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Roxane Salonen, Published October 11 2013

Faith conversations: Keeping worship habits during college years

FARGO – It’s Wednesday night on the campus of North Dakota State University, and shrieks from a group of students can be heard emanating from Churchill Field.

This party has water balloons as its focus, with some students ducking and dodging the rubbery blasts, and others revving up for more.

It’s all in good fun, says Bryan Thiry, director of the country’s most successful Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary programs.

“Events like this provide an opportunity for other students to realize that being a devout, practicing Catholic is not just for old, boring people but the faith of the youth is alive and well, especially at NDSU,” Thiry says.

Earlier that evening, they’d gathered at the St. Paul Newman Center for Mass before enjoying pizza and conversation.

These students and others on neighboring campuses are defying statistics that show up to half of college students will relinquish their faith by graduation.

“The culture on a college campus is becoming more and more secularized, and the focus on faith has become almost non-existent,” Thiry says, noting that programs like FOCUS are bringing the light of faith back to campuses through Bible studies, engaging conversation and students “truly just displaying the joyful life of a Christian on campus.”

As a result, he says, the campus chapel has seen dozens of new faces turning up at daily Mass and Sunday services attendance of 500 or more students.

First impressions count

But maintaining faith in college remains a challenge for many. According to the Fuller Youth Institute, the first two weeks of a student’s freshman year often sets the trajectory for their remaining college career.

Britni Hendrickson, an NDSU student from International Falls, Minn., connected with a Bible study her first year. Now, in her second year of the pharmacy program, she’s leading others as a faith mentor.

“If I hadn’t gotten involved right away, especially being in a really competitive program in pharmacy, I think it would have been harder,” she says. “I’ve been able to get the perspective that my life isn’t about my own selfish desires but about glorifying God and his kingdom.”

T.J. Beyer, a FOCUS missionary originally from New Mexico, says as a young adult, his faith became irrelevant for a time.

“By the time I was an adolescent, I questioned if God even existed,” he says. “Since I didn’t know for sure, I just settled on, ‘I don’t care.’”

However, after stints in the service and college, Beyer came to see God as not only real but essential for a whole, satisfying life, and says he’s now intent on helping other young people shirk the spiritual apathy so prevalent today.

“These are still very young minds and hearts, they still need formation, coaching and mentorship,” he says. “I think discipleship is something that’s been completely lost on society today.”

New place, culture

As a teen growing up in Pakistan, Mariam Khawaja practiced the Muslim religion in the context of a faithful and loving family, and easily embraced its customs.

Now a student at the Minnesota State University Moorhead, things have gotten a little more complicated.

“Back home … I wouldn’t have to explain why we pray five times a day, don’t drink, and don’t eat pork,” she says, “But once you explain why, people are very understanding and respectful.”

Still, it can be isolating at times. During the holy month of Ramadan, she says, all the restaurants in Pakistan close down during fasts and no one is allowed to eat or drink in public, making fasting more communal.

Noor Alomran, also a student at MSUM, grew up in Jordan in what she calls a liberal family in terms of its practice of Islam, and has discovered challenges here as well.

“What was most shocking to me was how everybody thought I was oppressed. They would ask, ‘Did you just take off your head scarf because you’re in America?’” she says, noting that she has never worn the hijab but hopes to someday.

It’s also been difficult getting to a mosque to worship, she says. Sometimes she’ll attend church services with her Christian friends, not because she wants to change religions but it’s simply easier.

“It makes me hold onto my religion even more,” she says. “People are curious and ask me about my religion, so I tell them about it and I feel proud.”

Her parents used to tell her, “God is big. God doesn’t sleep, and never think that God is not watching over you,” she says. Alomran kept that in mind when she arrived here at age 17, feeling far away from the familiar.

“In the Koran it says even in your desperate times God will be there for you, he’s watching over you, and I think that has had a great impact on me and my thoughts,” she says. “I know I’m never alone.”

What works, what doesn’t

Jeremy Hamilton, team leader for the college’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, has seen successes and failures in the realm of college faith, and agrees the first months are crucial.

“I tell students … you have the chance to decide if you’re going to live there according to your priorities or follow the alpha male on your floor and do whatever everyone else is doing,” he says.

Well-intending parents sometimes work against the faith lives of their college children, he adds, pushing them toward a “survival mentality” that encourages them to stick around only like-minded people. Instead, they should step out of their comfort zones and ask how God could use them in those situations.

But, he says, faith cannot grow in isolation, either. “Students who try to do it on their own tend to start falling into temptations or going cold.”

Parents can help by keeping a good level of communication with their college children, Hamilton says, and using more of a suggesting tone rather than a questioning one.

“And students themselves can make a bigger difference in other students’ lives more than a professional like me,” he says. “If I knock on the door of a dorm room, that can be creepy, but if parents pray that other Christian students will be in their (child’s) life that can really make a difference.”

Letting go, letting God

When Stephanie Kautzman brought her oldest child, Jake, to college to the University in North Dakota in Grand Forks this fall, she wondered whether the family’s attempts to instill a healthy attitude toward faith would stick.

“You’ve gotta let them fly, but how hard that really is stuck with me after we dropped him off,” Kautzman says, noting that prayer was really all she had at that point.

It wasn’t long before she began to see God at work in her son’s life, particularly when they learned his randomly-assigned roommate had grown up in a household that shared similar faith values.

She felt even more heartened when Jake told her about the Christian fraternity he and his roommate had discovered, and texted in an offhand way one Sunday morning that the two of them were heading to church.

“We’re programmed to catch them when they fall off their bikes and make it feel better. Now he has to do that on his own and that’s really hard,” she says. “The only thing I can really do is give it all to God, and give him my boy. Then you just have to trust that God is in there and that they’ll find their way back to him.”