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Christian Union: The Magazine
July 2, 2021

Initiative Invigorates, Encourages Stanford Students

By Anne Kerhoulas, Staff Writer

 

When the word broke that Stanford would continue virtually for the entirety of the 2020-21 academic year, ministry fellow Abigail Carreon knew something had to change. In one-on-one meetings with CU Caritas students, she heard repeatedly about feelings of isolation and loneliness, apathy towards coursework, and what she suspected were the beginnings of depression for many of them.  


caritas coffee

The impromptu hangouts in the student center or coffee shops were gone, leaving students longing for community connection and an easy space for conversation and being together. Fortunately, Carreon had a solution: coffee hour chats; a three-hour zoom room available for students to pop in and out, eat lunch with one another, chat about theology and life, and enjoy time together without an agenda.


“With campus ministry and general fellowship and hangouts being limited to virtual life and long-distance relationship building over this past academic year, students and staff were missing the nonchalance of meeting up in a campus coffee shop, grabbing lunch in small groups or pairs, and just spending time together without a formal agenda or event going on,” says Carreon. “Coffee Hour Chats were ‘open office hours’ from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Friday, and students could pop in and out as they had time in their schedule. It met that need for familiarity and the possibility for regular connection in the midst of a lonely and stressful time.”


Starting late in the fall term, these Friday hangouts gathered momentum as students made it a regular part of their weekly schedule. Carreon believes that one of the reasons the concept thrived was that there was no pressure to make the time into something special or create an agenda; the time was completely unstructured, allowing students to bring questions from Bible course that hadn’t been answered or play a game that got them all laughing together. 


Oftentimes, multiple students would join together, a planned meet-up between friends and a chance to debrief from the long week. But when only one person was in the room, it afforded Carreon the opportunity to minister more directly to them in a one-on-one setting, getting deeper into life struggles and the burdens of this unusual year. 


For some freshmen in the ministry, they had never even set foot on campus, been in a dorm with a roommate, or eaten in a dining hall. This left them wondering if they really had friends at Stanford. These students were scattered across the country and world, many living at home in situations that were unhealthy or difficult, or some students living in special circumstance housing on campus but completely alone.


“[Students] needed a touchpoint with friends after a weary academic week to have a pick me up with their own friends,” Carreon said. “[Coffee hour chats] provided a space to battle loneliness and a sense of disconnection.”


But beyond providing a space for CU Caritas regulars, the zoom room also allowed Carreon to connect students who were less involved to other students, fostering relationships while they were away that they will bring back to campus when they return this fall.


“There were several friendships that happened [between students] who could have fallen out of the ministry without this point of contact,” she said. 


Carreon enjoyed spending some one-on-one time with students who came, especially those who did not come to Bible course or other Caritas events.


“It was encouraging to walk alongside them as a genuine friend as the weeks went on. I got to build bonds with students who were on the fringes of Christian fellowships and then connect them with other students who also popped in for coffee hours,” Carreon says. 


“Looping in a couple of students who otherwise would have been without any Christian community once everyone returns to campus mattered a lot to me, and I think these touchpoints helped to accomplish that. It was a great way of holding on to the people who could have been swept away in the virtual abyss.”


Coffee hour chats also garnered a handful of intense conversations among students as they continued to wrestle through everything from theology to social justice to their hopes for careers and family. 


One conversation dove into the pressure that Stanford students feel to pursue wealth and a certain elite lifestyle post-grad. Springboarding off the book Coming Apart, which explores the “super zip codes” of the US, students discussed how going to a university like Stanford can propel them into social, work, and culturally elite circles. While the potential for godly influence is exciting, the pressure to acclimate to the lifestyle of cultural elites is overwhelming, especially for students who came from rural and low-income backgrounds. The conversation led them to consider how they as Christians can use their platforms for the gospel, but also not become proud, conceited, or arrogant and use their degrees for God’s glory. 


Another deep conversation took a handful of women into the topic of work and family life as they wrestled through the seemingly competing dreams of having a successful career and wanting to raise a family. These opportunities to have meaningful and biblically-based discussions were incredibly valuable for the students as well as Carreon.


As the year went on, this established meeting time opened doors to share about the strain of virtual learning and the fears Stanford students had about their time off-campus. 


“There was a lot of discussion around if they were learning things as well as they would on campus. They could do pass-fail courses sometimes, some courses were really hard or harder than they would be in person, but there was a lot of anxiety and stress around the differences of on-campus standards and virtual school standards,” recalls Carreon. 


“The biggest things we talked about was the lack of motivation and it being really hard to stay motivated and focused. Motivation to listen to hours of material and teach themselves everything, watch videos, do problem sets, and homework, and keep it up week after week endlessly. This was a huge element. It was like a chronic fatigue or depression battle but discussed as a lack of energy. Students really were impacted by that.” 


As Stanford and CU Caritas students eye the fall semester with the excitement of a return to campus, coffee hour chats will be remembered as one of the ways this community stuck together, grew closer, and created a space to be known in the midst of this most challenging year.

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