Heads or Tails?
Roughly a decade ago (ok, yes I KNOW it has been longer than ten years, but humor me here), I was making my final decision of where to go to college. During my senior year of high school I had toured several different colleges and universities, both public and private, and had narrowed down my options very maturely by calculating 1) how far they were from home, 2) how many other students from my small town were going there, 3) and most importantly, the types of amenities they offered like dining and fitness centers. I can’t remember ever asking any of the tour guides about the Psychology programs at their schools (which was my intended major) or about other important things like tuition or graduation rates. Never mind if they offered job placement support or professional development programs, I was far more concerned about my chances for walking on to the women’s tennis team and practice times. I’d figure everything else out when the time came.
Using my criteria for selection, there were two schools that stood out above the others; St. Mary’s University in Winona, MN and the University of MN, Duluth. This is almost funny as they are about as different in academic disciplines, recruiting tactics, spiritual development, and the things that should matter to an incoming Catholic freshman. But in my book they seemed pretty equivalent. So I did what any smart 18 year old girl deciding her future would do, I said a prayer and flipped a coin. It landed on tails and six months later I was off to Duluth, MN. (To give myself some small credit, I did ask where Mass was and made sure that UMD had a Catholic presence at their campus before enrolling, but the main point to this story being that my faith wasn’t the determinant factor.)
So I landed on a very secular public school campus as a college freshman with a slightly better than basic understanding and commitment to my faith. I attended the Sunday morning Masses and met the priest and a few other Catholic students, but it didn’t take long for me to start struggling with incorporating my faith into my life. The opportunities for group prayer and communal living were just not there when I arrived as a freshman and to be completely honest, Newman just wasn’t “cool”. Soon I found myself at house parties and other unsavory places, not because I was a party-girl, but because I didn’t really have anything else to do. I did meet a very nice boy that first year (first day in fact), but decided he probably wasn’t the right guy as he wasn’t Catholic and our paths didn’t seem to be crossing often enough for a relationship to form. As this first year came to a close, I really began to wonder why had God called me here? I was struggling to grow in my faith and hadn’t made really any friends that I would’ve considered spiritual companions for the journey. I decided to take a two week trip with two friends to visit my future sister-in-law who was studying in Costa Rica. During this trip I gained some valuable insight and inspiration that would send me back to UMD in the fall with a sense of purpose and mission.
While in Costa Rica we had the pleasure of spending time with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. I have always loved these sisters and pondered more than once if that life was my call in this world. Their simple lives of prayer and service resonated yet again when watching them in action and I realized that just as they are called to serve the “poorest of the poor”, I was called to serve some that might actually be poorer than these. I knew in my heart that the hopelessness that I saw and lived with everyday on the university campus was a deeper poverty than these homeless poor in Costa Rica were experiencing. While the elderly homeless people we visited with in Costa Rica certainly had difficult lives, many still had great joy and hope. I didn’t often see that kind of peace in my dorms and classrooms.
I returned to school in the fall with a determination to bring Jesus to my campus in my own small ways. I invited friends to the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry events, I asked my roommates to attend the annual prayer vigil at the courthouse for Roe v. Wade, I began singing in the choir and reading at Mass and recruited my friends to take part as well, I worked to establish a weekly young adult group with confession and adoration with students from the Catholic college up the road, and most importantly I really began to start praying and asking God for His guidance and direction. Within a few short months I could tell that the remainder of my college career in Duluth would be focused on building up the Church’s presence and ministry on my campus. The ministry began to grow exponentially and by the end of the year I was asked to become the new student president of the group.
To make a long story short, that nice boy I met the first day of my freshman year ended up coming to a lot a campus ministry events with me over the next year and joined the Catholic Church. We got married shortly after I graduated college and moved into the Newman House, me working for the diocese as the new Campus Ministry coordinator. We lived there through our first three years of marriage and two babies and came to know literally hundreds of students seeking God in the midst of the “real world” secular campus. I would never trade those years as I learned a very valuable lesson about the Church’s presence and ministry through Newman Centers. For anyone who is willing to look, our Lord is waiting to bless you, no matter where you are. Even in places that seem bent on eliminating the Church’s voice, Christ is still speaking. And sometimes He asks us to be His mouthpieces too.
Not everyone is called or is able to attend a wonderful private college that is concerned about their faith formation; although I have the utmost respect for these institutions and pray for their growth and success. For those of us who were called to build up the Church in the secular world, there is such great satisfaction and reward in reaching students on the cusp of leaving their faith and giving them a renewed sense of hope. I am so happy and proud to say that our little Newman Center has grown to be a community that is alive and on fire for the Lord. Vocations from this center are flourishing; we’ve had many men and women enter seminary and religious life and I’ve been so personally blessed to witness the holy marriages of several of our former students to one another.
I know that even though I was naive and immature when deciding where to go to college, I still gave myself over to God’s will with my prayer before flipping that coin. I sincerly asked Him to use me wherever He needed me, and I know He did. I was even blessed with a husband and life-long friends for simply going and listening to how God wanted to use me .
So even if you end up on a college campus that doesn’t seem to have a Catholic educational presence, it may mean God is asking you to be that presence. Or it may mean God is going to bring about your growth through defending your faith against professors and classmates who do not believe. Never assume you are to conform to the crowds just because you feel alone. God will be with you; just ask for His help. If God can use the flip of a coin to challenge me to build up community of believers, He can certainly use you too. To check out the Newman Center at the University of MN Duluth and see how you can still have an amazing Catholic experience on a public school campus, go to http://www.umdcatholic.org/