BOULDER, Colo.—The University of Colorado at Boulder can be a scary place for parents to send their kids, fresh out of high school.

In recent years the school has been known for routine riots in neighborhoods surrounding the campus, complete with burning police cars and millions of dollars worth of property destruction.

Playboy magazine came to campus this year to photograph nude and near-nude college women, and the school came in as the sixth-best party school in the country in the 2002 issue of Princeton Review. “Inside Edition” plans to feature the school as a “typical” university with a “typical” drug and alcohol problem.

But amid the highly publicized mayhem are a lot of students who would like to maintain their Catholic roots and lead moral lives of prayer and service to the Lord, said Libby Ariniello, a full-time missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). Already in her first semester of doing business with the University of Colorado, she's heard from dozens of students who want to maintain, improve or return to their Catholic roots.

“You know, I think it has reached the point at some campuses that students are seriously searching for something more meaningful—something real and fulfilling,” said Ariniello, who works as marketing director for Focus at the organization's headquarters in Greeley, Colo.

“There was this big ad campaign for a bar in Boulder recently that said, ‘Did you lose something tonight?’ with a picture of a woman's underwear, and it was just very offensive and was promoting casual sex. I had one student seek us out because she was just so upset with that ad,” Ariniello said. “She realized that the type of behavior it was advocating leaves you very empty and can be very damaging.”

This year, Focus opened a full-time chapter, staffed with four full-time missionaries in their 20s, at the University of Colorado and three other universities: Troy State University in Troy, Ala., Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“I've been waiting four years for a group like this,” said Tommy Dickinson, a senior at Troy State who recently began attending Bible study meetings and social events organized by Focus.

Growing Ministry

Focus was launched in spring 1998 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. Almost five years later, the organization has branched out to consist of full-time staffs of two women and two men at 11 college campuses in six states. Part-time chapters have been started at two other colleges, and the organization has big plans for expansion in the near future.

Ariniello said the organization, with 48 missionaries and hundreds of participating students, plans to add six new campuses in 2003 and expects to have chapters at 65 campuses by the 2007-2008 school year, serving some 13,000 students.

The organization was founded as a kind of Catholic variety of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical organization that helps Christian students continue or discover lives of prayer. While Campus Crusade has traditionally attracted Catholic students, it has often worked to uproot their Catholic faith and turn them away from the Church.

“We have a lot in common with Campus Crusade for Christ, but we bring the whole richness of the Catholic Church, and sometimes Campus Crusade is anti-Catholic in its approach,” Ariniello said. “A lot of Catholic students end up following them, but we're seeing a lot of students who found refuge in Campus Crusade coming to us now, even after years of being with that organization, because they're getting everything Campus Crusade had to offer plus all the richness of the Catholic faith.”

Ariniello said Catholic and secular colleges alike have been inviting the organization onto campus. Often a Focus chapter works closely with campus parishes and Catholic ministries such as Newman Centers.

“We work really well with existing Catholic organizations, and I think they really appreciate our help,”

Ariniello said. “Newman Centers and chaplains do the sacraments, and we do the recruiting. We get people involved in weekly Bible studies, because we can make it social and fun.”

“We see them [Focus] as a great force of evangelization,” said Paulist Father Dave Dwyer of St. Thomas Aquinas, located near the the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. He said he thinks of the organization as one, new vital piece of a total campus ministry, referring to its new full-time staff members as “adjunct staff.”

Ariniello said the goal of Focus' next expansions will probably be to land chapters on East Coast campuses.

“We are always looking for missionaries, and it can be a wonderful way to spend a few years right out of college,” Ariniello said, encouraging prospective and recent college graduates to consider making the mandatory two-year commitment.

Missionaries earn what Ariniello calls “competitive” full-time salaries, and are responsible for soliciting donations to pay for the organization's work.

“This is work that prepares you for teaching, law school, medical school and a variety of professional careers such as sales and marketing,” Ariniello said. “And it's a lot of fun.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from

Boulder, Colorado.