Keeping the faith at a public university

Flags of nations on the campus of Ohio University during the institution's International Street Fair. Photo by Wendy Van/Shutterstock
Anna Mitchell

Whenever I look back on my college experience, sometimes I’m amazed that I remained a practicing Catholic. I went to Ohio University in Athens, a typical liberal public university, and also consistently ranked as one of the top party schools in the nation. Obviously there were formidable forces working against me and my faith, but ultimately it was my own complacency that nearly did me in.

One of the concerns I hear most from parents whose students consider any college not on the Cardinal Newman list is the tyranny of anti-religious professors. Honestly, they are probably the easiest obstacle to overcome, and you might even come to appreciate them, as long as you’re paying attention. Yes, they will throw commentary into their lectures, and some may try to pass their opinions off as facts, but it’s not hard to recognize when someone says something that runs contrary to what you grew up believing. Where many students go wrong is when they simply take the professor at his or her word, perhaps out of fear of getting a bad grade or by placing the professor on higher intellectual pedestal than is necessary.

I took a couple of classes with a certain history professor who constantly touted a relativistic mindset and sometimes openly mocked religious belief. He also loved class discussions, and so I often got the opportunity to argue on the side of objective truth. I never let on that my arguments stemmed from Christianity until one particular class when he asked my opinion on a quote about objective truth being impossible to discern. I, of course, said I disagreed. He asked why, and I said, “Because I believe in God.” Surprised by my reply, the professor then took the opportunity to play Clarence Darrow to my William Jennings Bryan: “Do you believe in the Bible?” “Yes.” “Do you believe everything the Bible says?” “Yes.” “What would you say when the Bible tells you that man was swallowed by a whale and spit up on shore alive three days later?” “I’d say that I believe in miracles.” At that point, a girl with a green mohawk began to laugh at me, and the professor said, “It’s good to laugh.”

I loved that professor — and still do — because he challenged me. While not every professor is going to be as open to hearing dissenting viewpoints in class, it remains a fact that no professor is a god to be blindly obeyed. If you go into class aware that your faith could be under attack, you can be prepared and even emerge a stronger Christian apologist.

The party culture

Another concern that parents have in sending a child off to college like OU is the prevalence of the party culture. I was not a huge partier, but I didn’t completely avoid it, either. For some, especially at a party school like mine, too much partying would often lead to a relaxing (or complete abandonment) of religious observance. For me, it was the opposite: It was during my lowest points in faith that I found myself more prone to partying, and I’m not proud of it.

How did I get to these low points in life?  By relying on things other than God for my spiritual and emotional well-being. For me, it was friendships. I put way too much stock into just a few friendships so that when there was a significant other in the picture, or a falling out between us, I didn’t feel like I had anyone else there for me: I hadn’t taken the time to foster other friendships, let alone my relationship with God, who was there but seemed distant. This is a recipe for loneliness and can lead to destructive behavior.

In addition, I had become very good at compartmentalizing my faith. I was always outwardly committed to God, but I didn’t allow my faith to touch all aspects of my life. I would compare my actions with those of other people, see that I wasn’t “as bad” and determined that my sinful behavior wasn’t actually all that sinful. As a result, I went to confession one time in my entire college career, halfway through my senior year. Up until then it just never occurred to me that I needed to make the time to go. Thank God for the graces I received from it, as my life and attitude toward others had become pretty toxic by then (read that story here: I only wish I hadn’t let things go for that long before realizing how much I was in need of confession!

And leads me to the biggest lesson I’d like for students to learn from my college experience, whether they’re going to a faithful Catholic school or to a public university like I did:  You can end up being the biggest obstacle to keeping your faith in college. When you grow up in a Catholic household and go to Catholic school, you can naturally fall into the trap of assuming the faith will always just be there for you when you need it, rather than allowing it to be an actual relationship that requires your active participation. When you get used to parents or others taking you to Mass and confession, you can easily forget to go when you’re on your own. And then sin will slyly creep into your life: Satan has no problem being patient and is happy to watch as your sinfulness slowly grows and grows, without your even realizing it.

Final advice

Yes, be careful of relativistic and unfaithful professors. Yes, steer clear of the debauchery of college-party life. But you only get so far if you’re simply avoiding the bad influences and not actively seeking God (especially in the Eucharist) and remembering your need for constant conversion: Do not forget to go to confession! I came out of college with my faith in tact, but had I been more attentive I could have saved myself a lot of grief.



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