College Joy, Back-Home Jitters

Iain Bernhoft speaks to parents about the stress of sending their child to live away from home for the first time.

Every year at back-to-school time, a new study comes out showing how expensive it has gotten to send a child to college. Also much discussed is how hard it is for students to get into their first choice of school. Not much attention seems to get paid to the stress parents undergo when they send a freshman to live away from home for the first time. Call it the “off-to-college-and-into-our-worries” effect.

To be sure, most of the responsibility for navigating academic challenges and campus-life pitfalls lies with the student. But there are some ways for parents to assist and support their budding scholars during this exciting, yet anxious, period.

Know Your Newman

Encouraging your child to get involved in activities with students who share their Catholic faith will help them survive freshman year — and thrive in subsequent years.

“The fundamental difficulty incoming freshmen face is that they’re moving to a place where they have no relationships,” says Brotherhood of Hope Brother Sam Gunn, a longtime campus minister who serves on the staff of the Catholic Center at Boston University. Erik Mertens, a recent graduate of Gonzaga University, agrees. “I really felt I was leaving myself behind,” he says. “I had defined myself with my home town, school and parish.”

Both say it is important to help your student immediately establish a connection with the local Catholic community.

“Find out what the university’s Catholic center is like, and what it offers,” Brother Gunn advises.

Mertens says that his parents’ help in connecting him with campus ministry and faith opportunities was key to his settling into a healthy, Christ-focused community.

“If I had a kid going to college, that’s the first thing I would do,” he says.

For Mertens, early involvement with faith-based and service clubs run by students helped him form many fast and lasting friendships.

Make Connections

Gary Sims, of Vancouver, Wash., is the father of six, five of whom have attended or are currently attending college. He says it is impossible to overstate the need for, or influence of, community.

“We’re all greatly influenced by those around us — positively and negatively, consciously and unconsciously. Because of this, you have to go into a situation with a very clear idea of what you’re going to establish as your community.”

For Sims, keeping contact with a student’s new social and spiritual life is just as important as asking about academics.

“Focusing only on academics can send a message that those other aspects aren’t as important, and that parents don’t need to know about them,” he says.

Keep a Line Open

Preparing your student for the first year of college is a process that starts long before campus visits. Establishing good habits of communication is vital. Sims recommends making a conscious effort to pray and dine as a family.

“It helps to reinforce that communal relationship, so that, when the student is gone, regular contact is the norm,” he says.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who directed the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois before taking up his present post on the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, echoes this.

“Even though I wasn’t Catholic when I was in college, my parents and I would talk every Sunday on the phone about the day’s homily, because that’s what my family always did at home,” he says. “That kind of encouragement is important.”

And by the way: Nowhere is communication more important, or more often lacking, than in the area of peer relationships, points out the longtime formation expert. After all, it’s foremost on the minds of most young people. “Parents have to get over their awkwardness and address the meaning and purpose of sexuality, the intentionality of faith,” Msgr. Swetland says. “They were certainly 18 once. They know what it’s like.” There are many good resources explaining and promoting Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.

Catechize and Correct

Brother Gunn stresses the need for educating students in the rudiments of the faith.

“If parents have given their children the resources to understand not just what we believe, but why, those students stand up the best to challenges,” he says. “And they will be challenged — by evangelical-Protestant roommates, by the party crowd, by professors.”

These challenges can be beneficial, encouraging a fuller understanding of the world, if the student is adequately prepared. But, as Msgr. Swetland puts it: “With good will but weak knowledge of faith, they tend to get chewed up.”

Tune In

 “Early on, my parents would come to Gonzaga and offer to take me and my friends out,” Mertens says. “It was a good balance, because they wanted me to know that they were available, but they didn’t push themselves on me.”

If distance renders visits impossible, parents can offer many other forms of support. Brother Gunn recalls how receiving a few good Catholic books during freshman year helped him and many others. “You’d be surprised how many of those things get read.”

Msgr. Swetland also stresses the importance of care packages, and frequent reminders of your prayers: “Let them know that you’re praying for them every day,” he says, “and always encourage them.”

Guide Sans Guile

“You don’t want to nag your children,” cautions Msgr. Swetland, “but young people still need and want encouragement to do the right thing.”

On most campuses, daily Mass and weekly confession is readily available.

“Particularly during freshman year, the tension point is between guidance and direction,” Sims points out. “Let them know you trust them to make good decisions, but you’re still responsible for their moral guidance. The last thing you want is to be so domineering that they don’t feel entrusted to make important decisions. But particularly during their first semester, you might share more directly your thoughts and views.”



Mertens says his concerned friends warned him that Gonzaga is “a big drinking school” and fretted that he would become a heavy partier.

“Because of my upbringing, this wasn’t a temptation,” he says. “I naturally found friends with similar lifestyles to my own.”

Much more helpful, he points out, were his parents’ positive reminiscences about college. These encouraged him to get the most out of his college years — not just socially but also academically and spiritually.

“Caution shouldn’t dominate the conversation,” adds Msgr. Swetland. “Say, ‘Look, we’ve prayed together. This is where God wants you. You’re being sent forth as a Christian layperson, to grow in wisdom and to be part of the New Evangelization, sent to sanctify the world.’”

“College is when the value of a good, trusting relationship with your kids truly becomes clear,” says Brother Gunn. “If you have a child who trusts you, and knows you trust them, it’s possible to prepare them well for what they’ll encounter at college.”

Sims concurs: “You need to have a relationship with the student in your conversations so that they feel comfortable explaining what’s going on. They must feel free to say ‘No, you don’t understand; it’s like this.’”

The college years are a crucial period of personal formation, yet lie largely outside parental control. However, by employing a mixture of tangible support and gentle guidance, parents can exert a tremendous positive influence. Most students have what Msgr. Swetland calls an “inherited faith.” This, he says, can be claimed and cemented during college.

“Studies have shown that, if someone becomes or remains Catholic during the years of 18 to 25, they’re likely to remain Catholic their whole life,” he adds. “It’s very important to support them.”

Iain Bernhoft is a PhD candidate in English at Boston University.