Campuses prepare to help freshmen keep the faith in college

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 21, 2019

As college students across the country head off to school, whether for the first time or as returning students, campus ministers say they are ready to welcome them to a new phase of their faith lives.

“For a lot of students, it’s the first time they’re given real agency in how they are going to practice their faith,” said Deirdre Kleist, the director of campus ministry at St. Xavier University. “They might feel a little safer asking questions or expressing doubts that maybe before they didn’t vocalize, and we try to offer a safe place for that, while at the same time giving them opportunities to practice their faith.

“That’s either an exciting time to dive in, or it seems like an opportunity to cut out.”

The school welcomes students to liturgies, prayer groups and retreats, and offers plenty of opportunities to serve other people, she said.

“One particular thing that we found resonates with our students is small-group faith-sharing opportunities,” Kleist said. “Typically, we hold a women’s prayer group and a men’s prayer group, rooted in some kind of spiritual reading or Scripture and then shared prayer, that would meet every week.”

The school also offers more informal groups organized around the “three V’s from St. Xavier’s motto: Via, Veritas, Vita” (the Way, the Truth and the Life), she said.

“Each session is organized around a thought or idea,” Kleist said. “For example, one session might be about the idea of ‘home.’ What does home mean to them? What does it mean to be at home? What about being in this new home? What is a spiritual home? Or a session on friendship could include discussion of what friendship is, how the participants’ ideas of friendship have changed over the years, what does it mean to be a friend to God?”

At Dominican University in River Forest, University Ministry offers not just ways for students to stay connected to their faith but also ways to draw others in.

“Not only are we encouraging a good number of students who have really been embedded in the Catholic tradition for most their lives, we’re also encountering students who have very little experience of a faith tradition,” said John DeCostanza, director of University Ministry. “We’re encouraging a lot of young adults to grab on to something that they haven’t been introduced to. We can be an on-ramp for their faith lives.”

But it only works if ministers are able to meet the students where they are at — “not where we think or imagine they should be,” DeCostanza said — in their faith lives.

Dominican’s University Ministry works with paid peer ministers, he said, because students respond most readily to other students who can share their own faith journeys.

“One of the reasons I think it’s critical to have students minister to other students is that one of the best ways to grow in the depth of your faith is to accompany others as they are growing as well,” DeCostanza said. “It offers our student leaders the opportunity to share faith with their peers, but also to think about the way they create spaces for students with a broad spectrum of faith experiences.”

Father Andrew Liaugminas, director of Calvert House, the Catholic campus ministry at the University of Chicago, said his ministry also is looking to students to invite one another to small groups to help members find a sense of belonging. The University of Chicago has more graduate students than undergrads, and most students take their academic and intellectual careers very seriously.

Because of that, Calvert House welcomes everyone from first-year college students who have never lived away from home before to adults trying to nail down their doctorates after more than a decade of studying.

To help students find community, Calvert House is organizing small groups based around different groups on campus: medical students, for example, or graduate economists or astrophysicists. Those groups can set their own meeting times and talk about their faith as it applies to their chosen fields. They can also, if they choose, invite peers who are not Catholic who might be interested, Liaugminas said.

Having students at all levels engage their peers appeals to students at the University of Chicago, Liaugminas said.

“We’re very conscious that the University of Chicago encourages students to take on questions, to engage with thinkers and go deep into their reading and take ownership of their ideas,” Liaugminas said. “We want them to engage the questions of their faith and to take ownership of their faith.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities for first-years to be engaged and involved, Liaugminas said. Undergraduates can be part of the Catholic Student Association, a university-sanctioned club.

“There’s something irreplaceable about the whole communal nature of the church,” Liaugminas said. “When students invite others in, it’s a whole community that we form.”

Because of that, he said, everyone is responsible for evangelization.

Calvert House has found success not only at strengthening the connection Catholic students have to their faith, but also in attracting other students, so much so that it is running its own RCIA program.

Kleist said that she hasn’t found the need for a full RCIA program at St. Xavier, but that the campus ministry there prepares about a dozen students each year who were baptized Catholic for confirmation, and they prepare another handful for First Communion as well.

“If anything, it’s Catholic students who get reinvigorated in their faith,” Kleist said. “I hope we’re offering an opportunity for them to be a little more on fire.”

That doesn’t mean that everyone who attends campus ministry programs is Catholic. The university does not track students’ religious identification, and all campus ministry programs are open to all.

“We do want to make sure folks are comfortable hearing things from a Catholic perspective, to be in an environment where there will be prayer,” she said.

Saint Xavier has a diverse population, including a growing population of Muslim students. Learning about other students’ faith has led some Catholic students to become more interested in their own.

“It’s something they didn’t realize they were passionate about until they heard students from other faiths sharing their perspectives,” Kleist said.

Dominican also works with students of other faiths, including hiring a Muslim peer minister to work on interfaith efforts and hosting open prayer services where, for example, the president of the Saudi student club shared a prayer in the Islamic tradition after last year’s mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques.

Recognizing that 60% of its students are commuters, Dominican also has peer ministers whose job it is to go out into largely Hispanic and African-American communities where many of those students live, DeCostanza said.

About 70% of Saint Xavier students commute, and the campus ministry there also is working to build more of a connection between students’ families and their university-based faith communities, Kleist said.


  • colleges and universities
  • campus ministry

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