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The Christmas tree at Market Square in Pittsburgh, PA after visiting Duquesne University.

It’s quickly becoming a tradition, and start to the holiday season, for the 3 chaperones of the College Road Trip. On a chilly Wednesday afternoon the week before Thanksgiving, we load up 2 twelve-passenger vans with duffel bags, pillows, sleeping bags, and snacks, pile in 20 or so students, and head out onto the open road! For the next four days, we spend hours in those vans, trekking across America, laughing, singing, elbowing for more napping space and imagining what life might be like if any of us chose to attend one of the 5 or so colleges we visit.

We assure you: it’s not the million hours of driving or the too-often-fast-food meals that keep us coming back each year. Instead, it’s the unique bond that grows between roadtrippers, the excitement of the students as they explore possibilities for their futures, and the ways we grow closer to God as we worship with communities across the country. Here, in our own words, are a few of the reasons why we wouldn’t trade this chaperoning opportunity for anything.

Friendships: Elizabeth Van Ryn, teacher

When you spend every waking moment with a group of people for 4.5 days, you have no choice but to grow closer to them and learn more about them. And, when much of that time is spent sitting close to one another while driving several hours at a time, after only a few hours of sleep, you get to know each other very well. But this is my favorite part of road tripping with these high schoolers. We see them in class, in the hallways, in meetings, and in SOAR, and we get to know them well as students. The road trip offers us the unique opportunity to develop relationships with one another outside of school and in environments foreign to many of us, creating a special bond we all cherish long after our time on the road ends.

The most memorable moments of the road trip occur in the vans: belting out our favorite songs on the radio, creating our own versions of Christmas carols (like our 12 Days of Christmas rendition), competing for use of the Wi-Fi hotspot, and getting to know one another on a more personal level through conversation. Exhaustion, hunger, and boredom weave together in a weird but wonderful way to pass the time and enjoy one another’s company.

The last night of the trip we head to a restaurant and share what we call “family dinner.” As we’re seated, we go around the tables, and each person describes the trip in one word. This proposition is often met with cries of “I can’t do that!” and “One word? That’s not fair!” but as each person reluctantly offers their one word, we are left laughing and already reminiscing on the memories we’ve had. This night is special, not only because it’s the only time many of the students wear clothes other than sweatpants and sweatshirts, but also because it’s a time of reflection before the trip is over. As we sit and pass the family-style Italian meal, we’re reminded of the community we’ve built with one another, the community we will return to back home, and the community of believers we’ve encountered on the road.

Faith: Rebekah Sankey, teacher

Maybe the most surprising part of the trips for me in my first year as a chaperone was falling in love with the way the colleges we visit are loving God. There are so many aspects to the evidence of this love and how it’s displayed on campuses. As chapel coordinator for ECHS, I keep my eyes open for how spiritual communities gather. The many schools we visit approach their chapels in diverse and unique ways: services might mandatory or optional or a combination of requirements. I love watching our students take in the variety of services we get to share with the Body of Christ as we visit each campus. And I love the chance to worship with them, a little bit of Heaven brought low to Earth.

Another place we see love for God at the schools we visit is in fingerprints across the physical campuses. From chalked sidewalks, to memorials and art exhibits, it’s exciting to discover how local communities and alumni are living out faith at the colleges we stop at. This year, our students noticed our high school theme “In His Image” scrawled across the pathways of a school we visited. I love watching those connections take place.

Of course, the van rides in close quarters are fuel for inspiring and thoughtful conversations about faith. While there are plenty of nonsense conversations, there are inevitable moments where we get to sit alongside our students as they hash out reflections on how God is being represented at different schools we see, why they might prefer a Christian to non-Christian environment for college, or how they feel about a particular chapel service. On our ride home this year, we had “church in the van” when one student read aloud the notes she had been texted from her Sunday service at home and another student lead the van in a time of prayer. Earlier that day, the radio was abruptly turned off so the van could pray for a student at home going through a particularly difficult moment.  These are by far the most rewarding moments of the experience for me.

Future: Jesse Struck, College and Career Counselor

College visits are an essential and often intimidating piece of the college planning puzzle. Nowadays, high school students face the seemingly insurmountable task of sifting through thousands of colleges in order to choose one that’s right for them. Personally, I believe there are dozens, if not hundreds of colleges wherein every student can find a suitable community and stimulating learning environment, but with so many options it can be hard to know where to begin. This is where the college road trip comes in!

Experience teaches that visiting multiple colleges during the early stages of college planning is a great way to start narrowing options. Visiting several different types of colleges (e.g. small vs. large, public vs. private, urban vs. rural, Christian vs. non-Christian) allows students to learn more about their preferences, which helps guide future college research. The college road trip grants students the opportunity to explore 4 or 5 colleges in an affordable, efficient, and exceptionally fun way. We love watching how students react differently to each college, and some students even discover that “one” college right for them! Van rides between schools provide plenty of time for meaningful reflection and conversation among friends, who gradually feel more and more like family.

The great joy of spending 103 consecutive hours with our beloved students is made exponentially greater when we glimpse the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts and minds of these young people as they consider their futures. God has carefully designed plans for each one of them, and it is a profound and humbling privilege to aide their discernment process via the college road trip!