The university system today has, in many respects, lost its head. Consequently, the goal of this post is to explain to soon-to-be college students just how to avoid losing their own.
Since the dawn of the university in the High Middle Ages there have been students who were more interested in partying than in academic rigor. Not much has changed since then. The freedom that college affords is a challenge to any young man or woman’s previously held moral values. This, of course, is not a bad thing in and of itself, because every child must eventually learn how to govern their own life. However, what is not good in many instances is that many of the safeguards that formerly existed are not in place any longer, thus it is all the more necessary to have your wits about you as a student.
This post is dedicated to upholding those aforementioned wits. Please do not assume because I have failed to mention everything I could (e.g. not cheating, getting enough sleep, eating well, etc.) that I deem those unimportant. Clearly all of those things are necessary for obtaining a good education, nevertheless I have chosen these specific examples in order to highlight certain personal insights I gleened while doing undergraduate work at UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Chapel Hill. Incidentally, I am presenting this as a Catholic who lives in the United States, so some of these may need to be adjusted according to one’s own frame of reference.
Don’t miss this great talk titled “Having fun as a Catholic in College” by Fr. Searby.
I remember my first year at college- a friend of mine used to tell me to wake him up for class in the morning. He went about fifty percent of the time, and on one occasion even missed a test because he decided to sleep in instead of slogging it to class. This guy was decidedly smarter than I was, but by the end of the first year he had a 1.7 GPA. At college, I viewed attending class as a kind of lowest common denominator path to success. If I did nothing else, I promised myself, no matter how late I stayed up, that I would not miss class the next day. If I wanted to succeed at all, I had to be at least disciplined enough to show up for my classes. That is at least half of the battle when no one is there to force you to do anything. Indeed, not only is it worthwhile from a practical standpoint (99% percent of what’s on the test generally comes from the notes in class), but it is the simplest and most basic way to keep your mind and body disciplined and oriented towards goal of getting a good education.
Do not underestimate the value of your professor putting a name with a face. Beyond introducing yourself, be sure to ask him or her a question about the material. This will establish two things: the teacher will be flattered that you took the time to further inquire into what they are teaching, and secondly, it alleviates some of the alienation that can occur between both student and teacher in some of those large freshman courses. My general experience was that anytime I was active in a class- coupled with a professor knowing specifically who I was- it tended to make a positive difference in my final grade. Even in the classes where I had disagreements with my professor, my grade was usually about a letter grade higher than my test scores suggested. That doesn’t mean that you should be overbearing, or appear to be stalking them; it only means that in a very basic way it is good to let them know who you are.
The key to any real happiness in this life is gratitude. If you would prefer to be miserable instead, then become an ingrate. In any case, gratitude is not merely some vague sentiment of thankfulness, it involves a real response, a desire to in some way make a return to the one whom you claim to be grateful to. You may claim to be grateful that your parents have spent all of this money to send you to college (if that is indeed the case), but what evidence is there for that? If you get to college and behave like a slack sloth, it doesn’t matter how grateful you feel, you are in truth an ingrate. There is however an easy remedy for this. You can show gratitude to your parents by working hard and excelling, not merely at the art of napping, but in striving for academic and personal excellence. As for those who must pay for their own college education, there is hardly a need to remind them to get their money’s worth, for they know well the real cost of education!
Whether or not you are rooming with someone you know or not, you will both need to lay some ground rules the first few days. Do not believe that because you are friends with a roommate beforehand that you are absolved of this duty. Much can happen in a year at college that can quickly work against this presumed harmony. From boyfriends or girlfriends always hanging around the room, to bad hygiene, to alcohol and/or drug use, there are any number of ways this can go afoul. Indeed, such communication is indispensable. The room must be a place of common ground, a “safe space” if you will, not a place where rage and anger build (and they do). Set up some clear ground rules. Devise a system wherein you can discuss, not passive-aggressively, what is eating at you. I am not saying this because I succeeded in this regard, I am saying this precisely because I failed at it.
It is incredibly easy to start canonizing yourself when you compare your own behavior to that of others. However, you should resist this temptation at all costs. This mistake is understandable, especially when one compares one’s self to a drug addict or a death row inmate. God does not measure us on the standards of our neighbor, because we are not our neighbor. Do not pat yourself on the back because “at least you go to church once a month when everyone else doesn’t go at all.” In your case God may count the two as equivalent. And do not pat yourself on the back because everyone else is promiscuous, while you at least you only have one sexual partner. God knows it is easy to do this, especially when it seems that there are so few around you that even consider the value of chastity. It is for this reason specifically that Christ has left us an immutable standard- a rock- amidst the shifting sand of college.
When you get to college you may experience a form of insecurity you haven’t experienced in years. Consequently, you may be tempted to present a version of yourself that is not exactly consistent with who you really are. Without a doubt the friends that you choose to associate with will define whether or not you grow in your years at college, or whether you stagnate. If you choose the better portion, then you need to prepare yourself, especially early on, for some feelings of isolation and loneliness. It may initially be difficult to meet other individuals who share similar values. This can be a real source of temptation for one who is trying to stay on the right path. Obviously, the degree of difficulty here will depend largely on the type of school you attend. At any rate, presuming that you are trying to meet the right people, may require some real fortitude and patience. The easiest thing to do (though not the easiest thing from a moral standpoint) is to try not to lead a double life, but rather to stay true to what you know to be right, and if anything should pull you from that, get rid of it. This does not mean that you need only hang out with people that are blatantly religious, but it does mean that your relationships should have a certain distinct character to them. First, they should be centered around mutual interests that go well beyond the party scene. If you base your friendships primarily on your mutual affinity for parties, you can be assured that your friendships will be similarly shallow and fleeting. Base them on things that really matter to you. Secondly, as much as possible, find individuals, groups, and/or organizations (i.e. the “Newman” Center) that are like-minded. While there is plenty of opportunity for “diversity” at college, what you will need in order to sustain you is some real solidarity. Simply put, if you try to maintain your faith and values at college without this kind of companionship you will most assuredly fail.
One of the most dangerous vices that one is tempted to cultivate at college is the sin of sloth. When I say this, some may be led to think I mean academic laziness, which is true enough, but in this particular instance the emphasis is on a general inactivity. Much like a high schooler who is the beneficiary of a tremendous amount of leisure wealth, too much free time spent inside the walls of a dorm can start to turn the mind towards unsavory things. In such a circumstance an individual knows that he must give his mind, body, and soul a little fresh air. Either a man or woman will transcend those walls in a literal sense, or they will seek to fly through them with some sort of intoxicant. (For some that “intoxicant” may include pornography). The best and healthiest way to get some fresh air for the mind is to develop some real and substantive interests. One can develop these interests in any number of ways. Perhaps the simplest and most basic way is to look at the things that you are already interested in- exercise, movies, art, faith, music, friends, etc. You need not reinvent the wheel here. Maybe there is something you always wanted to learn about, but formerly never had the time or opportunity to explore. Now is the perfect time. The more that you have something real going on beyond those dorm walls, the less apt you will be to reduce yourself to a mindless- inebriated- couch sitting- lemming.
If you find yourself bragging about the amount of alcohol you have consumed, or declaring shamelessly to everyone just how “wasted” you are as you mill around like a zombie, then you can be assured you are going in the wrong direction. This is not to say I am against beer, wine, and whiskey altogether, what I am against is the worshipping of the silver keg like it is the golden calf from Exodus, along with substituting real friendships for nights and people that you can hardly remember (nor would you care to). In this world of strange and shadowy gods, one finds one’s self considerably less inhibited when it comes to compromising one’s ideals. To those who wish to be truly great, do not descend into the bowels of this kind of abyss, for the exit can be remarkably hard to find. Once you go down this road, it is more than a little difficult to return to the days and nights that (however falsely) seem drab and boring by comparison. I do not mention drugs in this particular example because the advice I offer is based on managing your life at college, and drugs are not manageable at all.
By “hook up” here I do not mean sexual intercourse per se, but rather the general act of “making out” or “fooling around”, which I suppose would involve just about everything else. There is an obvious connection between this and the previous example on the list (viz. drinking alcohol) because they oftentimes work hand in hand. Alcohol serves as a useful tool for anyone seeking to lower their standards. In fact, what alcohol does is to essentially tie up and bind our conscience, so that it dare not interrupt us while we are engaged in the act of “hooking up“. What concerns me the most about alcohol is not so much that it inebriates those who drink it, but the peril that generally accompanies the aforementioned inebriation. Like sex, when alcohol is misused, it is highly flammable. If one is drinking a glass of wine with their family at a Thanksgiving dinner that is one thing, but it is quite another to get intoxicated at a fraternity party and then stumble around aimlessly until you ultimately pass out on some stranger’s bed. I say this especially to girls, for they are the ones that usually put themselves in the gravest danger by doing this. You could fill volumes of books with stories of sorrow and dismay on the part of women who wake up only to discover, much to their horror, that some stranger is there beside them, or even worse, that some stranger (or acquaintance) has violated them. In either case, the woman is violated. If you go into a house with strangers, the last thing you should do is to chemically deactivate your good senses. Of these I can only say, if you can’t bear to do the same thing while sober, then let that be a sign that you shouldn’t be doing it at all.
This particular bit of advice is more positive than the previous, for it involves not just discussing the “hook up” culture at college, but the question of how and why one should maintain their integrity and purity amidst all of this moral anarchy. First of all, chastity involves far more than simply “not doing it”. It refers to the right and proper ordering of our sexuality, including avoidance of images or situations that only lend fuel to the fire of our lust. But chastity is not merely good from a religious standpoint, it is likewise practical when it comes to navigating the often disorienting and strange world of college relationships. When one commits to this way of life, things become instantly more clear in relationships. When sex and hooking up are all a part of the equation, the point of relationships can quickly become muddled. Engaging in these type of sexual relationships are best way to get yourself stuck in one those long meandering relationships that can steal the best years of your life from you (if not all of it). On the other hand, the one that does not allow him or herself to get dragged down into this pit of mediocrity, can see much clearer to know if a relationship is lasting or not. If he is chaste, he will know very quickly whether or not there is more to the relationship than just physical attraction. When sex is taken out of the equation the emphasis then shifts towards more lasting concerns. For a woman it is the simplest way to test the mettle of a man, because unless he is truly interested her for the right reasons, he is certainly not going to wait around too long knowing that she is waiting for marriage. This may seem cold, but it is true nevertheless. Last of all, chastity is of course a good idea because no one who is chaste has the additional worry about pregnancy and diseases- both of which can profoundly shape one’s destiny. I am not suggesting that a child is remotely similar to a disease, only that these two consequences of sex represent the greatest sources of fear for the parties involved.
Even if you were to ignore all of the previous suggestions, do not ignore this one. Rather than offer some vague recommendation about praying at college, I would like to offer a specific regimen. Just as it is important to make rules for yourself about going to class and studying, so the same can be said for the spiritual life. The first day you arrive on campus (or preferably before that) find out the location and the times of the Masses. I once had a former student tell me that he had no way to get to Mass. I said to him “if it is important enough to you, you will find a way.” Soon after telling him this, by the grace of God, he found a ride. Even at the most secular college there will inevitably be other Catholics that can help you in this regard. Just take the initiative and ask.
Do not at any cost miss Sunday Mass. Suppose you have behaved in a way that renders you unable to receive communion that day; still go. Let this practice be a rock of stability amidst the shifting sands of college life. Secondly, establish a time of the day (one that doesn’t change) wherein you say some traditional prayer of the Church. You might say the Angelus at noon, or the Divine Mercy at 3:00, or it could be a decade of the rosary. It need not be any more than a minute, but it must never be neglected. And lastly, wherever you go, keep some significant religious object in your pocket. This may sound strange, but in college it was my way of bringing Christ with me wherever I went. The object that I brought was a rosary, and whenever I felt tempted by a particular situation, I would hold the rosary in my pocket and pray Hail Marys until I received the grace and strength to do the right thing. This is not to say that one should purposely go into the lion’s den as long as you bring your rosary.
No, by all means, avoid the “near occasion of sin” (or as I like to call it “the N.O.O.S.” because it is a little like putting your head in one, and then being surprised that you got hanged). But no matter how many times you fall, do not shut God out, do not think that you are somehow beating the system by pushing Him away. Even if communicating with God only means fighting with him, or saying “I can’t even look at you right now,” never let go of this line of communication. Hold onto it as if your very life depends upon it… because it does.
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