The student’s words unsettled me. We had been discussing the topic of courage, the letting go of our fears so that we could become a source of blessing and wisdom. Then we read together a quote, “We are able to live with this degree of courage, reflected in focus and passion, only if we are clear about who we are and what we have been called to do” (Smith 124). As she and I discussed what this quote meant for her life, she asked, “How can I live with this degree of courage? I kinda feel grown-up, but I really don’t know who I am and what I am supposed to be when I’m really grown-up.” Was I surprised by this heartfelt question? No, she was an emerging adult, in the midst of forming her identity and vocation. On the other hand, I was concerned. She was a Calvin College senior with a 3.91 GPA. Had we, as a community, failed to help her become a courageous person, failed to equip her to understand how to be an agent of renewal? Or was her question simply a common concern of the emerging adult stage of life?
In the field of developmental psychology, life stages provide a convenient framework by which psychologists can understand the behavior and mental processes of individuals of a particular age. Due to longer life expectancies, changes in societal norms, brain maturation, and higher educational achievement required for many careers, researchers have begun to identify a new stage between teenager and adult. Jeffrey Arnett proposed calling this the stage of emerging adulthood (469). Several traits are hallmarks of this stage: feeling in-between, living with instability, developing an identity, transforming one’s life and focusing on self.
Through my investigation of the research on emerging adulthood, my energies as a faculty member are engaged on several different levels. As a psychologist trained to carry out empirical research, I am involved in investigating this life stage, yet I am continually reminded that the very group that I am studying in my scholarship is the age group that I encounter in the classes I teach. Christian colleges educate individuals who are in the stage of emerging adulthood, and this challenges us to consider how a Christian worldview can provide a context to sustain emerging adults as they traverse this life stage. The more earnestly I explore these questions for my students, the more clearly I see that all Christians are like emerging adults because the hallmarks of emerging adulthood are hallmarks of the Christian’s life. It is essential for us as Christians, especially Christian college educators, to understand emerging adulthood. Let me explain.