10 tips for college freshmen: Staying connected to your faith

Young people pray in 2012 at the Newman Center-Catholic Student Center on the campus of Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.  (CNS/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)
Young people pray in 2012 at the Newman Center-Catholic Student Center on the campus of Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. (CNS/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

by Jennifer Mertens

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So, you're a college freshman -- finally on campus and tasting the newfound freedom of undergraduate life.

Between going to student life events, professor meetings and library study marathons, you already found the closest coffee shop. IKEA and Target are your new best friends. Maybe you've shrunk a few loads of laundry or overslept without a parent knocking at the door.

Welcome to this new adventure, packed with opportunities for you to challenge and expand yourself in the classroom and the world beyond. As you navigate the independence of college life, don't forget to explore and nourish your faith as well. During these formative years, lots of possibilities are available for growing closer with God.

Consider the tips below:

1. Hang out at your campus ministry center. Your college or university has a central place for you to get plugged into faith life on campus. Catholic campus ministry centers, also called Newman Centers, are worlds in themselves, where you can find such offerings as small faith groups, service opportunities, regular worship and even midnight pizza parties. Take an afternoon: Walk in, check out the upcoming events, and connect with a whole community of fellow students and ministers.

2. Meet your college chaplain or campus minister. Some have offices at the campus ministry or Newman Center -- others may even live in your dorm! Find a chaplain and drop by to introduce yourself. Usually, colleges and universities host ministers from many different religious backgrounds ready to listen, support and walk with you during your college years. Catholic campus ministers may coordinate weekly prayer services or small faith communities. They meet individually with students, host Bible studies and offer great snack food. As invaluable role models and guides, campus ministers can also offer specific resources and suggestions for getting involved on campus.

3. Join a small faith group or intentional community. It's a great way to meet other students interested in reflecting together and growing closer to God. Small groups can focus on any sort of topic, such as Scripture or prayer, and they can be a specific women's or men's group. Your school may also offer the chance to live in community with students who share similar values or interests. For example, St. Louis University offers the Micah Program -- a social justice living community in which undergraduate students study, pray and serve together. Whatever it is, find a community that nourishes and challenges you. Got an idea for a new group? Chat with a campus minister about forming your own!

4. Sign up for a theology or religious studies course. Be prepared for a whole new world to break open. Whatever your area of study, don't hesitate to check out the course listings and find a topic that intrigues you. Whether it's Christology, social justice or comparative religions, the intellectual challenge of the classroom will deepen your faith in unpredictable ways. The church, Scripture, liturgy, the cross: Different elements of our faith will take on new meaning as we fully engage and stimulate our mind. You'll also get the chance to meet peers who are similarly interested in growing intellectually.

5. Find a spiritual director. Hands down, one of the best things you can do for yourself. Especially at a time in life when you're making big choices about your future, it's such a gift to have someone walk with you through all the ups and downs of young adult life. Despite the name, spiritual directors don't really "direct" — but rather accompany you in discerning God's presence and calling in your life. They're like a chaplain, but one with whom you can talk regularly and intentionally. Don't be afraid to meet with a few spiritual directors until you find one that fits. To learn more, check out Spiritual Directors International.

6. Explore other faith traditions and denominations. The high school bubble has popped and the world's your limit. Take these years as a perfect opportunity to learn about other religions beyond your own. Attend a worship service, study group or interfaith event. Seek out and build friendships with people of diverse religious backgrounds. Developing awareness and respect for other religions is critical in today's pluralistic world. As we grow in appreciation for the connections between and uniqueness of various faith traditions, our own Catholic identity can be enriched.

7. Get off campus and serve your local community. There's a world beyond the hundreds -- or thousands -- of 18- to 22-year-olds on your college campus. It's great to connect with peers, but don't lose sight of the many gifts offered by people younger and older than yourself. Explore Catholic organizations and service opportunities. Be intentional about connecting with a multigenerational community. Make a difference by tutoring children, volunteering at a local soup kitchen or visiting a nursing home. Don't get totally caught up in insular college life — continue to expand and explore the world beyond.

8. Take an alternative spring break trip. Want to make a difference this spring break? Sign up to participate on a spring break service or solidarity trip abroad. These opportunities can connect you with the global church, build lasting friendships, and foster your understanding of another culture or spirituality. Oftentimes, Catholic universities offer service trips for students to learn and engage with a specific religious community ministering in another part of the world. You can guarantee that such experiences will be formative and impactful for years to come.

9. Plug into national and global Catholic organizations. There are tons of resources out there. If you're reading this article, you've already connected with the National Catholic Reporter. Check out other Catholic publications and organizations. Pax Christi, for example, often has local university chapters that discuss and engage Catholic social teaching and justice work. Some organizations like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps are geared to support students in living out their faith beyond college. Whatever your interest area, talk with a campus minister or get online -- there are more resources out there then you may imagine!

10. Carve out time for yourself. Talk a walk. Visit the chapel. Journal. Run. Meditate. Whatever it is, take some time just for you. Get to know yourself — your gifts and struggles, hopes and calling. You can get involved in all sorts of faith-based activities, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to how you are able to be real before God. Learn how to take individual time to reflect on your life, yourself and your relationship with God. Nothing else can substitute. This kind of interior reflection is crucial to nurturing your faith through college and the years beyond.

[Jennifer Mertens teaches religion at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati. She holds a Master's of Divinity degree from the Catholic Theological Union.]

This column was previously posted Nov. 15, 2015.

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time a Young Voices column is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 6-19, 2015 print issue.

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