Four Years of Making Waves

Not many people work in a job like mine where they are encouraged to explore unrelated involvement opportunities during times that would typically be reserved for their full-time job. I was recently reminded of this when I worked with the Wave Program.

If you are like most people who hear me say that, you are probably thinking, “What in the world is the Wave Program?” The short answer is that it is a summer studies program for accepted students who need some sort of academic assistance before they come to campus in the fall. It runs for two weeks and provides those in attendance a chance to develop sound study habits, get ahead on their academics, and form strong bonds with their fellow students.

I have had the chance to be involved with this program since its inception in 2015, when I was hired as a resident assistant, and I am now finishing my second year as the director of the program. To say that it has been impactful would be a severe understatement because I get the chance to witness transformations that I have yet to see anywhere else.

It begins when the students walk in that first day looking like deer caught in headlights. Some attempt to mask this with a tough facade, but most remain quiet and keep their eyes down. It was overwhelming to deal with these kinds of personas the first year, but by now, I have accumulated some strategies to put people at ease.

This is initially done through intentionally awkward name games and coffee. Sound like a cocktail for disaster? Surprisingly, it’s not. That first night is the perfect chance for the resident assistants and me to break the ice by showing that there is no introduction game too awkward for us to play. Most of the students look bored or nervous when we start, but by the end of the games, they are usually laughing and joking around with each other. From this point, the community develops at a rapid rate.

This was especially true this year. I watched as stilted conversation gave way to inside jokes, and before long, the group no longer looked like they wished they were anywhere else but at the program. Someone interacting with them would have easily assumed that they grew up on the same street because of their free-flowing rapport.

This transformation warms my heart, but it is nothing compared to the one that comes partway through the two weeks when people feel comfortable enough to share their past and current struggles. I watched this unfold halfway through the program this year, and it was incredible.

I had initially planned for a campfire to take place that night, but the 95-degree weather discouraged me from following through on that plan. However, not wanting to cancel the night’s activity, I chose to have a time of sharing in one of the campus buildings. We had a bunch of s’more supplies already on hand, so I worked with the RA’s to microwave them for the students.

The time together started off slowly as everyone settled into their seats and began digging into the unconventionally prepared treats, but the conversation soon took a deep dive. The RA’s warmed the students up by talking about what they had struggled with in the past or what they were learning at that moment, and their openness soon prompted the students to follow suit.

I sat on the outskirts of the group to allow the RA’s to take charge and was floored by what I heard. Some students became immensely vulnerable and shared things that broke my heart. As a result of their transparency, I took the opportunity at the end of our time together to share my own struggle with suicidal ideation in the past. And I finished my short testimony by exhorting each person there to seek help if they ever felt themselves reaching a similar point in the future.

I don’t know if I ever would have shared that if it hadn’t been for the unexpected change of plans, but I am so happy I was able to. It showed the students that even the most seemingly put together person can know what it’s like to hit rock bottom, and I hope that it encouraged those with similar struggles to reach out as I did so many years ago.

I walked away from that time together absolutely blown away by the bravery that the students showed by opening up about hardships that could push even the most resilient person to their breaking point. And it was then that I knew I was working with an incredibly unique group of people.

The rest of the program flew by, and today I had to say goodbye to everyone. It was difficult to do that, which surprised me since working as the program director on top of my full-time job was, at times, time-consuming and tiring. But it was that sadness to say goodbye that showed just how much the group had impacted me.

I was able to watch the tail end of the transformation I mentioned earlier as the students walked out of the doors that they had nervously entered two weeks before. There were no more downcast eyes or shows of toughness. These facades had been replaced by laughter, plans to reconnect in the fall, and a whole lot of selfies. Seeing this made me smile because it goes to show how two weeks of intentional time can forge deep connections that will last for a lifetime.

And as I walked into my boss’ office following our closing RA meeting and began animatedly sharing the week’s events, I thought, yet again, how blessed I am to have a job like mine. I could not be happier that it is one that allows and encourages me to involve myself in projects that deepen my connection with fantastic people. And I cannot wait to see what future years of this program will entail.

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