Faith can grow up on campus
Having attended Catholic schools in Olney, Md., throughout her life, Kellie Ileto found a decidedly more diverse setting when she arrived at the University of Rochester in the fall of 2006.
"It was the first time I was put in an environment where Catholicism wasn't the prominent aspect, where I had to go out and seek it myself," recalled Ileto, 21.
Ingrid Kiehl, who came from a Catholic homeschooling background, experienced similar culture shock at Cornell University two years ago. The Turlock, Calif., native said she also struggled with homesickness and the pressures of an Ivy League education.
"The beginning was pretty stressful," remarked Kiehl, 19.
College life presents a new world in which the safety nets of childhood are yanked away literally overnight. Roommate clashes, chronically low bank accounts, and seeking balance between partying and studying are just a few of the challenges. As newcomers to campus for the 2009-10 academic year are surely finding out, "everything that had been stable, all those things shift," said Shannon Loughlin, diocesan director of young-adult and campus ministry.
Spirituality also can be susceptible to new twists, without parents around to promote Mass attendance, and with faculty and fellow students presenting often disparate religious views.
"I don't think people are always thinking how (college is) going to impact their faith," said Loughlin, which is why she emphasizes that students seek out a campus ministry as soon as possible.
In Ileto's case, "I struggled the first month. I think it was a lot of adjusting to the whole entire college life," she said. "I could definitely feel something was missing, but I was able to take a step back and re-evaluate where I was in my life and also with God."
She said that the freedom to skip Mass because family members wouldn't know the difference "crossed my mind, but it was something really quick. I decided, early on, that going to Mass was something I needed to do."
Ileto began attending liturgies through the UR's Newman Community. She has since formed a number of strong friendships and taken on many campus-ministry leadership roles in arriving at a spiritual home.
"Newman is a nonjudgmental environment. We all introduce ourselves, and there's no cliques. It doesn't matter what class or grade you are, what your major is. Whenever I need anything, I know I can always come to the Catholic Newman Community," said Ileto, a senior psychology major.
By immersing herself in the Cornell Catholic Community, Kiehl, as well, has found an anchor for her faith amid a family-like environment.
"I was really lucky to find a great group of solid Catholic friends. I got a lot of support from that group of people; it was kind of a substitute family," said Kiehl, a junior biology major. "I don't know how I could have made it through without them."
A spiritual education
Loughlin said the Rochester Diocese strives to ensure some sort of Catholic connection at all 20 colleges located within its boundaries. That presence ranges from campus ministries with at least one full-time priest at colleges with large Catholic populations, to ministries with chaplain availability but no onsite priest, to a reliance on local parishes to meet students' needs. One example of the latter model is the young-adult group at St. Christopher Parish in North Chili, which includes young men and women from nearby Roberts Wesleyan College.
Campus ministries serve to connect students with retreat houses, discussion nights, opportunities for volunteerism and involvement in social justice, not to mention such fun events as sporting activities, dinners and coffeehouses.
"We try to make sure there's always something going on," Ileto said of UR's offerings.
Kiehl noted that she's expanded her horizons by reading more about other religions, and being part of the Catholic-Muslim and Catholic-Jewish dialogue initiatives through the Cornell Catholic Community.
"Part of me almost felt I needed to go somewhere (to college) that wasn't religious," she said. "It's definitely been uncomfortable at times, but I've also had some amazing discussions with people who are atheist and agnostic. They've been really open and respectful, and that's been really cool, having a chance to talk about my faith."
Ileto, who is minoring in religion at UR, has come to accept that "there's not just one way to feel close to God" as she learns more about Christianity and other religions from an academic standpoint. Indeed, Loughlin regards the college years as an ideal time to broaden religious knowledge just as one might approach academic subjects.
"I thought college was a great experience for learning about humanities, philosophy, theology, music," said Justin Sokolow, 24, who graduated from SUNY Geneseo in December 2007. "It was just really good to have an open mind and really study things outside your major to make you grow."
Sokolow's open-minded approach actually led him to become Catholic. He was a self-professed agnostic when he began college, but after attending Masses and other events through Geneseo's Newman Community, he began the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
"The structure of religion was a very helpful thing for me. There was something about the Catholic Mass and the Eucharist as the ultimate sign of God's love. It really appealed to me, to have that every week," said Sokolow, who was welcomed into the Catholic Church this past Easter at St. Joseph Church in his native Penfield. On Aug. 8 he married Megan Dietl, a Catholic he met at SUNY Geneseo with whom he took part in a number of Newman activities.
Ileto acknowledged that transitioning your Catholic faith to college is no easy process for many. She said that some students are jarred by a style and setting for Catholic worship that is much different than in their home parishes; others may just feel they've "had enough religion at home," as she put it. Peer pressure can enter into the picture as well, she added.
"You do feel the pressure when you come to college, and you feed into it," Ileto said. "One big thing is, who am I going to be friends with? You may be 18, but still very insecure. It's all about fitting in."
Loughlin said resistance also might be based on "an experience that has marginalized you" in earlier years. In Loughlin's case it was no single experience, but as a freshman at SUNY Geneseo she had many questions about her faith -- and was relieved to find that raising those doubts was perfectly acceptable. Loughlin gave special credit to her campus ministers at the time, Wes Kennison and Father Jim Hewes, for guiding her through that period.
"They're why I'm still Catholic," remarked Loughlin, a 1993 Geneseo graduate.
Kiehl said that her college experiences have taught her to truly live and articulate her convictions, although she wasn't always sure it would turn out that way.
"To me, it was really surprising. I was expecting to go to college and come out fighting to hold onto my faith, but I actually feel I'm stronger," Kiehl said. "The difficult times have kind of pushed me to cling closer to God. I might not even be at Cornell if it hadn't been for my faith."
Loughlin observed that many people currently in church leadership positions -- including herself -- got started on the path to ministry through their passion for campus ministry. Ileto appears headed in that direction herself, based on her sizable involvement in planning and attending events despite a rigorous academic schedule.
"In the end it doesn't matter about the time commitment, the exhaustion. It only matters that they're my family," Ileto said. "Really, bottom line, is the Catholic Newman Community is my family."