I basically lived at Bed Bath & Beyond in the weeks before moving to college. From memo boards to mini fridges, shower caddies to twin XL sheets, the home goods giant had everything I could possibly need—or at least everything my school’s residential life office told me I needed. Most of it turned out to be helpful at one point or another. (The pink toolbox was a lifesaver on move-out day.) But the items I treasured most in my dorm room were not made of colorful plastic. Instead they pointed me towards something even more important than a college degree: my faith life.
Here are three tips for exploring your faith in college, along with a few items for your spiritual packing list:
First, honor your past. You have at least 18 years’ worth of people rooting you on from home. To keep your family and friends close, consider packing:
- Family keepsake: For many, our families are the ones who introduced us to faith and brought us to church on Sundays. Deck your dorm room with something that reminds you of your family, like a photograph from the Christmas party, a necklace your cousin gave you, or some trinket your grandpa put out every summer. When I left for college, my mom wrote out the bedtime prayer we prayed together growing up and framed it. Each night before I fell asleep, I was reminded of the love that surrounds me.
- Greeting cards: Is there anything better than opening a good old fashion piece of snail mail? Let the people you love know you’re thinking about them from afar by sending a little note. Share a favorite memory or thank them for something they’ve done for you. If you’re looking for an excuse to write, consider the following fun fall “holidays”: Positive Thinking Day (September 13), International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19), and World Smiling Day (October 5). Don’t forget to pack stamps!
- Family recipe: Table fellowship is an important practice in Christianity. One of the last things Jesus did before he died was share a meal. To respect our bodies, we need to keep them well nourished. And while campuses are not lacking in food, there’s nothing like a home-cooked meal in college. If you’re getting sick of dorm cafeteria meatloaf or just craving a little taste of the familiar you can whip out the family recipe card and get cooking. Most dorms have communal kitchens—and your floormates will love you if you share!
Second, be present to your present. Opportunities abound in college. Dive right in with the help of these few things:
- Lock box: You may want a private place to store your passport and other valuables, but I’m suggesting the lockbox also hold something else: your cell phone. It’s easy to get glued to the screen and totally miss the fun in front of you. My Lenten practice during senior year was to put my phone away every night after 8:00 p.m. and not look at it again until the next morning. (Locking it away helped avoid the temptation!) Not only did I sleep much better, but I could be more attentive to my roommates.
- Snacks: The most surefire way to make friends in college? Walk down the hall with a plate of cookies. Or Pringles. Or pretty much anything edible. Sharing snacks is a great way to practice Christian hospitality. Your extra bag of pretzels could give the gals in Room 206 a reason to take a break from biology and meet others your floor. The offering doesn’t need to be anything expensive. When your mom mails you a care package full of popcorn, consider sharing with your new neighbors.
- Mason jar and paper slips: Practicing gratitude is a great way to live in the present. The Ignatian Examen is a prayer that helps make meaning of the experiences and feelings of the day by reflecting on them in gratitude. My sophomore year I adapted the Examen. Each night, I wrote one thing I was grateful for on a slip of paper—a conversation, an experience in class, a meal—and stuck the paper inside a mason jar. I’d open the jar at the end of the semester or on difficult days to remind me of life’s little blessings.
Finally, trust your future. Who knows what will happen during these college years and beyond? Position yourself to be open to God’s call for you with three useful items:
- Calendar: Schedule time with God. It may sound silly, but between classes, jobs, extracurriculars, and social time, days in college can get filled up very fast. Like any strong friendship, a relationship with God takes time to develop. Discerning God’s call takes space to listen and time to talk with God. I had a classmate who used to block off every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:00–4:30 p.m. for God. He scheduled it in his calendar to be sure it happened.
- Courage drops: Trust can be tough. There is always something new that needs discerning—a change in major, a potential relationship, or what life holds after graduation. How can I be sure my decision is good and right? My dad once sent me a pack of mints that he relabeled “courage drops.” He suggested taking a drop anytime I was feeling anxious or unsure. Sucking on the mint invited me to slow down, re-center, and tap into the courage within me.
- Campus Ministry contact information: Getting involved with campus ministry was the best decision I made as a first-year student. Campus ministers are trained in theology and pastoral care. Their job is to support you during your college years! Talk to a campus minister about how the transition to college life is going for you. Attend campus Masses. Go on a retreat. Often, campus ministries will host retreats and other programs just for first year students. It’s a great way to have fun and meet other classmates interested in their faith.
This essay was expanded into a longer feature titled “Packing for college? Don’t leave your faith behind,” which appears online and in the August 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 8, pages 28–33).