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Off to college? How to keep your faith

First slide

Going off to college is one of the scariest and most exciting parts of young adulthood. Having gone through it recently myself, and now working closely with college students as a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary, I have found that the first few weeks of a new fall semester are unlike any other experience. Freshmen in college have a unique opportunity to begin to split from their families and to decide what is truly important to them. For the first time in their lives, they have a much freer rein to do what they want. They have so many new choices in front of them: what to study, how to spend their free time, what they will eat for dinner and, more importantly, what faith (if any) they will practice.

When I went off to college in the fall of 2014, keeping my Catholic faith was not a priority. I was more concerned with making friends and finding my place at George Mason University in Fairfax. But when I was quickly overwhelmed with all the things I could be involved in and feeling a little homesick, I remembered how important the Catholic center was for my mom when she was in college. She had met some of her best friends there, friends who are now “aunts and uncles” to me. I decided to go to Mass my first weekend at college, even though I was very afraid of going alone. Attending that first Mass helped me get connected with what soon became my home away from home.

The first 168 hours — that first week — of college is a critical time for freshmen. Some schools call it “Welcome Week,” and it is where all of the academic, social, and religious clubs and organizations showcase themselves by tabling outside the student center or hosting big events. During this pivotal week, people decide where they will spend their time and energy outside of class and study time, and who their friends will be. This is not a make-it or break-it moment, but there is some correlation with how students spend time their first week and how they will spend it the rest of the semester.

Attending Mass the first weekend at your Catholic campus ministry will allow you to be able to meet the chaplain, campus ministers, FOCUS missionaries, older students and fellow freshmen. It also opens you up to be invited to all the events that campus ministry has to offer at your school. In the first weeks of fall, there may be bigger, more social events that help you get connected with fellow students while having lots of fun. The chaplain, campus ministers and FOCUS missionaries are at the college to serve you and help you to grow in your faith, so do not be intimidated to introduce yourself if they don’t beat you to it, and even schedule one-on-one meetings with them, especially with your new priest.

If you missed the first week of activities, do not feel like you missed out on being a part of your faith in college. Many Catholic campus ministries have daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration and confession on a regular basis. Check out their website, stop by the Catholic center or house, and find out the times those are offered. Oftentimes, campus ministries host fall retreats for new and returning students. These are great opportunities to get off campus for a weekend, jump into your faith in a new way and meet more students who are striving to be faithful Catholics.

As a student and now FOCUS missionary, I believe the best way to keep your faith in college, make friends and grow in your prayer life is to join a Bible study. I joined one the fall of my freshman year after meeting a peppy sophomore at the first Mass of the school year. She became a great friend and helped launch me into friendships that I still have today. We read the Bible, prayed together and shared lots of life together. The fellow freshmen women in my group became my dinner dates, rec soccer teammates and weekend pals. I walked away each week with more knowledge of my faith and stronger friendships than I had ever had before.

College can be an overwhelming time, especially if you are a freshman. There are numerous opportunities that will want to take your time and attention. Many of these extracurriculars are good things to be involved in, but do not forget to prioritize your faith. When I left college, I had a degree in conflict analysis and resolution, a career field that I love, but I also had a mature knowledge of my Catholic faith, best friends I met at Catholic campus ministry and a yearning for a life full of adventure with Christ.

Chadbourne is a FOCUS missionary at James Madison University in Harrisonburg.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021