Without Mom or Dad around to accompany them to church or lead a prayer at the dinner table, will undergraduates lose touch with their religion? The concern is understandable, but leaving the comforts of home to attend college does not mean one has to leave behind the comforts of religion.
It’s not uncommon for parents to feel anxious about religion when they send their kids to college, says Ed Laarman, director of Geneva Campus Ministry, one of about two dozen faith-based student organizations on the University of Iowa campus.
“Some people think Iowa is a big, secular campus that is anti-religion,” he says. “While there is some of that, we have a lot of professors and staff members and students of faith—God’s at work on this campus. I see a whole range of spiritual devotion, and there are plenty of opportunities available for students to explore here at Iowa.”
Geneva Campus Ministry sponsors a variety of activities, from bible study groups to book discussions to a lecture series. But Laarman advises parents to encourage their students to seek out a faith-based group that suits their individual needs.
“Some students will reject religion, but some just drift away because they’re not connected,” he says. “It’s important for them to be part of a supportive community, and if they don’t find something they like right away, they can try something else. It’s a time for them to continue to discover who they are, what their values are, what they’re looking for, and what role God will play, if any, in their lives.”
Alex LeFevre, a junior from Urbandale, Iowa, echoes Laarman about the importance of finding the right community. The actuarial science major has been involved with 24-7, a student organization affiliated with the Christian-based Parkview Church in Iowa City, since his first year at Iowa. The group meets for Thursday-night worship, complete with a live band, and also has an offshoot ministry geared toward first-year students.
“Students face plenty of challenges when they come to college, from the party scene downtown to the academic competitiveness of their major,” he explains. “Finding a welcoming community where you feel you belong really helps, especially freshman year. I heard about 24-7 from my sister who also went to Iowa, and some of the closest friends I’ve made since coming here have been from 24-7.”
LeFevre says his group tries to connect with students in the fall by having a visible presence on the Pentacrest, and notes that many religious groups on campus do the same.
Rachel Shapiro, a sophomore from Lombard, Ill., majoring in psychology and pre-physical therapy, stopped by a barbecue sponsored by Hillel during Welcome Week her first year at Iowa. She has been involved with the UI chapter of the Jewish campus organization ever since and currently serves as its copresident.
“I look forward to going to Shabbat dinner at Hillel every Friday,” she says. “While we’re a relatively small student group, we have a lot of fun and have become fairly close. First-year students who feel like a minority being Jewish at this university can find other students here with similar backgrounds. It provides a home away from home. We also we watch Israeli movies together, and last semester we had an interesting presentation by three Israelis.”
While attendance at religious services may decline during one’s college years, a recent survey by the University of California at Los Angeles indicates that spirituality tends to expand during this time and that nearly half of the first-year students polled nationwide for the study sought out opportunities to grow spiritually.
Laarman says his goal is to help students make connections, to keep faith from being “tucked into a private corner” during college, but he adds that having doubts at this age is to be expected.
“College students are meeting new people and being challenged by new ideas,” he says. “Don’t worry too much if they have questions about or negative reactions to faith. I’m more hopeful about that than if they are just indifferent. I lost my faith in college, but I came back to God, and then my faith was my own and not my parents’.”
by Sara Epstein Moninger