A brave millennial recounts her mission around the globe to investigate how Christian students survive secular university.
Two nights before my one-way flight, I cast a final glance toward my loaded backpack, switched off the lights, and wondered what on earth I’d gotten myself into.
What was I thinking? Nobody flies around the world alone with no supporting organization, no fundraising, and no plan except to talk to strangers for six months.
Not only had I announced my mission to everyone I knew, but I had also committed to blogging about it weekly.
Despite my hesitation, I couldn’t deny God’s leading so far, even from the first moment I’d felt his call to defend biblical authority beginning in Genesis. In fact, that call had originally compelled me to concoct this wild scheme.
It started 10 years earlier, when I was 14. At a homeschool conference, I heard Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham explain the importance of defending a historical Genesis. Despite my Christian upbringing, until then I had not cared much about the debate between creation and evolution. Compared to important causes like sharing the gospel, I used to think, creationists’ enthusiasm for fossils, dinosaurs, and pickled coelacanths seems a bit irrelevant.
But my entire perspective—not to mention my life—shifted after I realized Genesis 1–11 provides the foundation for the whole Christian worldview, including the gospel. Yet Genesis is constantly attacked by those who devise stories such as humanity’s supposed evolution over millions of years—stories which secular schools and media often teach as undeniable facts. And as research has shown, the doubts these stories seed in Christian students’ minds help explain why most young people raised in church will vacate the pews by young adulthood.1
Maybe, I thought, I could find ways to help Christian students keep their faith during evolutionary classes. But to understand what those students experience, I’d have to become one of them myself. So I headed to a university and registered for some of the most evolution-saturated science courses available.
At every level, my classes championed naturalistic evolution as truth but essentially shouted, “Myth!” at the slightest whiff of divine creation.
Even as a deeply grounded Christian, I could feel those constant evolutionary messages chiselling at my biblical beliefs. I might have given in, except that throughout my homeschooling and higher education I had been equipped with tools to build three crucial foundations:
While these foundations helped me survive secular university, I wondered what strategies were helping other Christian students worldwide. After all, I’d once read that over 60 nations have signed an educational statement claiming that “scientific evidence has never contradicted” evolution or millions of years.2 What if I could interview Christian students in some of these countries to learn what they experience?
After printing a world map, I grabbed a red marker and shaded all the nations that had signed the statement. A band of red ink wrapped around the entire planet.
Obviously, I reasoned, I can’t travel that far. Or can I?
With that, I began plotting a DIY mission to backpack solo 360° around the world in 180 days, documenting Christian students’ university experiences. I’ll see how far I can travel on savings from my summer work, I figured. Just me, God, and a backpack.
I prayerfully began knocking on doors, writing contacts, and confirming several initial places to visit. To test my research methods, I began exploring campuses, interviewing students, and collecting baseline data in Canada before launching into distant parts of the world. Finally, late one night in 2018, I booked a one-way flight to Australia.
From Australia, I journeyed to New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, two nations that for security reasons I won’t name, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, and England.
Originally, I hadn’t planned to visit many of these places. During my final weeks overseas, in fact, I often didn’t know which country I’d enter next—or even where I’d sleep some nights. But whether I ended up staying at ministry bases, mission stations, or with friends of friends (of friends), God always provided. Meanwhile, I lived simply, flying budget airlines, eating inexpensive groceries, and sleeping in more airports than hotels. And all the way I prayed to find the right people to interview.
God answered those prayers creatively, connecting me with students, campus ministers, university chaplains, pastors, and retired Christian professors. Often I met these interviewees through churches, friends, or campus ministries. And almost always, I asked four key questions:
Between interviews, I also gleaned insights into worldview climates by reading university campus bulletin boards. In Canada, for instance, I found Bible study posters nestled among ads promoting Eastern spirituality, campus nightlife, and an extremely secular view of sexuality. I also found cartoons mocking Christianity, a poster advancing Communism, and even business cards for a Wiccan university chaplain. Clearly, I realized, Canada has drifted far from God’s Word as the foundation for its thinking.
In comparison, when I visited a Filipino state university, I spotted Bible verses on the walls. My surprise mounted as I joined local Christians for campus evangelism, only to watch the first students we spoke with open their hearts to Christ.
“Evangelism is not this straightforward in Canada,” I told my Filipino friends, “because most Canadians believe science discredits Scripture.”
They replied that if they were in a similar situation they’d just ask, “Who created science?”
The openness to evangelism on Filipino campuses made sense once I read Ken Ham’s book Gospel Reset, which contrasts the Jewish audience Peter addressed in Acts 2 with the Greek audience Paul encountered in Acts 17. Because the Philippines are mostly Catholic, many Filipinos, like the Jews who responded to Peter’s preaching, already accept that sinning against our Creator results in death. These concepts, founded in Genesis, pave the way for the rest of the gospel. This is how Filipino Christian students share their faith easily.
In Japan, however, Christian students experience a whole different cup of matcha.3 That’s because Japan, like the Greek culture Paul reached in Acts 17, rests on a completely different worldview foundation from anything associated with God’s Word. In fact, according to a retired diplomat I interviewed, only 0.2% of Japan’s population attends church. To be clear, that’s just two-tenths of 1%—one out of every 500 people. (And I suspect this is partially related to the fact that Japanese schools teach naturalistic evolution.) Understandably then, Japan can be a lonely place for Christian students.
Besides the challenges of embracing a different worldview from their culture’s, Christian students in countries like Japan and Thailand also face being nonconformists in a collectivist society. Unlike individualistic Western cultures, which esteem personal independence, collectivist cultures prioritize group harmony. The shame of nonconformity places Christian students under extra pressure to follow cultural expectations, such as bowing before statues or becoming Buddhist monks.
Still, these hardships intensify for Christian students in a Communist nation I visited. Not only is evangelizing there illegal, but students who repeatedly share Christ risk expulsion from their university. Yet I’d rarely met students more excited about evangelism.
Despite what these diverse cultures taught me, not everything I learned sprang from research. In the Philippines, for instance, I learned that smartphones don’t mix with waterfalls. In Greece, I learned that fish market floors have less traction than a whale on a waterslide—and that fish scales can cling undetected to human shins for over 20 minutes. Also, I learned to never wholly consume any pepper the locals call “Atom Bomb.”
Perhaps the finest learning moment of all happened before I flew from Istanbul to Athens. Upon reaching Istanbul’s Asian airport, I discovered my flight was leaving from the airport across the Bosporus strait, on the city’s European side. I had just shown up for a flight not only at the wrong airport but also on the wrong continent. The next hour’s white-knuckle taxi ride cost more than my flight, but pushing 105 miles per hour in a cab is an excellent way to boost blood circulation. And I did catch my plane.
These experiences and others taught me to confront every problem by praying, “Thank you for this opportunity to trust you—please help!” Whether I found myself lost, stranded, soaked, homeless, covered in fish scales, missing valuables, or in any other predicament, God always somehow did help.
For instance, once as I trudged through a New Zealand rainstorm, a Christian stranger not only offered me a ride but also welcomed me into her home for two nights. Another time, when grocery prices prompted me to pray for “daily bread,” someone handed me two loaves.
Thanks, Lord, I thought. I see what you did there.
The day that bread ran out, someone else offered me another loaf. Ultimately, witnessing God’s provision let me glimpse that he is greater than we imagine him to be and life is simpler than we think it is because the Bible is truer than we often live like it is.
While the problems students encounter often vary from culture to culture, the solutions are largely the same.
What research results did I uncover on my grand adventure? Most importantly, I noticed that Christian students face diverse challenges across cultures, but their advice and ideas for supporting students sounded uncannily similar worldwide. While the problems students encounter often vary from culture to culture, the solutions are largely the same. That means if churches, families, and ministries focus on these practical solutions, the results could make a difference for equipping future Christian generations around the world.
What are these solutions? They all boil down to helping young people develop the same three personal foundations I found to be invaluable when I was a student. For instance, I heard different campus ministers lament how often they meet university students who were raised in church yet didn’t clearly understand what the Bible teaches or how Scripture applies to every area of life. Their struggle highlighted the need for students to have spiritual foundations, as did advice from many of the interviewees about the importance of spending consistent time with God throughout university.
Other interviewees, especially those in secular nations, also shared how apologetics training (a type of intellectual foundation) is crucial for helping youth counter faith-challenging messages in class. But it’s not just students who require intellectual foundations. Parents, pastors, and mentors—people who help compose the students’ interpersonal foundations—also need apologetics knowledge for answering questions.
In fact, the value of strong interpersonal foundations, especially of older godly mentors, turned out to be a major theme I heard students express worldwide. But often, I see churches buying the cultural lie that age corresponds to relevance—that seniors and youth should be kept segregated. Yet segregation cuts off mentorship. If churches and families intentionally fostered intergenerational relationships, however, imagine the difference that could make for discipling students!
When I completed 360° in 180 in March 2019, I couldn’t wait to share everything I’d learned. I started speaking anywhere I could—including the homeschool convention where I’d first heard Ken Ham. Later that fall, Answers in Genesis–Canada enlisted me as a speaker, writer, and youth outreach coordinator. In this role, I share the message of biblical authority which altered my life as a teenager—a message that can transform cultures.
Now that my story has come full circle, was following God around the globe with no plan except to interview strangers worth it?