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Sound Wisdom to Ponder As Catholic Students Head to College

Campus Catholic community can help students cope, keep faith strong
By Pete Sheehan
Catholic News Service

The first year of college is an adventure for new students as they make new friends, learn new things and take on new challenges, said Joseph Varacalli of Nassau Community College.

But it is also a stressful time, and Catholic students should seek out what parish community is available -- on campus or nearby -- that will help them cope with all kinds of challenges, said Varacalli, who is a sociology professor at Nassau and founder of the college's Center for Catholic Studies.

Many students who are away from their parents and their home for the first time experience homesickness, and many face questions about their faith and the temptations of alcohol, drugs or sexual promiscuity, he added.

"As Catholics, our faith teaches us the importance of community and solidarity," Varacalli told The Long Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

"One of the first things that a Catholic student going off to college should be doing is finding out what kind of community is available," he said.

Varacalli stressed that a Newman Center or nearby parish can be a valuable resource, offering a real, visible, continuing connection to the church as well as ways of finding other like-minded students and activities, such as prayer groups or service projects.

"It's important to find a group of other students who can provide some balance as you are facing the demands and the temptations of this new life," he said. "It can be other Catholics or other Christians or just plain, decent, good-hearted kids who can help support you and who you can offer support to."

While avoiding certain behaviors or overindulgences is a good idea anyway, he said, acting responsibly is also a good way a student can maintain his or her faith life.

"If you are out partying all Saturday night, it might be difficult to get up for Mass Sunday morning," he said, particularly if a student does not have family around to remind or encourage him or her to get to Mass.

Being part of a Catholic community also can be helpful as the student confronts new ideas and sometimes professors who might have little regard for or even hostility toward religion in general and Catholicism in particular.

"Students tend to be influenced by the ideas that are thrown at them. College can be a life-changing time. It's important for the Catholic student to be aware of this and to be prepared," he said. "I'm not advocating an Amish-style isolation. The Catholic approach has been to engage, not run away from different perspectives."

In Missouri, a priest who is director of campus ministry for the St. Louis Archdiocese, also stressed the importance of helping Catholic students keep a strong link to their faith, especially when 90 percent of college-age Catholics go to secular colleges and universities.

Father Gary Braun, who also is director of the Newman Center at Washington University in St. Louis, suggested parents tell their college-bound children about campus Newman centers and maybe help them find the center on their campus.

These centers "tend to have more relevance to the struggles, losses, dreams, work and relationships of college-age people" than many parishes, he added.

But he also emphasized that Catholic college students need ongoing support in their faith from home.

For starters, the priest advised parents to "have a heart-to-heart talk" with their children before they go off to college, sharing with them the importance of the Catholic faith.

He said parents should remind their children that "faith makes life richer. It will not confine their experiences as much as it will enrich them and make their experiences of college all the more meaningful."

The priest pointed out that visual reminders of their faith to keep in their room are helpful to college students, as long as it is "nothing too huge -- dorm rooms are very small -- and nothing they will have to explain every time someone walks into their room," he said. "But something simple and small, perhaps a crucifix that they could place on their desk, could be helpful."

He also advised sending college students spiritual reading material, bulletins from their home parish, or perhaps a monthly periodical or spiritual thought for the day.

"Remember, it has to be brief," he cautioned, "because college students don't have a lot of time to read."