4 Things My Stutter Taught Me about Fall Outreach

I’ve stuttered my entire life, and it always seems to get in the way of what I want to do. Whether it’s speaking up in class, getting involved with a club on campus, or helping out during fall outreach with the Newman Center, I always consider my speech before I start something.

After working up the courage to speak, there are times where I just can’t get the words out. It’s definitely frustrating! I went through a few years of speech therapy that reached a climax when I got involved with fall outreach my sophomore year at the University of Maryland. The therapy helped build my confidence and some motor skills — but the big takeaways for me from that time were these four realizations. They were a game-changer in outreach for the remainder of my time in college, and I believe they can make a difference for you too.

1. Set Realistic Goals: You Won’t Talk to Everyone

It’s crazy how we stutterers can get caught up in our heads when faced with a speaking situation — like participating in class or a social event. It’s important to remember that fluent people can do the same thing for different reasons!

I found myself approaching outreach thinking that the weight of reaching everyone rested on my shoulders. But that’s not the case at all. In each case, having the right goal at the beginning is important.

If you’re new to outreach and you’re super scared of meeting new people, maybe push yourself to meet two new people at a fall outreach event. Or if you’re a seasoned veteran, go for a goal of 10 new people. Outreach is a team sport, so when everyone does their part, it’s a success!

2. Realize That You’re Not the Only Person Who Is Scared

I knew I was scared of meeting new people during fall outreach events. But it helped me when I realized the new students I was meeting were probably scared as well!

They might not be scared of speaking like I was, but they were nervous about making friends, the new campus environment, missing their parents…so many things! I found a lot of peace knowing I could help them feel welcome on campus just by making a friend.

In fact, that’s how I got involved with the faith and found my home on campus — when a student reached out to me during my freshman year and helped me overcome my fears. You can be that change in someone else’s life. Just reframe the situation and realize the freshman are just like you.

3. Get Past the Basic Questions

Think back to conversations you’ve had on campus. Did you start off talking about your year and major? Can you even remember those conversations? I’ve had a million of those basic conversations, and I probably forgot most of them soon after they happened.

The conversations I remember are the ones where I actually learned about the person rather than whatever labels they’ve been given by the university.

I still remember talking to one kid during outreach four years ago about all of this artwork he was carrying into his room. Turns out he didn’t paint any of it; he bought each piece for super cheap at the local thrift shop, but he had a made up story about the history of each artwork. I even added to his story, and it wound up hilarious! Hopefully he remembers that conversation as much as I do.

Having a unique, memorable and fun conversation is key — and it will make the other person want to keep coming back to the Catholic events. Ask about their background, what they like about campus so far, or what they’re proud of about their hometown. I’ve found that my stuttering can also open a door to these conversations and I can be vulnerable, which is also memorable.

4. Remember: Our Work is for More Than Ourselves

This is the biggest thing I learned from my speech struggles: As much as I don’t want to talk sometimes, God put me on campus for a reason, and there are people on campus He wants me to reach.

Our goal in fall outreach isn’t to get more students to come to our events; it’s to help them find Jesus in their daily life and the desire to grow in faith. If a fellow student’s eternal salvation is on the line, wouldn’t it make the awkwardness of saying hi on campus worth the effort?

I think so. You may not be able to reach everyone, but you’re in a position to reach a certain piece of campus within your favorite club, your dorm, your sports team, wherever.

So as the fall-outreach season is in full swing, remember the wise words of Shia LeBeouf: Just do it!

Steve Ernst
Steve Ernst
Steve is a missionary at James Madison University in Virginia. He was born and raised in Damascus, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Maryland in 2014 with a degree in Fire Protection Engineering, which means that he got to burn things in a lab for a grade in college. He will take on any challengers in yard games like cornhole or kubb, and he will gladly join in on pick up games of ultimate frisbee, volleyball, and soccer.

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