Many young people find their college years strengthen their faith

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When college students graduate, it doesn’t necessarily mean they leave with a spiritual void, despite the widespread notion that young people take a hiatus from their religious upbringing during their college years.

Some students find their faith unscathed by the college experience and others even find it significantly strengthened. Ryan Hehman, a 2006 graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington, falls into the second category.

Hehman, who grew up Catholic, said that when he started college he saw people living out their faith more than he had ever experienced. He got involved in campus ministry and participated in a mission trip to Guatemala after his freshman year that turned his “world upside down,” influencing the rest of his college years and even his current work.

“I got so wrapped up in church and faith, that I couldn’t settle for a regular job,” he told Catholic News Service May 17 from A Simple House of Sts. Francis and Alphonsus, a lay missionary apostolate serving the poorest neighborhoods in Washington.

Hehman does not think he is the exception either. “I think the tide is turning,” he said, noting that students on college campuses are living out their faith more fully and are not ashamed to do so. He attributes this shift to the influence of Pope John Paul II and a general trend of young Catholics “looking for something more.”

Abbie Smith, author of “Can You Keep Your Faith in College? Students from 50 Campuses Tell You How — and Why,” published in 2006, said it is possible for students to remain spiritual while they are in college, but it isn’t necessarily easy.

A key way for students to tap into their faith is through campus ministry programs, according to Smith, who graduated four years ago. But the existence of these programs alone won’t make the difference, she said. She stressed that students have to actually meet the campus ministers or “go to the barbeque” sponsored by ministry groups.

Smith, who said she became a Christian during her freshman year at Emory University in Atlanta, told CNS May 11 in a telephone interview from Los Angeles that students don’t have to participate in all campus ministry events to maintain their spiritual foothold. More importantly, she said they should at least link up with someone in the group with whom they can talk about faith issues periodically.

Theresa Sander, a graduating senior at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, agreed that the events themselves aren’t as important as the opportunity to talk about beliefs.

“We help each other on our journey of faith,” she said, particularly of the campus ministry’s discussions on what the church has to say about modern issues.

Father John Sims Baker, chaplain for Catholic students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said the point of campus ministry is “not to stir up more busyness in students’ lives, but to give them the gifts the church has to offer — spiritual direction, the sacraments.”

By offering everything from “prayer and poker” nights, service projects and weekly adoration, he hopes to reach students in all phases of their personal spiritual development, and he is not disappointed when the numbers are down.

As he sees it, the small but committed core group of Catholic student leaders “are the ones who will make a difference to their peers.”

At some schools, these core groups are often the students who end up doing service work after graduating. The University of Notre Dame and Catholic University both held special services during commencement activities to send off students planning to do a year or more of service or entering the seminary or religious life.

But the college faith experience does not seem reserved just for these small groups of students either. Instead, religion seems to be more widespread on campuses.

A Harvard University professor recently told The New York Times that religion is more present now on the university’s campus than it has been in the past 100 years. Across the country, students are taking religious studies classes, majoring in religion and living in dormitories with others who share their faith.

Studies, like those conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, show that more than two-thirds of surveyed freshmen pray and nearly 80 percent believe in God.

College students also have the luxury of something that many working adults do not have to devote to spirituality — time.

“You have a lot more time in college for the 2 o’clock in the morning conversations,” said Smith. “People are more available. You get into debates and discussions on deeper issues of spirituality. There is a lot of freedom in that season of life.”

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Contributing to this story was Theresa Laurence in Nashville.

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