As a high school student, Matthew Fernandez was active in his parish’s youth ministry programs. He volunteered in service activities and talked about his faith so often that his classmates looked to him as a spiritual leader. He assumed that he had his religious life figured out as he began the shift from high school into adulthood.
That is, until he enrolled at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. Although Fernandez remained involved as a volunteer with his family parish, he had a hard time finding Catholic friends his own age with whom he could speak vulnerably.
“I wasn’t being spiritually fed,” he says. “During my first semester I was called into a lot of difficult situations that required me to use my faith to help others. I was giving of myself, but I wasn’t receiving anything back.”
After a few months, Fernandez began to struggle with family and relationship issues. He started to feel a kind of “spiritual dryness.”
“I felt like I had nothing to show for anything, and I didn’t feel like I had anything to feel proud of,” he says.
It wasn’t until Fernandez became involved in the Newman Catholic Center at University Heights at nearby Rutgers University that things began to turn around.
“The Newman Center helped me realize that I needed to start again with my relationship with God and that I needed to mature in my faith as I was approaching a much different atmosphere in college,” Fernandez says. “I was able to get back into the rhythm of prayer and carry over what I learned about my faith into what I needed to do in school.”
Two years later, Fernandez now attends Rutgers, where he is pursuing a degree in humanities with a focus in English literature. He credits the Newman Center for helping his faith grow during what would have otherwise been a lonely time in his life. Yet he also knows that his experience was a lucky one: He wouldn’t have even known about the Newman Center if a friend hadn’t mentioned it to him. Without a Catholic support network in which to confide, he might have fallen even further away from his faith.
Fernandez’s experience is far from unusual in the United States, where the vast majority of community college campuses have little or no Catholic pastoral presence. According to a 2017 study from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education only 1 in 60 community colleges have a Catholic spiritual presence on campus. This is a sharp decline from traditional four-year colleges and universities, where Catholic ministry programs are active at 1 in 4 campuses.
Data from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center show that approximately 6.1 million students were enrolled in two-year colleges in the fall of 2017. When you consider that these students are statistically more economically, ethnically, and racially diverse than those at four-year colleges and universities, it is easy to see the lack of ministry programs as a missed engagement opportunity for the church.
So why aren’t there more Catholic ministries for community college students? That’s a question the USCCB’s Secretariat of Catholic Education is currently seeking to answer.
Compared to four-year colleges and universities, “community colleges are complicated,” says Barbara Humphrey McCrabb, assistant director for higher education for the secretariat.
In addition to being more diverse, community college students also vary widely in age and life experience. While many enroll right out of high school, others have returned to school after having spent years in the workforce.
“The vast majority of community college students are working at least part time or even full time,” says Father David Frederici, diocesan director of campus ministry for the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, home to both Cape Cod and Bristol community colleges. “Many students have children of their own, and they tend to be a bit older than traditional college students. A lot of these students go from the car to the classroom and back to the car, so it can be very difficult to reach them.”
Ministry efforts at a community college are a “struggle” by their very nature, says Frederici. Using the same ministry models that work at four-year colleges is often a mistake, because the student populations and needs are so different.
All of these factors can seem daunting for diocesan ministry offices, which often have limited resources to minister to a wide variety of populations, including young adults, high school students, and families.
“When we think about campus ministry, a diocese is going to look at, ‘Where is the greatest bang for my buck and where will I see the greatest impact?’ ” says Humphrey McCrabb. Colleges and universities that are home to thousands of residential students can feel more accessible than community colleges, where students are rarely gathered together in one place.
“If a bishop looks at the University of Maryland, he’ll see 40,000 students who live there and are a contained audience. He can come to the chapel and see 200 people or more for Sunday Mass. That’s an easy reach,” Humphrey McCrabb says. “But if he looks at Montgomery College, he sees there’s a pretty sizable enrollment, but they’re not all in one place, and they’re not all walking through the commons for lunch. It’s a place that kind of puzzles us, like, ‘How do we get in there?’ ”
One of the largest challenges in setting up a ministry, Frederici says, is establishing a sense of continuity. Colleges always require a certain number of members before they will recognize a student organization. While a campus minister might be able to start a Catholic club on campus with 10 members, maintaining the numbers required to keep the club active over time can be a challenge.
“When you’re at a four-year school, it’s easy to think year to year in terms of programming, but here you have to think semester to semester because students will often transfer or take a semester off,” he says. “It’s not always going to be the traditional two-year stint because some students will take the classes that they can afford. That leaves a great difficulty in getting clubs formed.”
Community college outreach has also proved challenging for Father Bismarck Chau, chaplain for the Newman Catholic Center at University Heights, at which Fernandez was an active member. That center serves the students of Rutgers University in Newark, the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), and Essex County College. While the Newman Center holds regular events on both the Rutgers and NJIT campuses, it currently has no active presence at Essex.
“They require at least 10 student members to have a club at any university,” Chau says. “We’ll have campus ministers go there and try to recruit, but if we can’t get the numbers we can’t have a club or hold any events there.”
The alternative option, which Chau’s team currently does, is to invite interested students to Newman Center activities at other campuses. Although they don’t reach many students this way, Chau estimates they might involve one or two students per year. While better than nothing, this approach can still leave students like Fernandez feeling isolated or unsupported at their own colleges.
“It was a little sad going into my college environment and not having anyone to discuss what I was experiencing,” says Fernandez. “I couldn’t speak about matters of faith on my own campus.”
Frederici believes the church should have a presence on community college campuses for the same reasons it would have a presence on a battlefield, in a police department, or at a hospital.
“Fundamentally, the Catholic Church has always been wherever people are,” he says. “Community colleges all stress the holistic development of the person, and we have such a rich intellectual tradition. It would be a shame to go through the whole higher education system and miss out on learning about spirituality. It’s critical that we’re there to be that support, even if it’s not easy to do.”
The backbone of campus ministry
One key to setting up successful ministries, Frederici believes, is to start conversations with students to find out what their spiritual needs actually are and what kind of engagement they are interested in. Often, he says, students might not recognize the need for religion or what the Catholic faith has to offer.
“They think that religion is an hour at church,” he says. “A lot of ministry is helping [students] recognize the spiritual side of life—that we are spiritual beings and our intellect plays a role as well as our hearts.”
Humphrey McCrabb says she’s inspired by the actions of Pope Francis and how he encourages people to pursue evangelization in new and creative ways. She believes one model that could work at community colleges would be for campus ministers to set up new alliances with nearby parishes or preexisting young adult ministries. She also thinks Catholic faculty and staff should be involved in ministry programs to lead students by example.
“The permanence and stability of a community college lies in the faculty—how they build community, how they work together, and how they continue their own faith journey,” she says.
Full-time campus ministers with the spiritual maturity to support both students and faculty members are often hard to find, Humphrey McCrabb says. In the meantime some college ministries succeed thanks to the good examples of Catholic professors. That is certainly the case at Manchester Community College in Manchester, Connecticut, where English professor James Gentile has taken on the role of faculty advisor for the Newman Club for several years.
“I’m not officially a campus minister and I’m not trained as a minister, but I’ve certainly taken courses in theology and philosophy and I’m very active in my parish,” Gentile says. “I think that’s a model that the church needs to think about. A faculty member can positively support students’ faith lives on campus.”
As a club advisor, Gentile is in charge of establishing a constitution and maintaining active numbers so that the student senate approves the club. He also has to work toward certain organizational goals: keeping students engaged as leaders in the larger community and participating in service activities.
“I look at each of these goals from a Catholic perspective,” Gentile says. “I think about how I can develop future Catholic leaders and what skills I am giving them to work through challenges and communicate effectively.”
As a full-time faculty member, Gentile can serve as an advocate for his students and their spiritual needs on campus. While community college students are more likely to live at home and have access to a parish community for Mass, Gentile believes they benefit from a Catholic support system to lean on when the stress becomes too much.
Gentile says his membership numbers vary greatly year to year.
“I can have a year where I will have 12 really active students and then a year where I have four,” he says. “That’s a challenge that comes with being at a community college, but you have to be present for the students who are present with you. You can’t think of how many students you have. You have to think about the students who are there and the ones you may not even know you’re touching.”
Jacqueline Reiss, a junior at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, served as the president of Manchester’s Newman Club for two years before transferring in 2018. She remembers the club as “an amazing opportunity and a blessing,” despite its small size compared to the colleges where some of her friends were studying.
Having come from a home-schooling environment, Reiss was grateful for the support she received as she transitioned into a secular college environment. As part of the club, she participated in service activities and pro-life demonstrations as well as weekly rosaries and prayer gatherings. She found friends with whom she could carpool to Mass on holy days. She also gained more confidence to speak about her faith publicly.
“Everyone deserves to know Christ,” she says. “He didn’t just come for the people who already know him. He came for everyone, and campus ministry can really facilitate that on college campuses. College is the time when students really have the freedom to discover who they are. If there’s a way to bring about an encounter with Christ, whether that’s through friendship or an intellectual discussion, it could change a person’s whole trajectory.”
Even though a lack of resources can be a problem for community college ministries, Reiss believes church leaders can engage with students in inexpensive ways by simply building relationships.
“I don’t think it’s about the money,” she says. “You don’t need to have a good conference, although those are great and valuable. The backbone of campus ministry should be people getting together and having deep conversations.”
Catholic and proud
Deep conversations among friends is exactly what is at the heart of MC Catholic, a student-run Catholic club at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland. The club serves as an example for how beneficial even small community college ministries can be. It has had numerous iterations over the years, even going inactive at various times when student leaders transferred or moved on. Most recently, it was restarted in the fall of 2017 by Emmanuel Ibanez, a second-year nursing student.
In order to be an officially recognized club, MC Catholic must have a core group of officers, each with a certain number of credits and a good GPA. To fulfill those requirements, Ibanez and his classmates, Carl Gabriel and Mark Angelo “Mico” Gorres, make the rounds to all of their friends each semester, looking for members to join so that the club can stay operational.
“Most meetings it’s four of us, or sometimes just us three, but we still go on, we do the talks and we say the prayers,” Ibanez says. “It keeps us accountable and builds our bond.”
Gabriel says that MC Catholic has been a kind of social touchstone, allowing him to make friendships on campus while also finding spiritual and academic support to help him meet his goals.
“It’s really hard to stay focused and put God first while you’re at school. Sometimes it can feel like nobody understands what you’re going through,” Gabriel says. “It’s reassuring to know that these people understand my struggles and that they are also running toward the same goals as me.”
A common mind-set among students is that community college is just a pit stop on the way to a different school and career, Gabriel says. That was certainly the mind-set he had at first. Only after getting involved with the club did he realize that his years at Montgomery College could be a time for rich spiritual growth.
“Sure, I’m here for school, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up a social life or a faith life,” Gabriel says. “Being able to open my mind has really changed how I view a lot of things. It’s about strengthening your faith but also making sure you don’t lose yourself in your day-to-day lives and activities.”
In the future, Ibanez says, he would like to see MC Catholic partnering with local parishes and young adult ministry groups to spread awareness, but it’s hard to plan ahead when the club population changes every year. As he prepares to transfer to another campus in the fall, he still isn’t sure if a new class of members will arrive to keep the club going.
In the meantime, he and his friends aren’t giving up on their ministry. Both Ibanez and Gorres enjoy being able to represent their faith during campus events such as the annual Club Fair.
“When we’re out there tabling, it’s like we’re saying, ‘We know that we’re still small, but we are here,’ ” Gorres says. “It’s a great chance for us to say, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do, and this is what we believe in.’ ”
“It also makes a statement,” says Ibanez, “that we’re Catholic and we’re proud. There are quiet Catholics on campus, but I think they will see, ‘These guys are really open about their faith.’ Maybe other people will think, ‘I can try that,’ or, ‘What do they have that I don’t?’ ”
This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 9, pages 28–32).
Image: Unsplash cc via Nicole Honeywill