Two men sat waiting in the corner of the west entrance to Rasmuson Hall last Thursday afternoon. Every Thursday from 1-4 p.m., in fact, they hold up a sign that says, “What’s your story?” Two others do the same in the west entrance of the Social Sciences Building.
UAA students walk by and wonder, “What is their story?”
“Everybody has something that they want or need to talk about but feel like they can’t,” Eric Burleson said.
Burleson and David Desjarlais, who come to the Rasmuson Hall, are not UAA students. Currently working with the Valley Church of Christ, they drive to Anchorage from Wasilla every week as Christian missionaries of the Adventures in Missions program.
Burleson, Desjarlais, Andrew Hanson and Lizzie Price, the two missionaries who go to the Social Sciences Building, are here to support college students.
“We saw that there was a need and figured we had to do something to help,” Burleson said.
They recognize that isolation and loneliness can be a wide-spread problem for college students due to modern social dynamics.
“Here in Alaska, the depression rate is really high. The suicide rate is twice as high as the national average. In college campuses, it seems to be a lot worse,” Desjarlais said. “We live in a society where its almost not okay to have problems… people feel they need to hide behind a mask.”
Their solution is to help in whatever way they can, even simply being present.
“Our goal is to just remind people here on campus that there are people who are willing to talk to them or kind of lighten their burden or just get to know them a little bit,” Burleson said.
Both Burleson and Desjarlais are from Texas, where Adventures in Missions is based. They first started holding up the sign at Texas Tech University in January of 2018.
“It worked so well and helped so many people in Lubbock, Texas, so it’s bound to help people here, and I think it has,” Burleson said.
The Adventures in Missions program sent them to Alaska in May of 2018. They have been visiting UAA since August of the same year and will continue for the next 18-22 months.
Many students walk by in silence, but Desjarlais, Burleson, Hanson and Price are able to remind those who step aside to chat with them that they are not alone.
“Sometimes we get a little bit more than other weeks, but we almost always have someone who will stop by and talk for a little bit,” Burleson said.
Intrigued by their sign, UAA student Mari Gorash approached Burleson and Desjarlais a few months ago.
“They let me talk about my life, and then I asked them questions,” Gorash said. “There’s something very therapeutic about talking to people on that level.”
The missionaries enjoy having encounters with students.
“It’s amazing to be reminded that everyone has a story,” Desjarlais said. “A lot of the things I hear, I’ve gone through myself. We often feel like our problems only affect us or are only happening to us. It’s a great reminder for me and for them [that we don’t have to face our problems alone].”