Christian or not. Alex and Brett Harris, who wrote the Foreword to Thriving at College, said of their best-selling book Do Hard Things that it was a message “from Christians, to Christians, but not only for Christians.” I feel the same way about Thriving at College.

And yes, I hope that many parents will read it. Ideally, I envision parents of 16-17 year olds reading it with their children, preparing them for what’s ahead, talking honestly and openly about the changes that are coming.

Michael: Alex, what would you say are the top two challenges young Christians face entering college? Are the challenges much different whether one goes to a secular university versus a Christian college?

Alex: The main issue is whether someone starting college has internalized personal responsibility, spiritual maturity, and a general work ethic, or are these qualities attributable to the external environmental structures set up by their parents and church community? If a high schooler had the privilege of growing up in a Christian home, and I hope she did, much of her life is structured: School, homework, family, church. Accountability everywhere.

In college? Not so much. It is true that many Christian colleges provide greater protections than secular universities, but if a student hasn’t internalized the Christian faith, if he lacks an internal compass directed toward godliness and an internal anchor in His word, it is not hard to find temptations and unwise diversions at both Christian and secular institutions.

The second challenge is related to the first: keeping everything in perspective and God at the center. Even among committed Christians, maintaining balance is a perennial challenge. There are so many healthy, non-sinful recreational opportunities, but God still calls us to do our homework and study, too. It’s good to work hard in school, but it’s important to form solid, godly friendships, and to not become obsessed with getting high grades. Some are inclined to one extreme, and some to the other. It’s important to cultivate an understanding that work and recreation are both gifts of God.

Michael: Alex, we’re excited about what the LORD is doing through you and the gifts He’s given you to provide wise and biblical counsel to young Christians—and we’re excited about your participation in the life of Reformation Bible College. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions for our readers.


Alex Chediak is an associate professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University. He and his wife Marni have three young children, Karis, Jonathan and Abigail. In addition to Thriving at College, Dr. Chediak is the author of With One Voice: Singleness, Dating & Marriage to the Glory of God.

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