My fourth year at Mars Hill University is underway; and, while my role is “teacher,” I’m often, and gratefully, a learner.

My colleagues enrich my life with their diverse interests. It’s such a gift to be in a community where I encounter artists, zoologists, musicians, marketers, media specialists, ethicists, sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, writers, biologists, coaches, historians, economists, and more.

I hear about zombie literature, criminal justice, rural healthcare, intersectionality, and bioacoustics. In Cornwell Hall, where my office is, there are echoes from classrooms of Hebrew, French, and Spanish. I have colleagues who are interested in the blues, bluegrass, Broadway, jazz, hip-hop, and opera. There are sports that range from Ultimate Frisbee to football.

All these friends with their varied interests share a common commitment to our students: to inspire them to realize their potential and make their unique contributions to the world.

It’s a privilege for me, at this point in my journey, to be there.

My students are my teachers, too. I’m increasingly aware of the difficult circumstances from which many of them come to college: from poverty or neglect or both; from divided or demanding families; with high or low expectations; and with helicopter or absentee parents (neither is helpful).

Some come from good schools that prepared them well for college and others come from educational warehouses that shipped them from year to year with little investment in their actual learning.

It takes courage for a lot of my students simply to be present and engaged in college life.

They’re also inheriting an uncertain and fearful world. My students were toddlers and preschoolers when terrorists struck the World Trade Center towers on 9-11-2001. They’ve never known a time when the U.S. wasn’t at war in Afghanistan. They were in elementary school during the Great Recession and in high school when Ferguson, MO erupted in anger after a white police officer killed an unarmed African-American teenager. And, what must our political culture feel like for them?  What models of “leadership” do they see? What are we showing them about ethics and morality?

I also worry about students who are overwhelmed by what they’ve experienced and intimidated by what they face. The pressure is too much and the support is too meager. Some of them spiral downward, go numb, and seek escape. Loneliness and fear drive others into self-destructive and other-destructive behavior. A few refuse offers of help. All of them challenge me to be more attentive, more compassionate, and more resourceful. They remind me of our shared vulnerability and of how much we all need steady encouragement, honest affirmation, and tenacious love.

The week before classes began, I accompanied some of our Honors students, mostly first-year, on a two-day retreat: tubing on the Toe River, hiking to Round Bald at Carver’s Gap, learning about communication and collaboration from Improv Actors, and forming friendships. It was a bit like being a youth minister again, after an interval of four decades.

While floating down the river, I wept quiet tears of joy. The day was beautiful, the water sparkled with sunshine, the laugher of young adults mingled with birdsong, and amazement overtook me: amazement that, even though an unpredictable and threatening disease lurks in my bone marrow and blood and saps my energy, I’m spending the closing years of my work-life as learner who teaches and a teacher who learns.