First Year University at Circle Square Ranch

Hauling manure and hay with a pitch fork isn’t normally part of first year university dorm life. But this year is full of surprises! When long-time camper and summer staff, Julia, dreamed of her first year of school at Nippissing University she thought of packed out lecture halls, studying with friends at Starbucks and winding through a bustling campus.
Now, instead of the collegiate halls, she navigates the dark path through starlit trees in rural Ontario to put another log on this evening’s boiler fire. The flames will heat a country house nestled in the midst of InterVarsity Circle Square Ranch Big Clear Lake’s 300 acres of forest and lake. To the six girls and one cuddly cat who live inside it’s affectionately called the “Big House.” Inside, the friends gather around textbooks, bullet journals, homemade pretzels and mask-making fabric. The Christmas music is barely audible over enthusiastic chatter.


The Ranch has been a special place for Julia since, just up the hill from this lively house, she first decided to follow Jesus while at summer camp years ago. When the pandemic forced school online, she seized the opportunity to return to the place that God first encountered her, hoping to grow deeper in her faith.


Packing insulated barn boots and a math textbook, she joined a cohort of stellar ladies in the LEAD discipleship program at the Ranch. While it’s disappointing not to have the option to live on campus – to study in the library and make new friends in residence, Julia is thankful for a season to solidify her foundations of faith through worship, prayer, bible study, community life, mentorship and service.


Some of the LEAD girls and other Ranch staff enjoying a fall trail ride.


The LEAD discipleship program participants (back: Sidney; front left to right: Faith, Julia, Molly and Mack). Each participant has committed a season of their life to pursue God while living at InterVarsity Circle Square Ranch Big Clear Lake. The program includes Bible and book studies, teaching, a daily hour of prayer, mentorship and lots of barn chores.

One of the most profound impacts of such an atypical first year for Julia has been learning to work through challenges in relationships. In her life in the city she had no problem making friends, and she expected the same in first year on campus. There was no need for too much conflict resolution – it was easy to find new people if any sticky situations or hard feelings arose.
Living in the sticks during a pandemic is different. The LEAD girls share rooms, meals, work and the vulnerable process of personal growth. If they were to let go of friendship with one another, they would be relegated to hanging out with the squirrels under the porch and geese by the lake. Surely God has more for his family than that!
When the going got tough, instead of giving up, the community of friends did the hard work of restoring relationships. They opened up, prayed, forgave and let God do deep work in their own hearts. It was hard, and for Julia, a whole new way of thinking about friendship and community.


When reflecting on how God has been changing her life, Julia shared how she is thankful that she is learning not to give up on people because of bumps in the road. God’s goodness is revealed through forgiveness, and friendship is sweeter on the other side of difficulty.


Perhaps working through things isn’t the norm, but neither is the peculiar turn of events that landed Julia and the other girls in Arden, Ontario for first year university. Yet both these things have proven to be unexpected transformative blessings.
How has God been forming you amidst the unexpected?


The LEAD ladies work together to prepare firewood during a canoe trip in September.

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