Staying Catholic and keeping your faith alive in college

College students face a daunting list of new challenges when they hit campus each year — time management, peer pressure, finances, grades, loneliness and homesickness, especially for freshmen.

The question for Catholic students becomes: Is faith one of the things they bring with them to help with those challenges, or are they in danger of leaving it behind?

There are plenty of ways Catholic students can keep their faith strong while dealing with all the other issues of college life. Those who have worked in Catholic campus ministry say it is most important to stay connected to the church by attending Mass and seeking out other faithful for fellowship.

Dominican Father Christopher Oranyeli, a supply priest for St. John the Beloved Church in Summerville, said he worked with Catholic college students in his native Nigeria, and many of their challenges are the same faced by students here.

“What they need most is direction,” he said. “In college, it can be easy to fall into bad company. Students are away from home, and they can easily be persuaded through peer pressure to fall away from their Catholic faith or to do things that go against the faith.”

Father Oranyeli said students who have strong faith foundations at home often have an easier time staying committed to their faith. For those feeling challenged, however, it’s important to seek out a spiritual advisor.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to have an older person on campus who can act as their guide,” he said. Catholic faculty or staff members, older Catholic students or the leaders of Catholic campus ministry can help students keep their faith strong.

Jane LaMarche, Ph.D., director of campus ministry for the Diocese of Charleston, also organizes activities for students at the College of Charleston.

“College is a time when you want to be independent,” LaMarche said, “and even though the seeds of faith were planted and parents were good models, often students will have the attitude ‘nobody can make me go to church.’ You’ll see a lot of that attitude when they first arrive, but often that attitude changes as they realize they want and need the church in their lives.”

To attract new students and keep them involved, the College of Charles­ton’s campus ministry program offers special student Masses and adoration, and activities ranging from informal meals to scavenger hunts, biannual retreats and service projects.

LaMarche encourages young adults to make sure they don’t become isolated on campus, especially if they attend a school where there aren’t many other Catholics enrolled.

“Students should try to get involved with something that appeals to them within their campus ministry,” she said. “We find that if we can get a student to come to one thing that appeals to them, about 95 percent of the time they’ll keep coming back, for Mass and other activities.”

At the St. Thomas More Center on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, Father Marcin Zahuta works with Catholic student volunteers to help spread the word about the center’s activities to incoming freshmen.

He encourages students to keep themselves healthy and to live a balanced life on campus, while always remembering that their faith is an important part of that balance.

“I tell students to get around friends who really think that faith is important,” Father Zahuta said. “It doesn’t matter what denomination they are. They don’t all have to be Catholic. What’s important is that they have some kind of respect for people who believe in God. Also, surround yourself with friends who are not going to get you into trouble.”

Father Zahuta said he encourages struggling students to go to confession.

“For Catholics, if you don’t take part in the sacrament of reconciliation, it’s almost like running on sand,” he said. “A lot of students find they can accomplish much more in their faith once they come to reconciliation.”

Bess Alston led campus ministry programs for S.C. State University and Claflin University in Orangeburg for nine years before she turned the job over to two volunteers from Holy Trinity Church this year. Alston said she worked with many international students over the years, and they faced the isolation of being far away from home plus the challenge of remaining active in the church.

She encouraged students to attend Mass regularly, because the Eucharist is often the key reminder of why the Catholic faith is different and special. She also suggested they find some way to constantly learn more about the faith, whether it is through a Bible study at the local parish or simply reading and discussing religious topics with others.

Alston said students should remember that their faith is something that can enhance their college experience.
“For a lot of students, academics is number one in their lives, but we always remind them that developing your faith is as important as developing academic skills,” she said. “I would tell students, ‘You’ll need your faith in whatever field, you study and decide to go into, and you’ll need it after you leave campus.’”