I basically lived at Bed Bath & Beyond in the weeks before moving to college. From memo boards to minifridges, 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 toward something even more important than a college degree—my faith.
Why is it important to explore your faith in college? Young people who engage faith in their late teens and early 20s are doing so at a pivotal time in their development. Moving to college invites a new sense of independence. Mom and Dad are not there to drag you out of bed and into the pews on Sunday morning. Often for the first time young people have the space to say yes, or no, to participating in the life of the church. For those who choose to engage, college can be a wonderful time of spiritual growth intellectually, communally, and emotionally.
Consider all the questions you have about God, religion, and the church. What does the Eucharist actually mean? Why does the church teach that marriage is between only a man and a woman? We believe in one God who is three persons at the same time—what?! Faith is complicated—and made all the more rich when we ask questions and desire to learn more. College campuses are teeming with professors, chaplains, and peers ready to ponder with you.
Having a faith life is also a great way to meet friends who share your values. I met some of my best college friends on a Christian leadership retreat a week before classes started my first year. The young people Pope Francis invited to Rome in March for the pre-synodal meeting told bishops the desire to belong is strong among emerging adults. Campus ministries offer a variety of faith-based activities, from Bible studies to weekend retreats to student liturgies, that naturally build community.
It helps to have a community to lean on when life gets hard. Faith offers support in times of transition and darkness. The college experience is often filled with both. In a 2017 national study of Catholic campus ministry, college campus ministers flagged the severity of the struggles facing students today, particularly in the areas of mental health and pornography. Having a solid faith foundation means you will not have to suffer alone.
These are a few reasons why exploring faith in college is so fruitful. But how do we keep faith at the forefront when there is so much happening on campus? 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. Keep in touch! Ryan, a senior in college, committed to FaceTiming with his parents and sister once a week when he moved to a university 350 miles away. When he landed a spot in a campus a capella group, his parents traveled up for the concerts a few times a year to support Ryan and visit his older brother, who attended the same school. Ryan loves the mixing of his family from home with his family at school.
“It’s been cool because my parents have seen my college friends grow and mature, but it’s also my friends who get excited for my parents to come up and play board games and hang out,” Ryan says.
Not all students are able to connect with their families as frequently. There are times Ryan goes weeks or months without seeing his parents, but he still holds tight to the lessons he learned from them at home.
“I can get hyper-focused on grades and lose sight of the bigger picture of my health and maintaining relationships,” Ryan explains. “During stressful times in high school, my parents would have us go out for family walks or take a break in the city to do something fun. They taught me the need for balance, and I try to live that out now that I’m on my own.”
The transition to college challenges both parents and students. Doctor Jess P. Shatkin of the NYU Child Study Center writes of the steep increase in stress levels of new college students. The academic challenges, social pressures to fit in, and the navigating of newfound independence are a lot for an 18-year-old to handle at once. Shatkin also finds many parents feel a void when their child is no longer at home and they are no longer their primary caregivers. What does it look like to be the mother or father of a young adult?
Heading to college does not have to mean losing relationships from home. To keep your family and friends close, consider packing:
Family keepsakes—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-fashioned 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 body we need to keep it 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 from fraternities to campus clubs to service organizations and more. A study at Purdue University found a strong correlation between involvement in extracurricular activities and academic success. Plus getting involved is a great way to make new friends.
As a junior majoring in theology and sociology, Erynn knew she wanted to get involved in the campus community. She works in her university’s campus ministry office, is part of the liturgy prep team, participates in the spring break service trip program and a devotional group, and holds down an internship. Like many of her peers, Erynn has a lot going on! A spiritual director suggested Erynn view her days as “full” rather than “busy,” and she says that change in attitude has made a big difference.
“I don’t want to just be checking encounters off my list,” Erynn says. “I try to give all my attention to the present moment, whether it is walking to class with a friend, doing homework, or attending a meeting, so that it can be as rich an experience as possible.”
To keep herself balanced Erynn is intentional about prioritizing her basic needs.
“It’s important for me to take it day-by-day and make sure I have all the basics met first,” Erynn explains. “I make sure I have time to eat, sleep, do homework, and pray each day. Then the other activities can fall in more naturally because the basics keep me grounded and energized.”
Navigating present and past communities can be challenging. New friendships require a lot of time and attention—and so do friendships from home. Erynn schedules monthly phone calls with her high school friends to keep those connections strong.
“Intentionally setting aside time for friends from home was helpful because I didn’t have to worry about staying in touch,” she says. “Then I could be more present to the friends I was making in college.”
Dive right into living in the moment 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 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 from 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? During the fall of his senior year, Nic wrestled with whether to pursue a career in nursing or become a Catholic missionary. He prayed about the future, researched his options, and paid special attention to feelings of peace and anxiety. Nic also attended career fairs and shadowed people in both fields. Being proactive with his discernment left Nic in a position to be open to God’s call.
“I know God is a loving, gracious God who wants what’s best for me,” Nic says. “I believe in what Paul wrote to the Romans: ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God’ (8:28). Part of faith is not knowing for certain what will happen, but being able to see that God has been there for me all along and trusting that will continue.”
Nic also relied on the support and wisdom of his friends as he considered his next steps.
“I think I would have gone crazy if I had tried to discern on my own,” he says. “Friends calmed me down and provided a voice of reason when I got tied up in the different possibilities or couldn’t see certain qualities in myself.”
In 2016 the employment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree was 88 percent according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This means there is a good chance that a college graduate will be able to find a job, whether in or out of their field of study. But the stress that comes with graduating does not rest only on finding work. Leaving school is a major transition. Who will my community be now that I don’t live down the hall from my friends? What will I do with my evenings without intermural sports? How will I find meaning in life as I leave my identity as a student behind? First year students are prone to similar uncertainties about dorm life, deciding on a major, and social expectations.
Position yourself to be open to God’s call throughout your time in college 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. Nic suggests even five minutes a day can be fruitful. I had a classmate who used to block off every Tuesday and Thursday from 4–4:30 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, recenter, 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 ministers will host retreats and other programs just for first year students. They will also help you discern your next steps as you inch toward graduation. It’s a great way to have fun and meet other classmates interested in their faith.
College can be an exciting time to explore academics, new friends—and faith. Set yourself up for success by staying close to family and friends from home, giving yourself the space to be present to the opportunities on campus, and trusting that God will be with you as you move into the future.
This feature is an expanded version of a shorter blog post titled “The college freshman’s packing list.” The full version also appears in the August 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 8, pages 28–33).