On my first day as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in August of 1978 (aka the Dark Ages) I was somewhat confused. To say the least. While I had pored over the voluminous information about dormitory life that Penn had helpfully sent in a thick envelope (yes, you’ll be sleeping in a minuscule room with a stranger for a year), tried to in vain to puzzle out Wharton’s byzantine description of required courses and electives (that even Wharton’s brochure seemed impossible to master should have been an indication of the difficulty of the business courses lying in wait for me) and, in those pre-Internet days attempted to figure out from assorted flyers and pamphlets what clubs I like to join (The Society for Creative Anachronism--really?) I was pretty addled. Baffled, actually. What would college be like? And: What would I be like in college?
So it was with a wistful sigh that I read The Freshman Survival Guide. I wish it had been around in 1978. Published in conjunction with Bustedhalo, the online young adult ministry run by the Paulists, and written by Bill McGarvey (full disclosure: a friend and frequent contributor to our page) and Nora Bradbury-Haehl, the Guide does the undoable: it prepares incoming freshmen (or, “first-year students”) for the joy and struggles of college life.
Of course it handles (very well) all the things you would expect: academics, relationships, dorm life, homesickness, and all the rest, but it also tackles those topics, and many more, from an overtly spiritual point of view. Its subtitle neatly encapsulates its mission: “Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing and Everything in Between.” E.g.: “Survival Strategy #17: Don’t settle for what you learned as a kid. Explore the riches of your tradition and broaden your horizons to find out about others’ as well. If religious practice was part of your childhood experience, it might remain in your mind a childish thing. Move beyond that and ‘grow up’ your faith.” Not bad advice for a frosh—or anyone for that matter. The book is designed, though, not simply for Catholic students (or lukewarm Catholic students) but any student seeking to be himself or herself in college while simultaneously leading a spiritual life.
The book is also great deal of fun, and I recommend it to your favorite first-year student (or you, if you’re about to enter the groves of academe yourself.) Several Catholic schools have already ordered it by the carload. My very favorite chapter is entitled “How Not to be Gross.” That’s a chapter that some of my freshman-year hallmates could have used, particularly when they…well, I’ll leave that for another post.
James Martin, SJ