Seaver College students reflect on how a nine-day Pepperdine experience for high schoolers guided them to explore their calling
How do we discover our life’s purpose? What were we put on this earth to accomplish? How do we live fulfilling lives?
While many adults find opportunities to ponder the meaning of life as they go about their day—during a silent evening commute, while strolling the aisles of a supermarket, or as they hit their stride on the treadmill—the examination of one’s true purpose in life is often not an intentional practice.
For teenagers, the intimidating task of determining their place in the world can spark confusion and insecurity as they navigate the twists and turns of growing up. The Pepperdine CrossWays program, a nine-day summer experience designed for high school juniors and seniors, has provided teens across America the chance to immerse themselves in reflection and interactive group activities as they examine their past, present, and future to discover their vocational calling through the lens of faith.
Launched in 2016 after receiving a $600,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment to be distributed over three years, CrossWays provides experiences for 100 students each year to learn to live, love, serve, and lead like Jesus. Through guided discovery, which includes fellowship, spiritual programming, and mentorship by Pepperdine student leaders, participants create a map of their lives that outlines their history and what they feel called to pursue.
“The goal of CrossWays is to begin to discover what God may have created us to do,” explains Jeff Walling (MS ’16), director of the Pepperdine Youth Leadership Initiative and executive director of the innovative spiritual program. “If we believe that God created us for a specific position, we can look at how he has shaped us through our experiences, passions, gifts, and skills to get some idea of what we were designed for.”
“Whatever work I am called to do, I know that my past has prepared me for it, my present is leading up to it, and my future is in God’s hands,” shares Heather Chaffin, a first-year Seaver College student who traveled alone from her native Missouri to Malibu as a high school senior to join the CrossWays program. “I have a specific purpose in this life to do something for God and others each and every day.”
Along with her cohort, Chaffin participated in worship at Surf Chapel held on the beach, hiked to the cross above the Pepperdine campus, heard from guest speakers as they discussed how faith plays a role in their professional lives, and attempted to discern her vocational calling as she worked through her life map.
Beyond the enriching programs designed to provide participants with a pleasant setting for self-reflection and vision casting, the CrossWays experience also challenges youngsters’ notions of comfort and encourages them to consider the realities faced by less fortunate communities. One divergent project offers a special excursion to Hollywood, which at first seems like an entertaining break from the week’s back- to-back on-campus activities. As Chaffin and the other participants learned more about their trip to Tinseltown, however, they realized that the outing was more than a tourist visit to the historic TCL Chinese Theatre and a walk across the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It would, in fact, be a meaningful lesson in empathizing with the perils routinely experienced by the city’s destitute residents.
Divided into cohorts of 10 to 12 individuals led by Pepperdine students, participants were told that they would be living like the homeless for an entire night and were given small drawstring bags to fill with the bare necessities they may need while away from campus.
Chaffin, who managed to fill her bag with fresh clothing and a blanket in addition to basic toiletries, found herself settling in for the night inside the Hollywood Church of Christ. With the option to sleep either in the cold pews or on the hard floor, and with amenities reduced to portable toilets and plastic sinks located outside the building, students were encouraged to focus on prayer and thank God for what they still had. After a long night of “frustration and discomfort,” Chaffin followed her cohort to Downtown Los Angeles to volunteer at a homeless shelter on Skid Row—an area that famously hosts one of America’s largest homeless populations.
“Seeing tents laid out on every sidewalk and trash displayed like décor is when I began to sense what homelessness actually felt like,” recalls Chaffin, whose cohort gave manicures to the women at the shelter. While socializing with the residents, she met a pair of homeless sisters who were so full of joy that their temporary living conditions did not seem to overshadow their hope for a better future. “These ladies had nothing except each other, and that was enough for them. They said you can’t be angry in a situation like this because you have to invest your energy into remaining positive.”
Thinking back to the previous night when she complained about “having nothing,” despite her clean change of clothes, a roof over her head, and a room full of supportive peers to comfort her, Chaffin remembered a friend in her cohort who, despite enduring painful adversities, was the most positive person in the room.
“I realized that there are two ways to go through life,” Chaffin admits. “No matter how much I had or didn’t have, I decided to be positive, grateful, and hopeful during hardship. We are always going to be uncomfortable in this world, but we still have so much to thank God for.”
Reflecting on her spiritual growth since those eventful nine days, Chaffin now reminds herself during demanding circumstances that God has a plan and a purpose for her life, and that there is often a greater purpose behind every tragedy.
“Every minute of CrossWays was eye- opening, and I grew in my faith more during that one week than I have in my entire life,” she says. “CrossWays can be anything you make of it, but I guarantee it will be the best and most life-changing time of your life if you let it.”
“I went into CrossWays with a lot of uncertainty in my life. I didn’t know where I wanted to go to school, what type of work I wanted to do, or how I was going to get there,” recalls Jackson “Jake” Nichols, a first-year Seaver student who was introduced to the high school program while attending a convention for Church of Christ teens in Texas where Walling was delivering a presentation about the program.
In Malibu a few months later, the international business and religion major was particularly intrigued by the construction of his life map, an exercise that required him to think about the legacy he would leave on the world and how he would be remembered. Challenged to examine his life through a Christian lens, recount moments from his past to identify what led him to Christ, and consider how his previous experiences had strategically been directed by God to prepare him for the future, Nichols was deeply moved by the new personal and professional prospects that began to unfold through his life map.
During each night of the program, guest speakers representing various Pepperdine schools and departments also visited with the students, providing insights on how their current positions at the University allow them to serve God in different and fulfilling ways.
“For so long, I wanted a job that would change the world, but I always had this false notion that such a meaningful job would definitely have to have the word ‘minister’ in the title,” admits Nichols, having quietly struggled with doubts about whether traditional ministry positions were his true calling. “But I learned that you don’t have to become a minister to serve God and change the world. You can have an impact through other channels, like law, social science, and business.”
Nichols was particularly influenced by the works and accomplishments of alumnus Jim Gash (JD ’93), a law professor, director of the Sudreau Global Justice Program, associate dean for strategic planning and external relations at the Pepperdine School of Law and, now, president-elect of Pepperdine University. A renowned legal scholar and global justice advocate, Gash provided Nichols with a shining example of how a passion for service and ministry can be demonstrated using the tools acquired through different disciplines, in this case, the law.
“Professor Gash showed me what a Christian lawyer looks like and inspired me to pursue a career in human rights law,” Nichols shares. “I came away from CrossWays with a better understanding of what I believe God is calling me to do.”
“In every career there are people who serve God in powerful ways, and most of the time their service is not obvious. They do it not for personal gain or for others to notice them, but for the glory of God,” explains Nichols.
“That is an important message for high school students to hear. If I hadn’t heard that message before starting college, who knows where I would be? I am certain of one thing: I wouldn’t be at Pepperdine.”
Photos: Lucy Man