This column is addressed to college students, although older people might find it helpful too. Not only is it for those who are about to begin their college adventure, but it is also for those returning for their sophomore, junior, and senior years.
The college experience has the same potential for good or bad as any experience. It can bring you closer to God, or it can take you away from God. The entire experience, every day and all days put together, can act as a door through which you go to God, or it can be a wall that keeps you from God. In religious words, the college experience can be sacramental (with a small “s”), that is, a medium through which you interact with God, or it can be idolatrous, namely, a substitute for God.
Below, I will identify some key problems and challenges you will likely face in college and then suggest solutions to help make college a sacramental experience for you.
In college, time management is a bigger issue than it was in high school. For one thing, there is less structured time in college than in high school. The average college course load entails spending fifteen hours a week in a classroom or lab, which is about half the typical 30 hours per week you spent in your high school classes. Study outside of class, no matter how time-consuming the subject may be (such as architecture), is far less structured than it was in high school. It is pretty much up to you how to spend the 15+ hours a week that you are not in class. Wasting time easily becomes a problem.
Suggestions to avoid wasting time:
- Develop a schedule/routine that includes exercise and healthy eating.
- Get course work done right away and out of the way.
- Put in a 40-hour “work week” that averages 8 hours of class and study time Monday-Friday; this will also help prepare you for life after college.
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep every night.
- Do not over-sleep on the weekends.
Falling Into A Rut
By definition, a rut is doing the same old thing over and over again, whatever the activity may be. Boredom is a related problem to avoid. Reasonable, diverse routines generally do not land you in a rut.
Suggestions to avoid falling into a rut:
- Play video games with others (avoid playing by yourself), and do not play them to excess.
- Get involved in some form of community service, extracurricular activity, or intramural sports; start with the pro-life club.
- Get to know as many members of the opposite sex as you can: friends, acquaintances, study partners, co-ed intramurals, dates.
- Regularly make eye contact with others and say Hi; get good at starting conversations.
- Keep expanding the number of kids you say Hi to by name.
- Relive the good, wholesome parts of your childhood, e.g., kickball, snowball fights, sports, picnics, playground swings, etc.
- Do wholesome things that parents were reluctant to have you do when they were the ones who had to clean up after you or when they were worried about your safety; e.g., take a walk in the rain with friends and splash in the puddles!
- Stay in touch with family and friends and what is important in their lives: do not only text, email, and use social media but also make phone calls and send cards and notes.
- Know your campus and its opportunities: programs, speakers, concerts, spectator sports, theater, landscaped or architectural niches.
- Discover the off-campus world: parks and scenic places, museums and zoos, pro sports, restaurants and coffee shops, political campaigns.
- Get a part-time job if you have the time.
Expand Contact With People Outside Your Age Group
There will never be a time in your life when you spend so much time with people your own age. It is now easy to go through the day with less than four hours of contact with people who are older or younger than college students. I say four hours because you interact with your professors three hours a day on average and then with other college employees off and on for a likely total of less than an hour.
If you are new to college, you will soon discover that dorms and student apartments are raw humanity. You will experience kids being incredibly good to each other (e.g., shaving their heads in solidarity with the kids undergoing chemotherapy), and you will also witness all kinds of foolish, rude, and even depraved actions.
Suggestions for nurturing broad relationships:
- Develop friendships with good kids, whom you will find at Mass and the campus pro-life group.
- Find wise and moral mentors.
- Again, stay in touch with Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins.
- Admit to yourself that you are still maturing and need the kind of wisdom that can only come from years of lived experience filtered through the right values.
Avoid The Peter Pan Syndrome
Just as Peter Pan did want to grow up, you might well be tempted to prolong your youth interminably while turning college into an expensive 4-year (or 5- or 6-year) fun camp.
Suggestions for growing up:
- Start college with the goal that you will become financially independent after you graduate.
- Make getting a good education your first practical priority: combine specialization in a major with understanding the meaning of life.
- Stay informed about current events; you can get subscriptions to “The Loop” from CatholicVote, and “The Daily Signal” from the Heritage Foundation. Both sides of issues are presented on Real Clear Politics. Likewise, PragerU covers issues in 5-minute videos from a Judeo-Christian perspective.
- Be eager to take on the world.
- Take advantage of career counseling, internships/co-ops, interviews, job fairs, etc.
- Talk to instructors in your major about post-college opportunities.
- Keep your room clean. (Yes, really; that’s a grown-up thing to do.)
- Prepare yourself to be a good husband and father, or wife and mother—even if you do not get married, you should have those characteristics.
- Keep reminding yourself that your college years will be over before you know it—the end of each weekend means you are that much closer to graduation.
Get In Touch With God
A friendship with God is like any other friendship—it takes time, energy, and commitment. It can be easy to neglect God, particularly if you are lacking the religious support that comes from a good family environment, a good Catholic high school, or a good parish.
Since the 1960s, there has been very little that is Catholic about most “Catholic” colleges. The Cardinal Newman Society is an excellent resource for understanding what makes a Catholic college truly Catholic and for knowing which colleges currently have a strong Catholic identity.
Suggestions for spiritual growth:
- Make your relationship with God your absolute first priority.
- Never miss Sunday Mass, and attend weekday Mass whenever possible.
- Visit the Blessed Sacrament on weekdays—there are many ways to pray but be sure to relax in the Presence of the God Who understands you and loves you more than you can imagine.
- Pray, reflect on your relationship with God, and/or read good spiritual reading—at least 5 minutes a day—or you will lose your faith sooner or later. If you are looking for prayers to say, try EWTN’s online prayer resource.
- Make retreats and get involved in campus ministry programs, but be careful of weirdo campus ministers!
- If you go to a Catholic college, take theology and philosophy courses that will help you live and think in harmony with Catholic doctrine, including exposing you to the significant but mistaken thinkers (Epicurus, Nietzsche, Foucault) while exposing you to the brilliant Catholic thinkers (Aquinas, Augustine, Chesterton) who can refute any atheistic or anti-Catholic claim.
- Make friends who want to live and discuss the Faith.
- Find good adult mentors.
- Realize that any idea that contradicts Catholic doctrine is mistaken. Be confident in the objective truth of Catholic doctrine since it is product of the Magisterium founded by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, and aided by two thousand years of reflection on Divine Revelation by saints and brilliant theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and other Doctors of the Church.
- Visit good Catholic websites: the US Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB, where you will find the Catechism of the Catholic Church); Daily Mass readings: Catholic humor; the best Catholic student organization (FOCUS); up-do-date Church news (National Catholic Register); perceptive articles about the faith (Catholic Stand); highly intelligent Catholic insight; and so many more.
- Practice Catholic morality, that is, morality in harmony with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Frequently the greatest temptations are of a sexual nature, and org is a tremendous resource.
Don’t Drink The Kool Aid
You need to be fully aware of the intellectual environment of the great majority of colleges. What the American Council of Trustees and Alumni said ten years ago is even truer today:
Professors who once preached objectivity now celebrate subjectivity. The measure is not truth but power—especially the power of one’s [non-white] race, [lower income] class, and [non-male] gender. The aim is not to educate the young to think for themselves but to transform them into ‘change agents’ for the professor’s own brand of social engineering.
You will be pressured to be ashamed of yourself for being white, upper income or even middle income, and/or masculine. You will be pressured to be a “woke,” leftist, “social justice warrior”. Organizations worth investigating to understand what is happening in colleges are the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the National Association of Scholars.
Suggestions for avoiding political correctness:
- Ask wise older students for advice on which instructors to take—namely, professors who have the right values or at least who allow honest and civil discussions and do not penalize students for disagreeing with them.
- Ask good instructors, even if they are not your assigned advisor, for advice on which classes to take or avoid.
- Investigate student-run websites that evaluate teachers.
- Design your own “core curriculum” to try to understand as much of objective reality as you can. Good topics to include are: ancient Greek and Roman literature in translation, Aristotle, the Bible, Shakespeare, the American Revolution, non-European societies before their contact with Europeans, metaphysics and epistemology, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, great novels and poetry, art history, music appreciation, basic economics, intellectual history (the history of ideas), basic finance, conceptual physics, basic biology.
- Keep your common sense!
Scripture Passages For Reflection
I will leave you with some passages from Sacred Scripture over which it would be helpful to occasionally pray and reflect.
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 1 Peter 3:15
Remember: there is always hope for getting your life together or getting it back together. Our Lord always offers forgiveness, especially in the Sacrament of Confession.
And if you conclude that you chose the wrong college, transfer! Or become skilled in a trade or occupation that does not require a bachelor’s degree. God bless you!