Sober Advice to College Freshmen

COMMENTARY: Heed St. Peter and stay alert on and off campus.

(photo: Unsplash)

Poor wildebeest — the Big Mac of the African savannah. These animals travel in huge herds, each weighing up to 600 pounds of pure muscle. Carrying two huge horns, they are able to run 40mph. Lucky for the lion, they have all the self-defense skills of a Happy Meal.

But the lioness knows better than to run into a wildebeest.

She could get trampled. So the lioness works hard to cut a young or sick wildebeest from the rest.

Then she enjoys her feast.

College freshmen, you are walking away from your “herd” for the first time. The friends who defined you, the parish youth group who supported you and the parents who put boundaries on you are going to be removed for the first time.

I don’t want to sound alarmist, but St. Peter tells us that your ancient enemy is “prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). You’re about to become a prime target, and if you’re not careful, you just might lose yourself. I’m not advising that you spend your young-adult years locked up in your room. God calls us into the world. But I am advising you to stay alert. A lion’s greatest strength isn’t in muscle, but stealth. He can’t run very far, so he relies on remaining unseen.

I’m going to point out a few “lions” you might meet over the next four years. When you see one, please run.

— Credit cards: When you arrive on campus, you’ll see booths everywhere with nice strangers offering you free T-shirts and candy if you just give them your information. They’ll draw you in with wonderful words on banners like, “discover,” “instant approval!” (hey, who doesn’t want that?!)  and “rewards.”

The intent of freshmen is often to use a credit card responsibly and pay it off monthly. But the only way for credit card companies to make real money off you is if you fail to do so. They have tens of millions of dollars invested into research and marketing. You’re not going to come out the winner — they are. Accumulating debt before getting a job leads to your ruin and their gain, and I didn’t have to be a researcher at a credit card company to do that math! Nineteen percent of bankruptcies last year were college students, and 17% of students had to alter their career dreams because of debt. So when strangers offer you candy, run.

— Sex: Twenty-five percent of college students will graduate with a STD. Condoms are only 85% effective against AIDS and 50% against a host of other STDs. That’s far from bulletproof. And that’s not to mention the emotional, psychological and even financial strain premarital sex brings into a young person’s life — risks people don’t subject you to if they really love you.

God does love you — and in his beautiful plan, sex is designed for marriage.

Your parents previously provided curfews and boundaries. Now you have to provide them for yourself. Do not date someone who isn’t committed to purity. Once you find someone who is, stay out of compromising situations.

Many ask, “How far is too far?” Once the door of your dorm room closes, you’ve gone too far. If you want to stay true to yourself, God and your future spouse, keep the door open. The solution really is as simple as dating in public places.

— Rape: In one study of 150,000 students, 23% said they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact; 11% of them said the unwanted contact included penetration or oral sex. Another study found that 1 in 5 women experienced attempted or completed rape during the first semester of freshman year, a time that has come to be dubbed “the red zone.” It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of these encounters occur at parties with alcohol involved. Countless young men show up at those parties as predators — looking for prey who are too drunk to give meaningful consent (which is rape!).

While it’s never a woman’s fault if she’s raped, ever, given those depressing statistics, anyone who goes to a party with a bunch of guys she doesn’t know and without a network of support and protection is playing with fire.

— Drugs and Alcohol: Forty percent of academic issues and 28% of dropouts are related to alcohol. Surprised? Me neither. I can promise you that while all of them intended to have a good time, none of them intended to have alcohol ruin their lives. If you’re going to drink at college, keep it to one, maybe two drinks (after you’re of age). Making a habit of having three or more drinks is a very slippery slope. And in an era that’s come to see marijuana as a healthy alternative to alcohol (thanks to aggressive political marketing campaigns behind “the cause” to legalize it), it’s worth noting that it, too, has a negative impact on countless lives. One study followed 1,200 college freshmen over 10 years and found that marijuana contributed to “students skipping more classes, spending less time studying, earning lower grades, dropping out of college, and being unemployed after college.” With a drug that’s famous for blunting the brain’s motivation system, this should come as no surprise. College isn’t the time to cool the jets on your drive.

— Depression and Stress: Freshman year of college is the most vulnerable, lonely and morally unstable time in many people’s lives. The stress of leaving home, a new workload, potential failures that really matter, financial stress, and more temptations than you have ever experienced all converge, creating the perfect storm.

A study of more than 15,000 young people showed that 55% of students had considered suicide at some point. Another study showed that more than 33% seriously considered suicide; 1.5 out of every 100 attempts suicide.

And every year 1,100 college students end their lives.

Those high numbers are horrifying, but also helpful to keep in mind. It’s easy to let shame isolate us when we’re feeling “crazy.” But if you’re feeling down … very down … you’re not alone!

Bouts with depression can strengthen us if we talk to people about what’s going on inside of us.

Remember the old saying, “Your head is like a bad neighborhood. Don’t go in there alone.” Talk to a counselor at your school if you’re depressed. And remember to call Mom and Dad regularly. It can keep you grounded in reality.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this advice. Find a new, faith-filled herd. When we keep faith first, everything else tends to fall into place. But Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionaries working on our campuses estimate that if they don’t find you within about a day after your arrival on campus, they won’t see you for four years.

Everything can depend on the “herd” you fall into in those first 24 hours. Call campus ministry before you arrive. Send a letter or email letting them know you’re coming. And Mom and Dad, feel free to protect your college investment by doing the same. It might save your child from becoming someone else’s Happy Meal.

Chris Stefanick is the president


He is a husband, father,

speaker and evangelist.


Visit and check out upcoming resources — with NFL quarterback Philip Rivers, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, businessman Pat Lencioni and more — to help prepare young people to keep the faith as they transition to college.