Grace-fully Engaging Young Adults
By Anita Monro
A college seeks to nurture young adults in values-based, community-focused, strengths-based, boundary-setting, permission-giving and capacity-building education.
Young adults (16-25 years) are in transition. They’re on the move—from high school to college or university, study to work, adolescence to adulthood. Some of them take gap years to travel. Many of them move away from home and family as they go. These moves, though often physical ones from place to place and institution to institution, are also deeply personal. Young adults are becoming their adult selves. It’s a time of flux!
Risk-taking is a key element of this transition. Taking opportunities, rising to challenges and discovering limits are all part of this period of incredible growth and development. Uncertainty, possibility and potential open young adults up to vulnerability. It’s a hazardous time—physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.
Young adults are the core client group for student accommodation providers. Grace College is such a provider. Our site is on the St. Lucia Campus of The University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane, Australia. Our main purpose is “to provide proper accommodation…for women students of the University” (Constitution Para. 3). We are a not-for-profit, for-purpose organization.
We are also a church-related agency. Two churches (The Uniting Church in Australia—Queensland Synod and The Presbyterian Church in Queensland) appoint members of the College Council; two of our objects guide us to “the presentation of…the Christian faith” and encouraging “students to relate their academic disciplines to Christianity and grow in the Christian faith” (Constitution Para. 3).
Australia is a secular, multi-cultural democracy. Our public universities, such as UQ, are secular institutions. They also welcome students from all over the world. The client group of Grace College is multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic, and immersed in a secular education context. Our residential community is a microcosm of our context (with the exception that we accept women only).
How can and do we fulfil our objects for this diverse community of young adults in transition? The framework for our operations is a nuanced exercise in public theology. The Christian faith is the foundational narrative for a College story shared by people of many faiths and none, many cultures and backgrounds, and now several generations of alumni.
Our College story arises from our motto: “My grace is sufficient” (2 Cor. 12:9). We tell the story of an early Christian worker with an unidentified vulnerability who found comfort in the awareness of the support of a gracious God. We talk about understanding that we are all part of “something bigger” than ourselves, and the strength such awareness can give. We do not expect that that “something bigger” will be God, or at least the Christian God, for every member of our community. For most in the community, we hope that that “something bigger” will at least be the community that they find at Grace College. We work hard to foster such an experience of community.
Our College story informs our values. We hold three core values—community, collegiality and care. Seven characteristics describe how our behaviours embody our living out of those values. These behaviours will make our values graphic. We are and will be:
- Generous to others;
- Reconciling in our relationships;
- Aware of what is happening around us;
- Protective of what is important;
- Healthy in our behaviours;
- Inclusive in our community; and
- Committed to living out our values.
Our story and our values inform our overall approach to that work of personal and community development. Six strategic emphases underpin our approach. Our policies and procedures are:
- permission-giving; and
The community of Grace College is firstly the community of young adults that find themselves living with us at any one point in time. That’s not where our community ends, however.
This community is part of bigger communities. Our second core value, collegiality, points to this broader context. In our immediate context, we share UQ’s St Lucia Campus with nine other college communities. The ten colleges together share a whole social, cultural, sporting and community service life.
The College would, of course, not exist without the university and all its infrastructure, including its academic, professional and service communities. The residential community exists in this larger community.
With our student leaders, we also emphasize the corporate community context—the role of College staff, the College Council and a myriad of other support organizations that surround the young adult residential community. Government and regulators even get a mention as we ask our leaders to envisage the interdependent nature of what we are doing.
Many members of the residential community make friends within the community who will travel with them on other significant parts of their life journeys. It might just be the transition to a share-house or a significant career recommendation as the next step on the adult road; or perhaps it will be a life-time journey through relationships, family, and career with all their ups and downs.
Our alumni testify to the importance of being caught up in that “something bigger” community that supports you through the vulnerable times. If you find one Grace College alumni, you generally find a group of eight or ten friends. Those alumni are part of our broader community too.
This focus on a “something bigger” community is also a focus on strengths—the abilities that support you through those vulnerable times. We don’t forget the unspoken end to our motto quote: “My grace is sufficient [for power is made perfect in weakness]” (2 Cor. 12:9). We celebrate the things that sustain us even in the difficult times; and we recognise that some of those difficult times will be when we let each other down. The bigger picture that sustains us calls us beyond our weaknesses and failures; and offers us the ability to pick ourselves up, start again and keep going. That’s one of the reasons why the “reconciling” behavioral characteristic is there: the “something bigger” that sustains us has to be able to help us through our vulnerabilities; and, of course, the story of reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian gospel as the sustaining power for the people of God.
Our Boundaries & Permissions for Building Capacity
Values and strengths that sustain us through vulnerabilities set up limits. Whether it’s how we need to risk-manage events to ensure that everyone is safe as well as having a good time, or being mindful of community rules that help to provide a comfortable environment for everyone, the value of boundaries is found in the values of the community and particularly of our “care” for ourselves, one another and the environment. Our boundaries are set from our core—our values.
Boundaries are also permission-giving. They scope out the playing field and prescribe the means for addressing transgressions in a way that brings people back into the game rather than excluding them from it.
Permissions within clearly defined boundaries help to build ability for negotiating fluctuating terrain. This capacity-building is at the heart of the vocation of the College. Grace College is “a safe, inclusive, nurturing home, built on Christian foundations, supporting holistic growth and empowerment for female tertiary students, enriching their paths to academic success and their lives as contributors to the global community” (Vocation Statement). This “safe, inclusive nurturing home” is not “built on Christian foundations” for its own sake, but for the sake of the young adults it serves and the world to which they contribute.
The Christian Formation of Grace College
What we do is a kind of Christian formation although, for many Christians, it would appear to be quite humanist. It is an approach to open and relational leadership that is willing to empty itself of much of the tradition to share the effects of that tradition with people who might otherwise reject its potential.
In this creative theological endeavour for a group of people in transition, we walk a fine-line between scaffolding young people as many of them have been scaffolded in their childhoods and offering the boundarilessness that some of them imagine is the independence of adulthood. Our work is about their formation for the interdependent reality of responsible adulthood. The Christian tradition underpins that work.
Do we always get it right? Not a chance! But do we have a story that will help us to get up, start again and keep going? Absolutely! And that story is the story of a gracious God who sustains us through all our vulnerabilities whether we mention God’s name or not.
Anita Monro is Principal of Grace College, a student residence for women at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. She is an ordained minister of The Uniting Church in Australia. Her doctoral thesis, published as Resurrecting Erotic Transgression (Equinox 2006) proposes a feminist theological methodology that encompasses multiplicity, diversity and ambiguity in hermeneutics, theology and community development. For more information on the Grace College approach, please visit www.grace.uq.edu.au
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.