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Connection, community key to keeping faith in college

When believing students find connection and community on a college campus -- particularly secular ones such as state universities -- they're more likely to remain faithful, students and campus leaders say.
Mark A. Kellner, Deseret News Modified: August 25, 2014 at 5:16 pm •  Published: August 26, 2014

Elizabeth Campbell said she took a break from things of the spirit when she first arrived at the sprawling University of Missouri campus in Columbia three years ago.

The native of Marshfield, Missiouri — population 6,686 — was just one among 34,000 students caught up in a culture that encouraged exploration, making new friends and finding one's self.

"I didn't put as much effort into my relationship with Jesus as I should have; it wasn't my highest priority," the now 21-year-old international studies major recalled. "I started partying and (doing) other things. In freshman year, if you come up with friends, it's real easy to get caught up in that."

Campbell's detachment from the faith community that nourished her — she was very active in her hometown Assemblies of God congregation — is one of the factors that could lead to a separation from faith while at college, faith leaders say. And many religious institutions respond to that detachment by creating campus ministries that give students a familiar place to reconnect with their faith.

As students explore what may be a highly unfamiliar and stressful setting, religious groups should offer "a sense of hospitality, of forming a community, of welcoming and inviting people," said Barbara McCrabb, assistant director of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"My sense, coming from … the campuses I get to visit is there is a hunger for faith and spirituality and I think the grace of campus ministry is providing a safe and substantive place for those conversations to happen," she said.

College culture

A sociological survey of 38,251 people born after 1960 found that those who hold a bachelor's degree are no more likely to disaffiliate from a religious group than those who do not hold such a degree.

Study author Philip Schwadel of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln told Inside Higher Ed, a "college education is no longer a faith-killer," noting that with more college graduates attending church, it's easier for those in higher education to find congregations of like-minded people.

But students such as Campbell say their problems stemmed from the pressure freshmen often feel to let social life take precedence over spiritual nurture. Coupling that party climate with a natural desire for independence can lead to an estrangement from one's faith, according to one campus minister.

"I think the culture of college in general is to pursue self, kind of selfish desires or ambitions. Not that those are always bad, but college is one of those times when people encourage you to explore," said Nate Tunnell, a minister with Cru, the group formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, who advises student groups at the University of Utah and at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

Tunnell said the desire to explore, coupled with a basic human trait to control one's fate, can lead to spiritual indifference. "We all desire to be God ourselves, go our own way and call the shots. We don't want to have anyone tell us what to do. Human nature is drive for selfishness and self-rule. That leads to all the other areas that students can get in trouble," he said.

In Gainsville, Florida, Rabbi Berl Goldman, a Chabad Lubavitch emissary who serves an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Jewish students at the University of Florida, agrees the new experience of college can lead to spiritual neglect.

"I think they're a little indifferent to many things," Goldman said of some students he's encountered. "I think we could group that with just in general focusing on themselves."

'Desire and hunger'

Acknowledging spiritual challenges, McCrabb also sees opportunities.

"I think the desire and hunger among young adults is prevalent on campus," she said of secular institutions such as Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where she said there's a thriving Catholic outreach. The school is the nation's sixth-largest university, with a student population of 50,000.

At the same time, secular schools can provide a "cultural environment that is not always conducive to a faith experience," McCrabb explained, so "I think there are challenges and real discernment and life questions that young adults on a college campus face."

Addressing those "life questions" is the task of 30 people who work at the St. Mary's Catholic Center at the Texas school, she explained. "They have a leadership team, there are Bible studies and social service projects, faith formation projects — getting ready to receive the sacraments," McCrabb said, noting that 1,500 students come each weekend for Sunday Masses.

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