Heading off to college can be both exciting and terrifying. A new world beckons, but it requires leaving much that is familiar from home and high school. Writing to young people in January 2017, Pope Francis recalled “the words which God spoke to Abraham: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1).” The pope went on to say, “These words are now also addressed to you. They are words of a Father who invites you to ‘go,’ to set out towards a future which is unknown but one which will surely lead to fulfilment, a future towards which he himself accompanies you.” (Read the entire message here.)
The image of God’s call to Abraham has particular relevance for those who set off on the journey of college. Whether that journey unfolds at a community college, a state university, a Catholic college, a private college sponsored by another religious denomination or a private non-religiously affiliated college, God accompanies students today just as he accompanied Abraham centuries ago.
Companions on the journey
Other people also accompanied Abraham on his journey, and there are people who accompany students on their spiritual journey through college. Most Catholic colleges have a campus ministry or chaplain’s office located on campus. It’s usually easy to find on the school’s website. Schools affiliated with another religious denomination may have a campus ministry or chaplain’s office that provides information about local resources for Catholic students. Some private non-religiously affiliated colleges have an interfaith chaplain or spiritual life office where students can participate in interfaith activities and find out about the local Catholic parish. At other private colleges as well as many state universities and some community colleges, there may be a Catholic center or Newman Center near the campus. At some schools, authorized groups of young Catholic missionaries from a group such as Focus (Focus.org) may offer outreach to students. Don’t be afraid to ask about these resources. Many can be found online at NewmanConnection.com/locations/find. While the name and location of these organizations may vary, they all exist to support the religious development of college students. The opportunities offered by these organizations usually fall into a few categories.
Prayer and worship
Years ago, a student told me what her father said to her before she left for college. “When you are feeling lonely or homesick,” he said, “remember that I am right there beside you every time you receive the Eucharist.” In his own loving way, the father reminded his daughter that the Lord’s table unites us across space and time. This can be a source of consolation for students who are struggling with the reality of being away from home. Some students discover a new maturity in their faith as they move from automatically going to Mass with their families to making the decision to go to Mass on their own or with other students. Students who saw few other people their age at their home parish may be pleasantly surprised to find more peers at Masses on or near their college campus where the focus is quite often on the experience of young people.
Similarly, college offers an opportunity to move to a new level in one’s personal prayer life. Prayers from one’s childhood may take on new relevance as students face the joys and challenges of college life. New experiences and new insights into one’s faith may also call for different forms of prayer. Students who think they have outgrown the need for prayer may search for pertinent prayers when they receive the first bad grade, delight in the first college romance, or face a decision about changing majors. Consider packing a copy of Keeping the Faith: Prayers for College Students by Kerry Weber (Twenty Third Publications, 2009) Students who can’t find time for prayer in their busy schedule can plug in their earbuds and listen to the short daily prayer session from Pray As You Go (Pray-as-you-go.org/home/) as they walk to class or take a study break.
Service and justice
Many college students are devoted to serving the poor and to issues of social justice. For some, this is the way in which they manifest their faith during the college years. They resonate with Pope Francis who told young people in a March 2017 video, “With your plans and with your courage, with your dreams and ideals, walls of stagnation fall and roads open up that lead us to a better, fairer, less cruel, and more humane world.”
Campus ministry offices and Newman Centers offers opportunities for students not only to engage in service and justice and to develop solidarity with those who are poor, but also to reflect on how this engagement affirms and challenges their life: How is God present in this experience? How does my faith inform how I respond to this experience? How will my vocation in life bring about a “less cruel and more humane world?” A number of schools now partner with Catholic Relief Services to facilitate this in the “CRS University” program (University.CRS.org/).
Spiritual growth and development
Cura personalis, a Latin phrase meaning “care for the whole person,” is a guiding principle for those who minister to college students. They understand that college is a time of growth for all aspects of a student’s life, including faith and spirituality. Resources for students to grow spiritually include retreats, faith-sharing groups, and catechesis. Retreats, which are popular on many campuses, involve a “time away” to reflect on God’s action in one’s life and on issues such as vocational discernment: How is God calling me to use my talents to serve the needs of the world? (See this video on YouTube.) Faith-sharing groups, such as Christian Life Communities (CLC-USA.org/), help students nurture lives based on the Gospel. Catechesis in college can take a variety of forms from weekly Bible study to a talk in a coffeehouse setting. (See this article in The Boston College Chronicle.)
College offers unique opportunities for intellectual, physical, and emotional growth. A truly “well-rounded education” includes opportunities for faith formation and spiritual growth as well.