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What to Expect at College

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Professor J. Budziszewski offers solid advice for new college students.

My perspective on college is different from the usual. I think of it not as an intellectual adventure, preparation for a career or a four-year party. I regard it as a trial.

My first two years at college were some of the most stressful of my life, and I thought high school was stressful! But I also know that I have done the most growing emotionally, physically (dorm food = fattening), mentally and, most important, spiritually—through trials, through missing people and through loneliness.

God doesn’t send tests because He needs to learn about us; He sends them because we need to learn about us. Trials of faith show our hidden weaknesses, thus giving us opportunities for unexpected growth.

The trial you expected

The college trial everyone knows about is simply being on one’s own for the first time. As one student wrote to me,

Everything is new. Even the familiar things set my tears a runnin’—alarm clock ringing, highlighter running out, a phone call from the wrong person at the wrong time. I checked my mailbox faithfully at mail time. I was homesick, but not for my family—for my friends, my teachers, my privacy, my bed, my boyfriend.

For most students, the three main “on my own” issues are Change, because they find themselves in a strange, new place; Aloneness,because they lose their support system of friends, family and faithmates, meeting everyone as a stranger; and Responsibility, because, perhaps for the first time, they have to behave like adults. These trials aren’t new, they aren’t unique to college and they aren’t unique to Christians.

The trial you may have underrated

The trial everyone has heard about—but most people underrate—is the sheer spiritual disorientation of the modern campus. Secular writer Katie Roiphe describes the disorientation of modern life in general like this:

It’s not the absence of rules exactly, the dizzying sense that we can do what we want, but the sudden realization that nothing we do matters.

Of course, what we do does matter, but you wouldn’t know it from observing many campuses. Most students, and most teachers too, are deeply confused about at least four things: God, because they cling to the idea that all religions are equal; morality, because they think distinguishing between right and wrong is intolerant; knowledge, because they no longer believe in truth; and education, because they have lost confidence in what they are supposed to teach or learn.

The trial you might not have guessed

The trial most parents and incoming students don’t expect is indoctrination. In a sense all education indoctrinates. We are indoctrinated in the multiplication tables, in working hard, in playing fair. The difference is that the modern university, having lost its moral convictions, has attached itself to relativistic doctrines such as tolerance and diversity, which mean, in practice, tolerance of anything but biblical faith and traditional morality. For example, official indoctrinators consider it “religious discrimination” to hold that the Bible’s teachings about God are true, and “affectional discrimination” to hold that homosexual acts are morally wrong or even unhealthy.

[My] Introduction to Public Policy [dealt with] many controversial issues. One young man spoke out in favor of the religious side. Another student turned around and said, “Why don’t you just shut up!” There was nervous laughter, which escalated when the teacher said, “Well, I guess she told you!”

Methods of indoctrination are likely to include not only required courses, but also freshman orientation, speech codes, mandatory diversity training, dormitory policies, guidelines for registered student organizations and mental health counseling. Colleges and universities are expert, however, in hiding their indoctrination efforts at from parents and prospective students.

What students and parents can do

The upside is that God can use this challenging time to teach students how to build upon rock instead of sand. What can students and parents do to prepare?

First, students and parents should start now to build strong and honest family relationships. Though college strains family relationships, most students want to stay close to their families. The time to establish relationships is before Julie and Jason go off to college, not after they get there.

Second, students should develop sound minds. This depends largely on good reading, for how can our minds be transformed if everything we read at college is by relativists? I usually recommend the fiction and nonfiction works of C.S. Lewis. [Editor’s note: For online browsing, visit TrueU.org, an online community designed just for Christian college students.]

Third, students who are of the Christian faith should remember that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. A student who enters college with the attitude “It’s just you and me, God,” will probably lose his faith; a student who seeks other Christians will probably keep it—and grow. God made us members of a body, the body of Christ, for this reason.

Fourth, students should cultivate common sense. What the Bible calls wisdom is more than just memorizing Bible verses; it is the understanding of God’s way with us, and it is thoroughly practical. For example, a student who wants to remain chaste should avoid not only sexual intercourse, but anything that “gets his motor running.”

My final advice? Be bold. College wasn’t always hostile to faith, and it doesn’t have to remain that way. So, students and parents, speak out! The martyrs endured being crucified, mauled by animals, and sawed in half. For so glorious a God, we can endure a few sneers.

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