Sarah and I (Hugo) arrived in Southampton in October 2011. I was to study a 4 year degree in Spanish and History and Sarah a 4 year integrated Masters in Environmental Science. Thankfully, we ended up in Highfield Hall of Residence together and we were blessed with a number of, soon to be very close, Christian friends.
Life at Southampton during first year was fantastic - new found independence mixed with a lot more flexible time resulted in great opportunities to explore different things - clubs, societies and churches to name but a few. We were both very much involved with the Christian Union on campus and the small hall Bible study group. I also came across the Navigators (some reading this may know the Perry family, who are Navigators mission partners) and started being mentored by a great guy named Tim Peters. Throughout my time in Southampton, 1-2-1 mentoring has been the greatest help and motivator for me. In January 2012, Sarah and I started 'going out' - and here we are writing this article together now!
Sarah found Portswood a lot sooner than I did - it wasn't until Easter 2012 that Sarah invited me along to a 'Where can you serve in the church?' evening of all things that I finally got to see something of the Portswood community. I went the following Sunday and stayed ever since. We both agree that what attracted us was the family and local community feel of the church, and that you didn't have to 'be a student' on a Sunday morning - you could break out of that bubble and enjoy teaching as a church family. The teaching was also something which attracted me – we both love the expository style of Portswood sermons and they seemed just so accessible to a young student.
The end of first year was capped off with a visit to Austria, where one of our halls friends lived, who had become a Christian earlier in the year and regularly studied the Bible with us. Holidays abroad seemed like a whole new level of independence for us - which was good training for my looming third year abroad in Spain.
In second year, I lived over in Granby Grove, and Sarah in a flat just above Southampton Common. Christian Union commitments kept me busy - I went back to halls with another Portswood member, Anna Armstrong, and we led the hall group together for the new intake of freshers, which was a real privilege. Furthermore, Anna and I helped out at the International Cafe on Monday nights. On a Thursday night, I started attending the Navigators student group.
The mixture of Navigators mentoring, Bible studies and very close-knit prayer groups complemented church and formed a good basis for serving within the CU. During early 2013, Portswood announced that they would be baptising people around Easter time. Sarah nudged me to consider it and it did seem right that 'finally' I was baptised - a most memorable experience! I held my nose and made the children giggle!
Sarah writes: Meanwhile I became involved in the Welcome team in the CU as well as enjoying helping out with lunchtime talks, events week and spending a lot of time drinking tea in the University Chaplaincy talking to freshers. I also got more involved with the Tap dance society, competing nationally against other universities and continued to be part of the local Morris dancing team: Red Stags.
Hugo: 2013 and the transition from second to third year was a particularly challenging time for us both. James Witham, a third year student and keen Navigator had started to attend Portswood earlier that academic year, and from early 2013 and I got to know him well both in the church context of Portswood and my Navigators prayer group, and also out running regularly around the Common. Tragedy struck in June, just after final exams when a number of Navigators had gone on a trip to Norway. James died in a hiking accident in the mountains near Bergen. Sarah and I had been close friends with him and his death was a huge shock; we'd been in Weymouth just a couple of weeks prior for a Morris Dancing event in which Sarah was participating, and we'd planned to meet up again later that summer.
Sarah: It was particularly hard for us being in England, away from Southampton for the summer while many of our Navigators friends were still out in Norway. We felt supported by Portswood Church, knowing that the community was praying for all who knew James, and especially seeing some other church members at his funeral that August.
Hugo: In addition to James’ death, my year abroad was rapidly approaching. Thankfully God had provided me (in a very interesting way - but that's a long story!) a placement working with Christian Unions in Northern Spain - based in Bilbao. However, Sarah and I were not looking forward to the time apart, especially after the shock of losing a friend. Also, funding for my year still wasn't ever so clear and I had a last minute panic - but as ever, God came through and my church back home, St Paul's Salisbury, granted me mission funding.
Overall, my year abroad turned out to be fantastic in terms of the vast array of experiences I encountered and the way it improved my level of Spanish. Studying theology in Spanish, visiting five different cities across the north of Spain and living in a great flat with a South Korean Spanish friend and his cat were just some of the highlights and it just seemed all year that God was hugely looking out for me at every turn. The mission work itself was fruitful, and I’m still very much in contact with the students I worked with, both believers and non-believers. Also – parcels from Suzanne Millman were very well received; teabags were a life preserving resource in the heat and something which Spain had not yet embraced!
Sarah: Meanwhile back in Southampton, it was my turn to become more involved with the Navigators as they had just started up a Bible study group on an evening I was free. I very much enjoyed participating more in the group, able to study the Bible and pray with old and new friends and being able to relay the latest news from Bilbao back to them. The year was tough without a doubt, but having the stability of Portswood, Navigator and CU communities helped me keep strong in my faith. I went out to Spain to visit Hugo during Christmas and Easter holidays and it was wonderful to see the ministry at work out there.
Hugo: God was with us not just in the good times of the year abroad and Christian activities back in the UK, but in the challenging situation which was to face us at Easter. When Sarah came to visit, it became clear that there were some things which we needed to resolve together.
Sarah: Starting from around February time 2014 I started to feel not quite right. More secluded and unable to keep up with my very packed-in schedule. Having not seen me for several months, I think the change was quite noticeable when I went out to Bilbao at Easter. At the same time, Hugo was beginning to think more about life after graduation and whether God was calling him to return to mission abroad. The short of it was that we decided, if God was leading us down different paths, it would be better to revert back to being friends supporting each other at a distance instead of attempting to explore the possibility of a life together.
Hugo: The last months in Spain were marked by this shock of realisation about our future plans, but God put friends in my path for good support, and the team I worked with were very helpful. It sounds strange to say, but I did manage to enjoy the last months and finished off the year with my parents visiting Bilbao, and having a trip around Andalucia with some of the students. Nonetheless, returning to the UK in late July was difficult – reverse culture shock is a very real effect and not something I’d focused on particularly during my year abroad preparations. It took a couple of months to adapt back to life in sleepy Salisbury.
In September 2014, I was launched once more into university life at a Navigators leadership conference – I’d accepted the position as president of the student side of the Navigators leadership in Southampton, and had planning to do with the other leaders. In late September I also managed to fit in a quick trip back to Bilbao to help with a student camp – Anna Armstrong came along too. Term time started and final year work began to mount, but that wasn’t the only challenge on the horizon.
Sarah: In October, after a summer of continuing not to feel quite right, I was diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety. I was then on the Environment and Ethics Committee in the Students’ Union, in the throes of managing a large energy-saving event on campus and embarking on my final and most taxing year of my degree. Not good timing. Hugo, Anna, Ruth and Naomi (all fellow students at Portswood) as well as the Navigators were there by my side throughout all the lows, of which there were plenty. I suddenly had to cut back a lot on what I was able to be involved with and go through the humbling process of admitting that I needed help.
Hugo: I found myself as the closest person to Sarah, who was available nearby, and so we went through many difficult periods together over the past year. Despite times when I felt hugely tested and out of my comfort zone entirely, only by the grace of God did I manage to get through them and support Sarah without ‘running away’ from the situation. Through God’s help, I was able to see the twinkling of Sarah improving and on occasion she would seem back to her second year self. The gradual improvement, though still very rocky, made us reconsider our plans, desires and abilities for the future, and as you can probably guess – we’ve ended up back together. I was thrilled to watch Sarah hand in her dissertation to seal her degree, as at one point this seemed a near impossibility.
God went even further in blessing us, not only helping Sarah and I in many ways to cope, but in providing me with a job. Before I’d started my final exams I had a most unexpected unconditional offer of work on a graduate programme in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Also, despite serious final year busyness, in the Navigators we’d managed to train up eight new Bible study group leaders for the coming year. Through all the challenges of university, God provided a solid way forward – great people, doors opening and the peace of discernment. Going out into the ‘real world’ with a faithful God who looks out for us is especially exciting and I’m looking forward to trying out life in London. The next exciting challenge for me is finding the right place to live there!
Sarah: Throughout my time in Southampton, but especially during this past year, I have learnt very much that nothing can separate me from the love of God. Neither impossible dissertations nor depression, neither friends moving far away nor the death of others. God has always been there, carrying me through in times of praise, times of questioning and times of crying out for help.
I am excited to start the next chapter, as I apply for jobs in sustainability engagement. I am currently living back in Haslemere with my parents, and getting the train around the country for various interviews. I know that God has a plan and I’m trying each day to trust in that, awaiting the right time to find out what that is for myself. I will, of course, be visiting Southampton every now and again as long as work does not take me too far afield so I look forward to continuing friendships in the Portswood community.
Hugo and Sarah