Keeping the Faith in College

Scores of 18-year-olds are getting ready to leave home for the first time and start college.

Incoming college freshmen experience the autonomy and responsibility of higher education -- which is exhilarating for them and anxiety-ridden for their parents. Yet amid the flurry of packed academic and social calendars, college freshmen are a high-risk group when it comes to their spiritual lives.

Since 2007, Christianity among college students has decreased 9 percent over their four years, a statistic mirrored across the board for religious students, according to the Pew Research Center.

From day one, freshmen are fighting an uphill battle as they move into new dorms and make new friends. But the key to keeping their faith is finding friends who support them, who practice their faith and who view schoolwork as a priority. They must also acknowledge their own role in terms of spiritual vocations.

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The Mexican proverb "Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are" rings true when assessing how to practice one's faith while away at school. Freshmen must realize that the morality and beliefs of the people they closely surround themselves with will affect their own views and perspectives.

At college, and especially at larger schools, faith-based clubs provide a much-needed haven. Religiously affiliated clubs provide support to Christian students who are navigating life on their own without the daily support of family. Even freshmen who generally stay close to home should make their faith their own.

Jacob King, 31, serves as director of youth and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He worked for several years as the campus minister to over 30,000 students at West Virginia University.

In navigating the social atmosphere, King said Catholics in particular must rely on the sacraments. The pathway to success, he added, is remaining close to Christian faith backgrounds.

"Freshmen need to cling to three pillars for survival: the Eucharist, confession, and community," King said. "With this divine medicine for broken souls, the chance to start anew, and a support group -- one will be well-armed."

Grace Pluta, 20, finished freshman year at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and has a wise perspective on her first-year experiences.

"The main thing I did was find a good friend in the Catholic campus ministry who pushed me to go to ministry events," said Pluta. "I found a support system there."

By getting involved with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ), Newman Clubs, or Young Life, students will develop friendships borne of a mutual understanding of their shared faith. Instead of being on the defensive with emerging friendships, freshmen can grow in faith through the encouragement of peers and mentors.

Merging Faith Goals and Academic Goals

Instead of simply putting their faith "on hold" while at school, students should make faith goals as well as academic goals. A study from the National Survey of Student Engagement found that the average college student spends 17 hours a week preparing for classes. Imagine if students dedicated even a fraction of that to preparing for their eternal life.

Scheduling time for prayer is a vital part of maintaining a faith life in college. That time put aside for prayer will strengthen one's faith -- not just sustain it.

"Seek to transform your spirituality," King said. "Don't just try to weather the storm, but evangelize! Be one who is sent on a mission, to the poor, to the unfulfilled, and to the outcasts of society."

Said Pluta, who is entering her sophomore year, "Being Catholic helped me get through the tougher times in school. I knew I was more than the sum of my grades or academic achievements. I never let class get me down too much -- I understood there was more for me to live for other than my grades."

In making spiritual goals and factoring in faith in daily life, schoolwork and friendship become more fulfilling in the context of the faith. Faith enables students to think outside themselves -- in order to see themselves in the bigger picture.

School as a Spiritual Vocation

From day one, freshmen must balance work and play. However, college freshmen who come from a religious background must also make time for the spiritual. Schoolwork and prayer do not have to be in competition; rather, freshmen can treat their assignments as accomplishing their spiritual vocation as well.

"From day one, I was very open about being Catholic. It set a precedent of behavior I wanted to uphold," Pluta said.

By openly practicing her faith, Pluta allowed her friends to know and see an important part of her.

Rigorous academics can seem daunting to incoming freshmen. Pluta said her faith allowed her better perspective in God's overarching plan for her life; it made her keep each exam, each paper, in context.

This fall, new freshmen should take a quiet moment to envision the role faith will play in their lives over the next four years. A fulfilling college experience can be theirs as they practice their faith, cultivate friendships, and incorporate prayer into their schedules.