What do you think about when you hear the words “American college culture”? If you are anything like me as a high school student, this phrase brings to mind two dichotomous, coexisting cultures: long, caffeine-fueled nights in the library and wild, all-night frat parties; high pressure tests with brutal curves and the hook-up culture; 8 A.M.classes and beer pong.
Naively, I had no concept of the fact that college life, much like any other season of life, is filled with incalculable diversity. The archetypal college student of my imaginings makes up only a small portion of the true college experience. Holding up these stereotypes as an ideal made me feel like I was not “doing college right” if I made other choices. I thought that popularity, good grades, and success were the keys to happiness. This left a void that God has gradually filled with His love throughout the triumphs and struggles of my college experience.
College Can Be a Place of Conversion and Reversion
Although I was raised Catholic, I entered college as a self-professed agnostic. I felt that God had no place in my life. Now, as senior preparing to graduate, I cannot imagine my life without God. My reversion to Catholicism was not one filled with dramatic fanfare and sudden epiphanies. Rather, God slowly spoke to me and changed my heart over the course of college.
4 Things I Learned About Faith in College
Although I cannot possibly hope to explain the fullness of how God brought about my conversion of heart or to place a number on the innumerable lessons He has taught me, here are four things I learned about faith as a college student.
1. Learning about the world can teach us about God.
Some of the earliest seeds of my reversion were planted in the unlikely soil of the dreaded 8 A.M. class. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of my first semester, I would hit snooze several times before eventually rolling out of bed to hurry to my theology class. The fact that I always made it on time, with coffee, must have been Divine intervention.
In that class, we read the works of both faithful and atheist philosophers, of both Christian and non-Christian scholars. Some of the most impactful works for me were those of St. Thomas Aquinas. His wise words forced me to contemplate the why of life. I began to wonder if the universe had a purpose, and if so, what was that purpose?
This theology class was a general education course, and the majority of my studies have been focused in the sciences. I have learned about chemical mechanisms, ecological systems, laws of physics, and biochemical pathways. As I study, I believe I am learning more about God’s miraculous creations.
No matter if your major is physics or sociology, political science or English, education or engineering, I believe there is a great deal to be learned about God in every subject.
2. However, learning about the world can only take us so far in our faith.
Thomas Aquinas said:
To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.
Aquinas wisely points out that observations of our tangible world, in most cases, cannot prove to us that God exists. This serves as a constant reminder to me not to rely overly on physical or logical realities to prove the existence of God to others (or to myself in moments of doubt). Although powerful, explanations based in rationality and objectivity can only go so far. Ultimately, prayer and reliance on God are necessary for faith.
3. Excellence, not idolatry.
Last year, I sat down with my amazing and faith-filled friend over coffee. I expressed that I was stressed about the pressure to succeed in my classes, jobs, community involvement, and social life. “Does God really care about my grades?” I asked. Her wise answer came in two parts: no and yes.
We do not have to earn God’s love. It is irrespective of our GPA, internships, and post-graduation plans. Yet, God gave each of us gifts. He has beautiful plans for us, plans that will allow us to best serve our brothers and sisters. This means that we should strive for excellence both in order to show the glory of God to others and in order to fulfill God’s purpose for us in life.
In the interceding year between that conversation and today, I have come to believe that, in order to keep our priorities in order, it is important to always consider why we are striving for excellence. Is our pursuit of excellence enhancing our relationship with God or replacing it? It can be all too easy to idolize achievement, believing that success is all-important, defines us, and will bring us joy. However, this causes us to forget that only God can bring us joy and that nothing can change our innate identity as daughters of God. Although God wants us to strive for excellence, He never wants us to sacrifice our prayer life, our health, or our relationships on the altar of achievement.
4. Community is key.
Halfway through my college years, I found myself at a new university as a transfer student. I feared that the sense of community so easily forged as a freshman would prove more elusive as a junior. Suppressing my apprehension, I attended an activities fair. Hands down, this was one of the best decisions I ever made as a college student.
At the fair, I encountered representatives from my university’s Catholic Newman Center. They welcomed me into their lives. In them, I discovered the community I sought. Through the Newman Center, I have been able to strengthen my faith life through daily Mass, Adoration, community service, and spiritual guidance.
All of this was possible because of my network of close, faithful friends who so warmly welcomed a transfer student into their community. This experience has given me a conviction to seek out a strong faith community no matter where God leads me after graduation.
Let Your Faith Blossom in College!
I have come to believe that there is no “right way” to do college, as long as we are always striving to keep God at the center of our lives. If you are a high school student anxiously awaiting what college holds, take courage in the fact that you do not have to imitate what you think the college experience should look like.
If you are the parent of a college student or soon-to-be college student, take solace in the fact that, despite what popular culture tells us about college, God is present at universities. He is there speaking through professors in the classroom, faithful friends eagerly welcoming others into their community, and campus ministers tirelessly doing the work of God.
If you are a college student yourself, join me in reflecting on the gifts and challenges that God has given us, which will allow us to fearlessly pursue our destinies even after we have flipped our tassels to the left, tossed our caps into the air, and stepped out into post-graduation life.
St. Thomas Aquinas, patron saint of students, pray for us.
Are you a recent college graduate? What did you learn about your faith at university? How are you continuing to implement those lessons in post-grad life?
Rosalie Nolen is a college senior based out of Philadelphia, PA. She spends her free time exploring the city, reading as many books as possible, and searching for that perfect cup of coffee. She is excited to learn what God has in store for her after graduation.