Lessons from the young

Dr. Greg Jones reflects on his first year as president at Belmont University by sharing wisdom from the students.
Dr. and Rev Jones on campus at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, May 21, 2021.

When I came to Belmont University as its new president one year ago, we were all living in the midst of multiple pandemics—COVID-19, racial unrest, mental health challenges, and deep political divides, to name a few. For even the most hopeful among us, the barrage of difficult news and the cumulative effect of ongoing complicated times put us on our heels.

And yet, again and again throughout this year, the students—the young among us facing escalating anxiety, depression and loneliness—reminded me amid their own challenges to keep coming back to hope.

I remember speaking with a prospective student, a Hispanic woman whose parents divorced when she was 8. She had lived with a mother struggling with alcoholism and a father who fell into homelessness. Even so, the young woman planned to major in interior design—to turn her experiences of brokenness and pain into a career designing spaces that provide a safe and welcome sense of home for others. She described herself as a person of hope.

Her aspirations and expression of radical hospitality show how hope enables us to be clear-eyed about our challenges, and it serves as a virtue that embraces both the suffering and the opportunities.

Having a North Star or purpose fosters hope, and I have had the unique position over the past year to walk alongside students as they find and clarify their life’s purpose during their time at Belmont.

Along with my wife, Rev. Susan Pendelton Jones, we hosted a class we’re calling “What’s Your Why?” at Belmont. Students across years and majors heard from a wide variety of guests in art, theology, tech and more. Beyond career moves, our guests spoke of truth, beauty and goodness for pondering life’s biggest questions. It was a time to reflect, listen and learn from one another—all in the context of unearthing a purposeful life that begins in finding the “why.”

During these sessions, I watched curiosity bloom. Rather than just seek a right answer, the students asked great questions, showing the value of a growth mindset to nurture multiple pathways. Learning—and reminding me—that life can be richer when we’re open to possibilities and considering more than just two solutions.

Students began the course by self-identifying with a section—sincere storyteller, organizational innovator, thoughtful investigator, creative visionary or compassionate guide. Bringing their varying sets of experiences, goals and dreams, they found commonalities and community amid their differences. It reminded me that life is a collaborative adventure and finding purpose is a communal effort.

This year I have witnessed collaboration across Belmont and in our broader community. The Belmont Accelerator for Social Innovation Collaboration (BASIC) initiative, for example, brings faculty, staff and students together with local organizations to help solve complex problems. At The Branch, a nonprofit working toward better food access in the community, our nursing students provided screenings while logistics students helped improve the flow of donated food for more efficient distribution. Even our songwriting students show how their craft is a team sport. Creating a compelling story together can help us rise above the brokenness and bitterness of these times.

At the conclusion of “What’s Your Why?” this semester, students presented their own art, films, collected words and discoveries, and in the process they reflected their entry points into the imagination. They did so with authenticity and courage modeled by guests like Switchfoot lead singer, Jon Foreman. During his visit to the class he spoke about his journey and encouraged students to embrace the “awkwardness.” He sang and played and then took questions. A student asked: How did you learn to embrace the awkwardness? “It was following me around everywhere,” he said. “I just decided to let him in.” How beautiful to witness this wisdom for students to be and embrace their full authentic selves.

Indeed, the young today look to role models like Foreman and also hold up their peers as heroes. By championing world-changers like Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani proponent for female education, or Greta Thunberg’s work on climate change, they show us how all ages can use their gifts for making life better for all.

Another prospective student I vividly recall spoke to us this year about finding “footholds of gratitude” even in her challenging upbringing. It stuck with me, and it’s the lessons from the young, like these, that have provided footholds for me in this first year at Belmont as we take hopeful, steady steps together toward the future.

Belmont University President Dr. Greg Jones is an educator and pastor who believes in equipping our community toward hope-inspired, meaningful leadership and a life of purpose.

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