A small house sits confidently where it belongs in a town called Eltham View, about an hour and a half out from Kingston on the island of Jamaica. Though made of concrete, this house breathes, with lush vegetation growing all around, including cherry and lime trees in the backyard. Here, lemonade is never bought. It is always squeezed-from-lemons-you-just-picked fresh. City people daydream about this kind of place. Ashley Ferguson would be the first to agree; this small but confident house was her home and where she belonged for 18 years of her life. She had no plans of going anywhere. And who would, when you not only live in your own paradise, but every time you step out of your home and into your community, each face is a name and each name knows your own?
Ashley loved this community and thrived in it. “Thrived” might even be a little understated. She began rising above her peers when she gained admission into one of the best high schools around. Ashley first felt excited just to get in but then quickly excelled as one of the smartest students there. By the time her high school exams ranked her as one of the top five students in the entire island, everyone knew who Ashley was. But as each title stacked up high behind her name, Ashley panicked. The fear of exposure dug itself deep into her gut; the fear that one day, everyone would see past this mounting façade and realize what she knew to be true: that she was just average. Actually, average was what Ashley desperately wanted to be. Because, when not afraid, she was simply exhausted from the endless consuming list of, “If I just do this…I will be good enough.”
Ashley never got the chance to see where those standards would peak because, as she was about to graduate from high school, her parents told her they were migrating to America. America? Just like that, her fears of exposure were made moot by this jolting and unexpected blow, leaving Ashley shaken with uncertainty.
were made moot by this jolting and unexpected blow, leaving Ashley shaken with uncertainty.
Ashley’s father had essentially been forced into retirement for working too hard. His fault was not taking the mandated number of vacation days. His punishment was a pension that barely covered the electricity bill for the month. As her parents desperately searched for ways to make life work, the green cards they had applied for roughly ten years ago conveniently showed up at their door. Ashley acknowledges this now as God’s providence. But at the time, she could not understand why her parents failed to mention this to her before.
“All I felt was a lot of resentment and a lot of hatred because I just felt so betrayed,” Ashley explains. “I felt betrayed because we were always the unit and that meant the three of us against the world. To feel like all of this was going on in the background, and I knew nothing about it, really shook that.”
Yet, Ashley had no time to sit on the betrayal because, despite feeling hurt, she could not fathom living apart from her parents. Her original plans of attending college in Jamaica dissolved into frantically trying to figure out the application process for American universities and taking the SAT. It all seemed like a daunting staircase winding up into the dark.
But at the end of her blind grasping? Yale University. As Ashley recounts the process, she laughs at how blatantly doors were opened for her. All her application fees were waived. Her SAT testing fee was waived. Every single college she applied to accepted her. They not only accepted her, but they offered scholarships that covered all her needs in full and then some. And just like that, the staircase turned into a golden elevator, taking Ashley to one of the most prestigious universities in America.
But Ashley was gripped with a familiar fear.
“I truly—in my heart of hearts—thought that [getting into Yale] was just one big mistake,” Ashley says. “A mistaken admission. And they didn’t want the backlash of rescinding, so they decided to leave it. So going in, I had absolutely no confidence, and all I had was fear.”
Ashley’s first semester at Yale proved thoroughly miserable and academically disastrous. Still convinced of her impending exposure as a fraud, she had an I-told-you-so moment when she realized her fear was finally coming true.
Looking around at her new “community” at Yale, she felt judged by students who constantly wanted to size her up for things she had accomplished, not for who she was. She came from being surrounded by people who rooted for her success, but now she fought alone. Especially when she caught on to how disproportionately rich some—no, most—of her peers were, the isolation grew.
“All it felt like was confirmation of everything I had feared in the first place,” Ashley recounts. “Just [telling myself], ‘See, this is proof that you weren’t good enough. This was never for you. You didn’t deserve this.’”
Ashley desperately needed some place to retreat, to go somewhere she was known. But her lemonade home was oceans away, and she was still bitterly hurt by her parents, crippling any effort of communication let alone consolation.
A four-year old Ashley gets tucked into a big bed, which fills up most of her small room. She feels like a little princess when she lays in that bed and certainly does not consider her room anything less than palatial. Lining the wall across from her stand two very important dressers: one dedicated to the imperial stuffed animals, another to the rest of all her honorable girlie things. Ashley’s mom sits on the side of the bed and leans in to read her a bedtime Bible story. Ashley has heard many Bible stories before, but she cannot draw a picture of the main character in her mind. Curiosity bubbles over and Ashley asks, “What does God look like? What is He like?” With a smile that looks both pleased and amused, Ashley’s mom tells her to pray and ask if she really wants to know. Ashley really wants to know, so she prays and asks.
One Sunday, very early in the morning when it is still dark all over the house, Ashley’s mom comes into her room to wake her up for church. Slowly awakening, Ashley sees a great big light that is unlike anything she has seen before. Brighter than sunlight, this light fills and expands her room. Still partially asleep, Ashley asks her mom to turn off the light, but with one blink her room is back to being dark again. Her mother stands by her bedside confused and tells her the light had never been on. Even at four years old, Ashley knows she has seen God.
After enduring her first semester of college in 2009, Ashley went home for Christmas, providing the retreat she desperately yearned for. Her parents had stayed behind in Jamaica after sending Ashley off to Yale to sort matters before their own big move. Returning to Eltham View, where she felt safe and known, gave Ashley the room she needed to forgive her parents. The unit reunited again.
It was during that time her mother reminded her of the light she saw when she was four.
“You would think that having some actual direct encounter with God is something you could never forget,” Ashley chuckles, shaking her head.
But she had allowed herself to forget, and it had cost her. She did not want to forget again.
“That turned a switch on for me,” Ashley explains. “And it made me go into the second semester not feeling the hopelessness I felt before. It renewed me enough to start to really just trust Him a little bit more. And if He had a plan for me, feeling like a failure wasn’t going to stop it.”
Ashley returned to America reminding herself to trust in God. Back at school, she resumed her studies in Yale’s pre-med track. She had always planned on becoming a surgeon and was well on her way to doing just that. But during her sophomore year, a nagging feeling pulled at her to drop pre-med even though she had never considered doing anything else. Initially, she hesitated. Ashley could already hear her classmates gossip and speculate about why she dropped out; she surely did not want them to think she was giving up. Ultimately, however, she decided no one else’s opinion mattered for much.
“I’m the one putting myself to sleep at night,” Ashley remembers thinking. “I’m the one who has to live with whatever decisions I make. And if I base them on what these fictional other people think, that’s not a life that is sustainable. That’s not a life that brings you any kind of happiness.”
With that, Ashley freed herself from her pre-med coursework and took only classes that interested her.
Ashley’s friends speak of her during that time as a completely different person.
person. They remember her glowing with joy as opposed to casting shadows wherever she went. So Ashley began researching alternative degrees. For no other reason than a voice that told her “that one,” she chose law. Door after door flung wide open. LSAT and application fees were waived. And NYU Law, one of the top law schools in the nation, accepted Ashley with a big ticket full-ride scholarship.
“When God wants something for you,” Ashley declares regarding her scholarship to NYU, “especially when you don’t feel like you’re supposed to get it, especially when everything on paper says you don’t deserve it, that’s where He likes to show up.”
The process looked like a carbon copy of her college admissions, but Ashley stood altogether different. She began to understand a little more about the truth of who she really was. Ashley was no longer the terrified girl hiding behind titles that imposed themselves onto her. Now, she could acknowledge that every good thing she had, she had because God wanted it for her. They were His gifts, and certainly not mistakes. Ashley’s life demonstrated that God gives good gifts to His children without any requirements or limits. As His child, Ashley just needed to learn how to receive them.
Law students liken their law school experience to a survival course: the victors are any who manage to come out alive, clutching a J.D. in their hands. With all the ominous warnings from the second- and third-year students etched in their minds, most first-year law students (1Ls) enter the arena trembling. The sheer uncertainty of what to expect drives the frenzy. 1Ls line up to enter the library after classes, then race to snag their favorite study spot.
the library after classes, then race to snag their favorite study spot. 1Ls fill up their coffee punch cards faster than they ever have before. 1Ls ask themselves, “Why am I doing this to myself?” and don’t care to hear the answer.
Four years ago, Ashley entered Yale relying on her own abilities and collapsed under the weight she put on herself. Had she remained her old self, Ashley might not have survived under the pressures of the first year of law school. But with a renewed understanding of God's generosity, Ashley found law school to be the perfect testing grounds for her new foundation. Would she stand firmly upon the promises of God or strive to build up her own successes again?
After the first semester ended, Ashley confesses that she definitely felt very overwhelmed. But when half a year of demanding courses and endless studying did not translate into the grades she had hoped for, Ashley did not decide to study more or pay better attention in class. She decided to take a day off...every week. God had put the idea of taking Sabbaths on her heart, but it was during law school that she felt Him really challenge her by saying, “I’m telling you to do it. And I’m not telling you to do it just because it’s a random commandment. I’m telling you to do it because it’s good for you. Because all the things I tell you to do are good for you.”
It was not an easy decision to set a full day of her time off-limits to working while her peers cultivated coffee addictions to extract more time from their already-wrung out schedules. It was a choice between obediently trusting what her Father was saying or independently trying to make things work on her own. Ashley remembered to trust.
“When that first Sabbath was coming up for me, the night before I literally dreamt about it!” Ashley remembers with laughter. “And I woke up so excited that it was happening.”
Ever since committing to Sabbaths, Ashley admits feeling pressure to break the commitment, especially when there’s a busy week or it seems impossible to complete her list of tasks the following week. But not once has she given in.
“Now the idea of doing work on a Sunday just makes no sense to me,” Ashley declares. “No matter how busy I get, my brain will never go to adding work on Sunday. The moment I do that will be me saying that God is not enough. And that will never be true.”
Surprising-but-not-so-surprisingly, everything always gets done and Ashley comes out with a great deal, trading in a day of work for a day of rest.
For every memory of feeling alone when she first arrived in America, Ashley now holds new memories of belonging. Most of those memories are with the Christian Legal Fellowship (CLF) at NYU Law. Despite her abhorrence for New York winters, Ashley feels at home when she thinks of the warm family she has found in CLF. Every Thursday at around 6 p.m., a high-energy group of students march into the law building armed with crock pots full of homemade food, pans of brownies, and that week’s instrument of choice. Up the stairs they go, into Room 202, where there is a long rectangle table in the center and tables for food set up to the side. Often, there will already be a number of familiar faces chatting it up inside because there is a lot of catching up to do. But it is not the cursory, “How was your week?” answered with, “Great. How was yours?” Because, really, most of these people have seen each other the day before either in class, for coffee, or serving together at their churches.
together at their churches. What they are catching up on are things like: How did that assignment you were worried about go? Is your mom feeling any better? How was your small group discussion on Wednesday? Have you heard back yet from that fellowship you wanted?
“It astounded me how close the legal fellowship was,” Ashley says. “It wasn’t just that we met every week. People were friends. People were really good friends.”
For Ashley, CLF is unlike any other Christian community she has been in.
“Definitely, hands down, they are the reason I can actually feel comfortable in law school,” Ashley shares. “I can go through law school and not truly be worried. You can be stressed, everybody gets stressed, but the real deep-seated worry I had before isn’t really there anymore just because it doesn’t have to be. And I’m surrounded by people who remind me that it doesn’t have to be. And I can do the same thing for them.”
Ask anyone in the group and they will tell you that Ashley certainly does do the same for them.
“Coming to NYU Law honestly was the best thing for me,” Ashley reports. “Everything has just come full circle and worked out in a way that doesn’t make sense to me at all but makes it so much better because I know that it was God.”
Ashley often ponders where all the open doors in her life are leading her.
“This entire time, I’ve wanted nothing more than [to be] average,” Ashley confesses. “I never really had high expectations for myself in any way. I’m only really now embracing not being afraid of the things that have happened for me.
only really now embracing not being afraid of the things that have happened for me. So, at this point, it’s me trusting that whatever this big thing is, all of these doors are probably being opened to lead to it and to lead me into a position where I can do whatever it is or be whatever it is.”
That’s not to say she never struggles with feeling inadequate because, even now, she sometimes senses a discrepancy between what she looks like on paper and who she really is. But instead of using that as a reason to hide, Ashley now desires to use her experience to help others who may be going through similar self-doubt.
“Being able to share with people who have similar feelings of inadequacy. Being able to show them that God can use that and it’s okay that they feel that way, and that it actually has nothing to do with what His plans are, I think that’s part of a reason why I’m on this journey,” Ashley explains.
Walking through life with God has not always been easy. But Ashley shudders to even consider what life would be like without Him.
“He can do things I don’t like. It’s not to say that every day is a path paved in gold,” Ashley says. “But at the same time, the things I have kept telling myself lately are that He knows the end from the beginning and that He is the only solid rock that I have and everything else is sinking sand. Those two things just make everything that happens, everything that doesn’t happen, leaving me trusting that He is going to be there for it.”
God gently and consistently shows Ashley what He is willing to do for her and who she is to Him. So who is God to her? “I know, I know, I know that He is real. I know how I feel about Him.” And how she feels exactly, He knows.
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