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How I Kept My Faith at a Non-Catholic College

How this graduate was able to keep the catholic faith in college at a non-Catholic university.
After spending 13 years (four of them at an all-girls high school) in a flurry of knee socks, plaid skirts, and religion classes, I was ready to take on college.

When I started applying to colleges five years ago, I tossed a few applications to Catholic colleges — Notre Dame, Villanova, Santa Clara, the like — but my heart was telling me to do something different. I loved my Catholic school experience, but the “bubble” I had grown up in was beginning to shrink, and I was ready for something new.

Picture me moving into my freshmen dorm less than a year later at a private, secular university. I was a bundle of excitement, nerves, and newly-purchased under-bed storage containers ready to take on college life. I quickly met my suitemates: one, an international student from Beijing; another, a fellow Minnesotan; the other two from California and Missouri. Of the five of us, one wasn’t religious, one was Lutheran, one was Sikh, and the other was Catholic, though non-practicing.

This is what I had wanted! I was already meeting new people who weren’t white, Catholic, and from the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs.

My living situation led only to good conversations about religious and cultural differences, and I was thrilled I could enthusiastically discuss my Catholic upbringing with people who listened and asked questions. In my first week of college, I was open about my beliefs and dove into action at my university’s Catholic student center. I joined prayer groups, went on retreats, diligently attended Mass, and made friends during my first few months.

It didn’t take long for the shiny newness of Catholic college life to fade. As the semester wore on, the community of students attending Mass began to fade. Others didn’t seem to take their faith seriously. I was disheartened, disappointed, and saddened that this was the kind of faith life I was finding at college. I quickly realized it was up to me to ensure my faith not only survived college, but grew.

During my freshman year, I dated an agnostic guy from a Jewish family, and we constantly butted heads. I vividly remember getting in an argument once while trying to defend my Catholic upbringing and him saying, “Not everyone needs your God.” Of course, this conversation contained layers that I don’t have the space to explain, but hearing that sentence was difficult.

I doubted myself. Is what I believe wrong because it seems to be so different from what everyone else is preaching? That conversation, and many other frustrating ones that year, pushed my limits. I’d always thought of myself as confident, but it was taxing to feel like I had to constantly defend myself.

Now, fours years and a lot of hindsight later, I can look back and see how the choices I made shaped my confidence in both myself and my beliefs. Not going to a Catholic college gave me the kick I needed to shrug off complacency. I fit the stereotype of a “cradle Catholic” — I had become comfortable with my faith, easily sinking into habits and going through the motions. Starting all over made me decide to commit to faith and make it my own.

Yes, the real world will be full of those who disagree, who have questions, who want to know “why?” I learned that those conversations went better when I was honest and spoke for myself, from the heart. In a lot of ways, my college experience made me uncomfortable, and that’s okay. Diversity of background and thought made me dig into why I believe what I believe and to articulate myself with humility and compassion when asked.

Most importantly, I think attending a non-religious university prepared me for real life. It’s not realistic to assume that everyone practices religion in the same way. In college, I learned how to build common ground and really listen. It was a deeper — and more uncomfortable — way to go, but I discovered that I wasn’t alone. God supported me with good friends at key moments, and our community continues to feed me.

While I cherish my time in Catholic school, I’m immensely grateful to have to “popped the bubble.” I changed. I adapted. I listened and learned and sometimes doubted. My peers and professors at my secular university shaped me in a new kind of way — no less comforting or familiar than how I was raised, just different.

I’m thankful for the challenges and victories that have come with that admissions decision so many years ago. Faith is a living, breathing, ever-evolving, highly personal facet of my life. It does not define me singly, although that’s how I perceived myself on that move-in day years ago. I gained what I needed, discovering humility in realizing that my faith is an ever-evolving gift, and graduated better prepared because of these past four years.

That said, sometimes I do miss the knee socks.

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