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Sheltered or Tested? Choosing Between Catholic and Secular Universities

Education Variation: A Look at the Various Models of Schooling

Philip Howard

Kim Scharfenberger - published on 08/09/13

College can be some of the most formative years in a person's life - so choose wisely.

They call it “the best four years of your life” – a social distinction that sharply divides the average person’s college experience from the rest of his education. With so much societal weight placed on these defining four years, there is always some measure of concern as to a young person’s selection of his college environment. Particularly for young people of the Catholic faith, college can either be a time of affirmation in their beliefs or a way to sever ties with them.

In a society that generally shuns Catholicism in institutions of learning, it’s no wonder that young adults might be struggling to maintain their spiritual identities. Additionally, these four years are often a particularly impressionable period of self-development, and young people can potentially be exposed to any manner of influence. Yet even in public universities, opportunities for growing in the faith are evident, even if they might not be as widespread.

Rachel Gutman, a 20-year-old former student of a community college in Central Florida, describes her personal faith as unaffected by the largely secular environment only due to the faith opportunities available in her hometown. On campus, there were few opportunities for faith-building apart from an uninspiring Christian club. Therefore, she relied largely on her home life to reaffirm her values and beliefs. However, the one area of college life in which she did feel an expression of her faith was “through assignments in class” where she was able to explain such issues as the immorality of the death penalty and the problematic health risks of birth control. Through these moments in the classroom, Rachel felt that she “personally shared [her] faith” and was able to provide valuable insights to fellow classmates who had never been exposed to a Catholic perspective. Still, the majority of her faith formation occurred at home, and was largely unaided by her college experience.

This was not the experience for Steven Dixon, a student at Binghamton University. For him, the nondenominational environment provided opportunities to reaffirm his values and grow through the Catholic Center on campus. Steven recalls a phone conversation with his mother early in the school year in which she expressed surprise that he had attended Mass on his own, admitting that many college students “sometimes fall away.” And with numbers on the rise for young people losing touch with their faith during their college years, it’s no wonder that parents are expressing such concerns.

For Steven, the most surprising part of his experience remaining Catholic in a public university was “the inadvertent guilt [he] placed on others.” Simply by stating that he was going to Mass, he would elicit the defensiveness of peers who accused him of “guilting” them. Additionally, they often commented on how much more of a “better person” he was than them. Peer responses to Steven’s faith such as these seem to indicate a deep dissatisfaction among some young university students who, perhaps, feel the sting of having let their faith atrophy in favor of other pursuits. In such cases, it is certainly meaningful that there are young Catholics at these universities who can serve as examples.

As both Rachel and Steven experienced in different ways, their faith was strengthened by expressing a Catholic perspective and bearing witness to those who had previously been ignorant. An apparent upside to attending a secular university is the opportunity for evangelization amongst peer groups. Although not unheard of, this kind of active evangelization is simply not as prevalent in a Catholic university, where the majority of one’s peers have similar core values and mindsets.

Indeed, a common criticism of a strictly Catholic-based higher education is the inability for growth in one’s personal convictions due to a sort of “sheltering effect” through the prevalence of a singular faith environment. There is certainly some merit to this, as being challenged can encourage consistent growth and reaffirmation of one’s convictions.

However, Franciscan University of Steubenville graduate Nick Grevas points out that this type of environment can actually be fruitful for a young person just beginning to grow in their beliefs. Nick was able to establish a household at his university that helped to him impact the lives of those around him. “Through our Catholic fraternity, we were constantly building up each other in our faith and calling one another to holiness while sharing many laughs and adventures along the way.” The vast acceptance of Catholic values on campus led to a shared deepening of faith among the student body and countless opportunities “for discussion with those who had trouble understanding one or two Church teachings.”

Judging from Nick’s experience, young Catholics who attend these Catholic universities naturally have an advantage in feeling largely positive about their faith as well as learning more about it, both in the classroom and out. And with the majority of American society being largely secular, any “sheltering” that may occur would be useful as a firm, faith-filled foundation that effectively prepares young people to face a culture well-versed in misunderstanding the Catholic faith.

Yet as evidenced from the success stories of Steven and Rachel, a secular college environment does not immediately indicate a loss in faith. In many situations, young people can remain firm in their convictions while still facing a vast majority of peers who do not share their values. There is little question that the college lifestyle has become deeply secular throughout the years and can prove a difficult environment for young people of the faith, but with enough personal conviction it does not have to be a spiritual death sentence. Regardless, those four years of college life can effectively mold a person into the adult they will be for the rest of their lives, and the faith issues considered above are certainly worth keeping in mind when selecting a university.

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