August 24, 2007

A test of faith: Transition to college years presents challenges to many students

As another college year begins, many first-year students will face the most important transition of their lives so far—a transition in which their faith will be tested more than ever. (Photo illustration by Brandon A. Evans)

As another college year begins, many first-year students will face the most important transition of their lives so far—a transition in which their faith will be tested more than ever. (Photo illustration by Brandon A. Evans)

By John Shaughnessy

The high school students she guided spiritually have already begun to leave for their first year of college—including to such universities as Ball State, Butler, Dayton, DePauw, Indiana, Marian, Notre Dame, Purdue and St. Mary’s.

Yet Mary Schaffner wanted to send them off with one last reminder—a letter in which she told them she would still be there for them, “especially as it relates to your spiritual lives and the transition you will make into a new faith community on campus.”

The reminder was Schaffner’s way of letting the young people know that she’s aware they are about to face the most important transition of their lives so far—a transition in which they will have more independence than they’ve ever had, a transition in which their faith will be tested more than it ever has been.

“It’s an exciting time, and there’s a lot of freedom,” says Schaffner, the director of campus ministry at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. “With that transition, there’s a lot of newness—a new place to live, new people, new classes, new food. It can be exciting, but it can also be overwhelming and a little unsettling.”

It can also be a time when their faith fades or gets lost in all the freedom, all the demands, all the choices.

A recent study from the University of Texas in Austin said that about 60 percent of young people who earned at least a bachelor’s degree attended church less often than they did during their adolescence. Fifteen percent of that group also regarded their religion as less important while another 15 percent abandoned their religion.

Using data from more than 10,000 young Americans, the study also found that Catholics, Jews and black Protestants are the least likely to drop out of their religion “as are women, Southerners and young adults whose parents are still married.”

The study also revealed an interesting finding among young people who attend college and those who don’t: Young adults who do not attend college are more likely to attend church less, regard their religion as less important and abandon their religion than those who do attend college.

There is no doubt that the college years are an intriguing time in the faith lives of many young people, especially because they must decide what role their faith will have in their lives at a time of sudden freedom and countless choices.

Just ask the college students.

‘An eye-opening experience’

“When I first came to college, I experienced what a lot of other college students do—a new independence,” says Patrick Gordon, 22, a senior at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. “You also have the opportunity to re-create yourself. You can act however you feel naturally. I was changing into an entirely different person. Part of it was the challenge with my own faith. A big part of the transition is coming to terms with your own identity and what God wants you to do, too.”

The transition can be especially noticeable for graduates of Catholic high schools.

“In high school, you have to attend church and pray in classes,” says Lindsey Day, 21, a graduate of Seton High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, who is now a senior at Marian College in Indianapolis. “In high school, you’re pushed toward your faith by your school, your parents and your family. In college, I’m on my own.”

The challenges and opportunities take another twist for Catholic college students when they attend non-Catholic colleges.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” says Logan Cook, 19, a 2006 graduate of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, who is now a sophomore at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “I was in a Catholic setting growing up in my faith. At a public university, there are tons of different faiths and beliefs. Sometimes, it’s frustrating talking to other people about their beliefs, especially if they’re criticizing my faith. But it’s sometimes cool to talk about other faiths and see how they share the same beliefs.”

The million-dollar question

Keeping alive the conversation about faith is one of the best ways for college students to develop their faith, say campus ministry leaders.

“It’s a transition time for them—from youths to young adults,” says Don Markovitch, director of campus ministry at Marian College. “So how do they live a young adult faith? They start asking questions. ‘What does this really mean to me?’ That’s good. When they ask the questions, that shows there is depth.”

Schaffner has her own set of questions when she visits her former high school students at colleges around the state, starting with what she considers the million-dollar question for young people.

“My question to students going off to college is, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to continue your faith?’ ” she says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t drop what has sustained you all your life. Build on it.’

“My feeling is that the majority of them want to stay involved with their faith. When they’re making the transition to college, I remind them that church is the one thing that’s familiar to them. While some things will be difficult, there’s the unity of the Eucharist. The body of Christ will always unite us. I’ve received e-mails from kids saying, ‘I walked into the church and I felt good. I felt at peace.’ ”

Gordon said he needed that sense of peace when he painfully realized he no longer wanted to study to be an engineer—a time when he also decided he needed to transfer to Indiana State.

“Everybody hits rock bottom at one point in college—in a relationship, having a bad week or a bad semester,” says Gordon, a member of St. Joseph University Parish in Terre Haute.

“You get to a breaking point. One of the only things that can bring you out of that is your faith. You trust God to take you where you’re going. Through all the incredibly difficult and stressful times in life, you have to believe in something more than what is just in front of you. I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten through that time without God.”

Seeking a deeper faith

The changes in faith can happen in more subtle ways, too.

“For me, it wasn’t a matter of turning away from my faith,” says Cook, the Purdue student who is a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis. “It was a matter of changing the way you experience your own faith and bring God into your life.

“Before college, I went to Mass every Sunday and I prayed before every class. In college, I probably didn’t go to Mass as much or say a prayer before every class. But I found other ways to experience and practice my faith. I prayed mostly every night. I’d go to church and hang out a little. By the end of the year, I went to Mass every weekend.”

Those changes in attitudes can often be the first steps in taking college students to a deeper faith, a faith that permeates every part of their lives.

“This is a time when they can integrate faith into their lives rather than have it as one small part of their lives,” says Sister Carmen Gillick, a member of the Sisters for Christian Community. She has worked as a college campus minister for 18 years, including her current role at St. Joseph University Parish, where she serves as the pastoral associate for college students in the Terre Haute area.

“They’re making decisions and relationships that will shape them for life,” she says. “So it’s a time for their faith to be a key part of those decisions and relationships. They’re at a developmental stage where they can do that.”

Making the connection

The challenge for campus ministers comes in making a faith connection with students, especially at state colleges where “it’s easier for students to fall through the cracks,” Sister Carmen says.

“With any transition, it’s absolutely crucial that there is faith support around a person,” she says.

So she reaches out to college students in a variety of ways: having meals with them, planning hay rides and canoe trips, creating music groups and setting up student retreats.

She also follows the ultimate,

time-honored approach of connecting with college students: “If you feed them, they will come,” she says.

Dominican priests and brothers follow a similarly varied approach at Purdue and Indiana.

“When you’re dealing with students of that age level, they have a tremendous amount of freedom,” says Father Bob Keller, pastor of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, who leads the campus ministry staff that works with I.U. students. “To get their attention and be persuasive is a challenge. They have a lot of groups interested in them.”

Everyone agrees the efforts are worthwhile and necessary.

“This generation is unbelievable,” Schaffner says. “Faith means so much to them. They love service, and they love working for social justice. They have a beautiful respect for the Church. They have an ownership in the Church which I don’t think I’ve seen in young people in a number of years.”

Owning their faith has become a meaningful transition in the lives of college students who have made that choice.

“It was a challenge, but it was a challenge for the good,” Day says. “In high school, I wasn’t as mature in knowing how to develop my faith. I didn’t know myself as well. It’s important to understand yourself so you can understand your faith.”

Faith and life become intertwined when that connection happens.

“Going to church by yourself, for your own reasons, your own motivation, your own soul-searching, is an entirely different experience,” Gordon says. “A lot of college students are asking God to help them find themselves, help them find their place in life.” †

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