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Over the last few weeks, millions of recent high school graduates left home for the first time to begin college. For these students, the next four years will be filled with exciting new experiences and opportunities. But adjusting to these changes, on top of the responsibilities of being a student, can be a lot to juggle, especially in the first months of transition.

How do you keep things in perspective and maintain a faith life when you are trying to figure out new friends, new freedom and the location of your classes? As recent college graduates—and as America’s newest cohort of O’Hare Fellows—we are here to offer a few suggestions.

Jillian Rice
Fordham University ‘22

Go to Mass, even if it’s not what the cool kids are doing.

Churches on campus or near colleges and universities usually offer Masses at times that are convenient to college students—there is no need to wake up at 7 a.m. on a Sunday unless you want to! I usually went on Sundays at 5 p.m., when everyone else was settling in to do the homework they had been putting off all weekend. I never found that attending Mass at this time meant missing out on group hangouts, because my friends were all working or studying at that time anyway.

And chances are you will meet new people at Mass. And they’re all either in the same boat as you or have been there before, living away from home for the first time and trying to navigate being Catholic in a new place. Your shared faith will automatically give you something to bond over, and something that offers more tangible connections than icebreakers with randomly assigned groups during orientation.

It can seem like the hour for Mass can be hard to carve out, but when you think about it, you’ll likely spend a lot more time per week on your physics homework than you do at Mass, so it’s not a huge time commitment by comparison.

What’s most important is not the amount of time you pray or the words you say, but just the fact you’re doing it.

My school also offered midday daily Masses during the week. When I had a 1 p.m. test, I found it calming to go to Mass beforehand, rather than cramming more information into my head that likely I wouldn’t be able to remember anyway. By going to Mass, I could remind myself that there’s much more to the world than this test (which still felt like a huge deal at the time).

Get into a habit of prayer, and stick to it.

In grade school, we prayed the Angelus every day after recess at noon. When I was 12, I felt it was cringe-worthy that we were required to say this 3-minute prayer all together. But the image of Gabriel speaking to Mary, and the fulfillment of God’s promise through her, has always been a beautiful one to me. So freshman year of college, I put my Fitbit’s vibration-notification setting to good use: I set a silent alarm for every day at noon (when the Angelus is traditionally prayed) and would pray it at that time.

Did I pray the Angelus every day? No, but I definitely said it more often during the time of my life when I had that notification going than I had at any other point since Mrs. Adams was leading my grade school class in prayer.

College is a time when you feel like reinventing yourself—resolving to get homework done early, exploring the new place you live, meeting new people—but that can get overwhelming very quickly. Setting an alarm that reminds you to stop and pray is a way of creating a moment for stillness in the midst of the busyness. Other times of the day might work better for you, but for me, noon worked best. I was often advised to pray first thing in the morning, but my brain isn’t functioning enough at that hour to do anything but make sure I haven’t slept through class or work. At noon I’m always awake but not always busy.

What’s most important is not the amount of time you pray or the words you say, but just the fact you’re doing it.

Christopher Parker
University of Notre Dame ‘22

Keep searching for community.

I went to a university where community was a huge selling point. The administration constantly emphasized group identities and togetherness, from sports teams to faith life. There was this unspoken assurance that college is a place where everyone finds their people. For a long time, I wrote that off as marketing language. Part of me still does.

Relationships sometimes develop slowly and require vulnerability that just can’t be rushed.

Looking back on my time in college, though, I realize how formative my search for community really was. I made lots of interesting and fun friends over my four years, and I remain in touch with many of them. But it took a long time to find people I felt at home with people who challenged me, struggled with me and sought answers to the big questions with me. Relationships sometimes develop slowly and require vulnerability that just can’t be rushed.

And often you can’t predict where or how those friendships will happen. During the pandemic, I slowly became closer with guys from one of my clubs. The isolation of that year and limited social opportunities created chances for us to know one another better. I decided to take a risk and move in with them for my senior year. It was the best choice I made in college. We made new friends together and built a tight community.

Nobody’s path looks the same. Maybe you will find your best friends at first-year orientation, and you’ll know immediately that these are people you feel at home with. But if you haven’t found those people yet, don’t stop trying. The truth is, you might be surprised by where your true community will come from and what it will look like. Take risks, start meaningful conversations and be patient. It might be scary or disheartening at times, but you will come to know yourself far better than you could alone.

Don’t give up on your faith when you get busy.

When I was growing up, I was not especially religious, even though I attended parochial school and went to Sunday Mass weekly. Catholicism felt like more of a cultural identity to me than it did a belief system. In high school, though, I started engaging with Catholicism as a religion. Christian ethics and especially ministry to the poor gave me a feeling of real connection to others and God.

I was excited to see where that would take me in college. But instead that connection started to fade out. I had a lot more freedom and a lot less free time. I buried myself in new clubs, new friendships and new academic challenges. I seldom prioritized the spaces that had helped me develop spirituality, the soup kitchens and retreat centers.

I think that’s my biggest spiritual regret of college: I stopped engaging with my faith.

For a while I kept up with weekly Mass, but it felt empty without also participating in other opportunities for service and spirituality, those practices that had really galvanized me. Once the passion was gone, problems I had with the institutional Catholic Church pushed me away from the faith. When the pandemic hit during my sophomore year, I stopped actively practicing my faith.

I think that’s my biggest spiritual regret of college: I stopped engaging with my faith. I felt I was too busy for the activities and conversations from which I had drawn my passion, and only re-engaged with my faith right at the end of college. Today, I still have questions about and struggles with the church, but I am seeking out those faith and service activities that once inspired me and seeking out those conversations again.

My advice is not to give up the spaces that energize you spiritually. If you want a quiet place to pray, make time for that. If you need challenging and thoughtful conversations, seek those out. If you feel you’re closest to God when you’re serving the poor, find those opportunities. Give yourself the room to keep growing.

Cristobal Spielmann
Loyola Marymount University ‘22

Work at staying connected.

I started and ended my undergraduate career with in-person classes and the ability to physically be on campus. In between was about two years of Zoom classes. Initially, I thought the transition back to life on campus would be easy.

But upon returning I was surprised to find it hard to get back into my old pre-pandemic habits. My freshman year, I was a moderately social student, but in my senior year I became an extremely withdrawn one. I barely went to the on-campus Masses I had once regularly attended. I felt so out of sync with the clubs and friends with whom I once might have gladly spent time with that I found it hard to be around them. I frequently spent days not talking at all.

Remember that social health is as important as mental and physical health, and try to stay connected.

Some of this behavior might have just been lingering pandemic habits of staying home and avoiding other people. And some desire for alone time is natural. However, I also believe my self-imposed isolation was a major contributor to me feeling genuinely unhappy for a good portion of the latter half of my college experience. With no one to talk to or to bond with through an opportunity like Mass or an extracurricular club, it felt as though I trudged through the experience on my own, even if I had colleagues and friends by my side.

Entering college this year, your situation will obviously be different from mine—I hope you will not have to face another campus shutdown. But if you can, remember that social health is as important as mental and physical health, and try to stay connected. And if you are finding it really hard, don’t hesitate to talk to someone about it, a counselor or a faculty or staff member. You don’t have to go through it alone.

Don’t be afraid to use your voice to advocate for what matters to you.

While it is important to enjoy your time at college and be thankful for an opportunity that is unavailable to many, it is also important to make your voice heard on issues that impact you and your community on campus. But it’s also important to remember that one can offer feedback without being dogmatic.

For instance, during my last year of college, I saw the right to free speech being challenged on campus. I helped to highlight portions of the university codes that did not adequately protect free speech and wrote pieces for the college newspaper highlighting situations where I believed that the university and student body failed to uphold freedom of expression.

It is important to have a sense of perspective and to advocate using facts and charity. Finding like-minded people who are also fighting for causes that are important to you, especially fellow students, can be a good way to find community.

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