Saturated in a small environment: in a small town, in the cold, in the Midwest, in the bible belt, and then with a community covenant on top, it’s basically the same thing as jail.
Scurrying up several flights of stairs, we held our breaths to stay silent resisting the frequent urge to laugh. My roommate left for some Calvinist convention that weekend and the floors of the dorm were closed, which meant no girls allowed. Sophie couldn’t care less.
The coast was clear and I quickly gestured the same signal that we’d been rehearsing in the basement all semester. It was the same one she used the night we broke into the old science building during the second week of school, when we hid from public safety in a storage room full of mildewy mattresses after frantically returning to look for her student ID. We found it faceup on the windowsill that we had crawled in through. Exhilarating, the thrill of the night was contagious, something we shared and could never forget. We clicked that night, like soul sisters, as if we were made for one another.
Campus policies concerning the open floors and open doors of the dormitory allow patrolling residence assistants to separate the sexes from the sex, but Sophie and I weren’t about that, ever. We were best friends craving an innocent sleepover, the safe kind with popcorn and poptarts, a night without broken glass, moldy mattresses, or campus officers.
Talking with Sophie on the phone for the first time in months was surreal: thousands of miles apart, different time zones, distant worlds. Stranded in the relentlessly rainy traffic of Seattle, Sophie reiterates how we have all the time in the world to be together, through the phone. Together, feeling like freshmen again, it’s like she never left. Assuming the conclusion of our friendship coincided with the outcome of Sophie’s #mywheaton experience was absurd. At the time we felt trapped, bound beneath an institution, our minds warped and distorted. How could either of us forget the entirety of our first year in college? We spent nearly every second of it together. We survived together, thrived together.
Growing up in Wollongong, an adventurous city south of Sydney, Sophie Holt cultivated an air of indifference. The dynamic culture of the Australian coast enriched a lasting worldview, an unconditional perspective with no limits. Despite her family’s abrupt decision to immigrate to the States moments before starting high school, still rooted in the connections of her past, Holt’s kindred spirit continued to freely prevail regardless of new social spheres. She returned to Australia directly after graduating high school and then promptly left for Wheaton College in the fall of 2014.
“It was a very strange and counter-cultural experience. It was cool. I went there up until my sophomore year and then I transferred to Western Washington University, after taking 6 months off to recover…”
Yet, in the midst of another foreign environment to enrich Holt’s flourishing angle of perception, the stagnant surroundings of Wheaton College suffocated Sophie’s pursuit of truth.
We were naturally in an echo chamber of our own thoughts, our own religion and our own faith.
Looking back, Holt voiced how she’s been liberated, capable of examining Wheaton from a multitude of unique perspectives rather than a single mode of thought. Upon her arrival freshman year, she envisioned the campus culture simply “as something new to try. Everyone else around appeared to be doing the same.”
“It’s hell, it’s not even like you’re dying or anything but… everyday you have to wake up and instead of just living your life from your own perspective, you have to physically separate your life from others expectations. It’s so easy to become fake. At first I had to wake up every morning reminding myself not to be fake. Don’t say Christian bulls–t even though everybody else is. Do not be fake, be you,” she said.
Holt enrolled expecting guided biblical explorations, allowing dimensional interpretations of Christianity’s truth in a college environment. Instead, she found the experience to be more caging to her education, limiting her to a single way of thought.
“Life is dynamic, we grow, and we change. When you are outside or released from the echo chamber, it’s easier to see. Aligning culture and ideas with a single mode of philosophy filter out crucial aspects of understanding.”
The Midwestern Bible-belted college hastily transformed from a colorful, deep and rich world into a black and white binary cultured confinement. Holt couldn’t exist beyond the standards of the school.
“Experiencing a college where [venturing] beyond a single lens of interpretation acts against the statement of faith or community covenant limited my education. Life is about the pursuit of truth, not declaring truth, and then booking-off your mind to everything else. And for me, that’s what Wheaton college symbolizes, singing yourself off to a set of boundaries. In real life there are no boundaries.”
Responding to the Cultural Clash
I was on the other side of the world to my entire life.
“I am not going to say that Wheaton College made me lose my faith or any dramatic statement like that… I would never give an institution the power to change my definition of truth,” Holt stated. She considers faith a journey, accompanying experiences and patterns of life.
As many individuals repeatedly assert that she’s completely “thrown the baby out with the bath water,” to abandon Christianity with a bad experience, Holt’s response is truly revealing. Holt experienced polarizing judgment and witnessed the persecution of people who she deeply loved around her in what she describes as a “corrupted environment of closed-minded people.”
“I can’t think about signing my life away right now. All I can say is that right now, I don’t know… and Wheaton confused the f*** out of me. I went in dealing my agency to Wheaton as full-believing evangelical: Pentecostal, speaking in tongues, miracle believing, Australian Christian. My faith was flamboyant, I believed in the whole cast out demons kinda sh-t, you know? And now, I don’t see a shred of that in my reality.”
Holt explained that her decision to ditch what was once an integral component of her daily life was not solely a response to the religious institution. It was through the experiences of her final semester at Wheaton, dealing with disciplinary procedures and judgment that came with. It was personal, and the school’s community covenant was a huge factor. Sophie’s independence and unique perspective translated into pressing judgment from the eyes of many individuals at Wheaton. The reality of Christianity faded, becoming “a two-dimensional piece of paper as opposed to a dynamic relationship that she once conformed to. How are you supposed to see Jesus in a rule book, let alone in the eyes of the dean of discipline?”
“It’s interesting because Wheaton College is such a bubble, and once you pop it, that’s it. The moment I left, I realized My faith had become the bubble. It popped. Signing away my freedom to believe in anything different over and over again was exhausting. I lost my fire, I lost the relationship.”
Life After ‘the Fall’
Life is so much bigger than Wheaton College and you don’t even realize until you’re out of it.
Holt continues to attend church with her family in support of their beliefs, and even engages in theological conversations at times. “Philosophically, Christianity makes more sense to me than ever [before], but doesn’t manifest itself in my life,” she says. “It was a weird experience, lost my faith, but overall I don’t know if I would make the same choice to do it all again. It was an expensive choice and it cost me a lot of things, but most of those things are fixed now.” She reminded me that she’s no longer haunted by the community covenant. “I look back now and it’s all just so foreign and strange to me, like another world.”
Invested in a much more encouraging environment, Sophie is thriving at Western Washington University. Her quirky personality works best when it’s not caged in a box, or a religious bubble. Holt possesses new found freedom to be creative and artistic unlike ever before. “Life is moving crazy fast now and I love it. It’s so different than Wheaton. I don’t even drink anymore, I have an intense academic schedule and work full time. I no longer have to return to a covenant, a dorm, or roommates. Life is so chill, there’s no pressure and everyone loves each other,” Sophie says.
When asked about specifically about religion and Wheaton, Holt stated that it isn’t something that she is currently exploring but that she definitely feels that she is capable of “separating religion from Wheaton and believe once again. If it was the truth then hopefully, one day, then I can come back to it. But I sure as hell will not let an institution tell me what my ultimate truth must be.”