To Be Catholic at College

Advice for Sticking to the Faith in a Secular Environment

FAITH AND FRIENDSHIP. Students can find a sense of Catholic community and friendship on Harvard University’s campus and elsewhere, says author and recent Harvard graduate Aurora Griffin.
FAITH AND FRIENDSHIP. Students can find a sense of Catholic community and friendship on Harvard University’s campus and elsewhere, says author and recent Harvard graduate Aurora Griffin. (photo: Courtesy of Aurora Griffin)

Aurora Griffin was on a mission — a Catholic mission — while at Harvard University. 

The author of the recently released How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard was a Rhodes Scholar and a magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the Ivy League. During her time at Harvard, she wrote for The Harvard Crimson, served as president of the Catholic Student Association and took the lead in having the “black mass” canceled on campus. “For all of us, there are moments that come to define who we are in the public eye,” Griffin told the Register. “Fighting the black mass was one of these for me, as was writing a pro-life op-ed in The Harvard Crimson.”Aurora Griffin was on a mission — a Catholic mission — while at Harvard University.

Yet while these are great achievements and opportunities for her to put her gifts to work, what Griffin calls “the stories we tell in interviews and record in books,” she claims that “they don’t actually define who we are deep down.”

“That comes from our daily decisions,” she told the Register, “what we do when no one is looking, which prepares us to act when those big opportunities come. For me, I know I had the strength to publicly advocate for my views because I had invested in going to daily Mass and in any number of small practices that shaped my character: things like the heroic minute (popping right out of bed when your alarm goes off) and saying grace before meals. Conversion itself is often a big event, but it’s something that needs to be renewed every day through small, but loving, actions.” 

During her time at Harvard, she was also instrumental in developing the Catholic Sorority of the Daughters of Isabella. While her achievements were opportunities to put her gifts to work, she chooses to focus attention on the small acts of everyday courage: choosing small ways to fast or ways to maintain a daily prayer life — and reaching out to others with the light of Christ. She says in her book that “staying Catholic at Harvard was an intentional decision that I made again every day, but it was also the most natural one in the world.” 

Griffin admits that it isn’t easy, acknowledging that in her book “a lot of my stories are about things I didn’t do well and then learned from my mistakes. Chief among them was not reaching out to people with whom I disagreed more in college.” She encourages the Catholic student to remember that “we can connect because we believe in the goodness of the other — that the other person has the right intentions. Moreover, I think as Christians we are called by our baptism to share our faith with others. Christ shows us in the Gospel that this is best done through friendship.” In her book, she advises students to “[take] the Great Commission seriously and put yourself out there to proclaim the Good News, one friendship at a time.”

Patrick Murphy, a member of the National Guard currently attending Gateway Community College in Connecticut, shares similar insights. For Murphy, in the liberal college city of New Haven, the key is friendship and always setting an example of joy, not judgment.

“Do not get angry or frustrated,” when providing the truth of the faith, he advised. “You need to … say what you are saying, with peace and love in your heart.”

While being challenged often can be difficult, it is also a rewarding and formative experience for the young Catholic student.

Barbara Soares, who has undergraduate/master’s degrees from Montclair University and her doctorate from Columbia University, found her time at these secular schools to be opportunities to grow.

“I’ve been a Catholic science major in secular institutions for most of my adult life,” she said, “and I’ve had my share of challenges as both a student and researcher. Still, each challenge gave me the opportunity to attain a deeper understanding of my faith and, as such, ultimately made me a stronger defender of my faith.”

Soares followed her calling to be a Catholic witness in the sciences, accepting certain sacrifices in order to stand for her faith (such as deciding not to walk at her graduation when Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood, was invited to speak).

Her advice to Catholic students embarking into challenging environments and challenging fields is to “keep growing.” She reminds students of the value of taking “10-15 minutes a day for a podcast, homily transcript or YouTube video to learn the rich history and vibrant life of the faith you profess. The more you know, the stronger your faith will grow in even the most secular environment. Don’t ever stop learning about your faith.”

Fear of “losing” the faith by attending a secular school is common, but this can tend to hide the fact that college is also a place of conversion. In a study by UCLA, only 15% of students described themselves as “not interested” when asked about their current views of spirituality/religious matters. This is an interestingly small number compared to the 23% “seeking” and another 15% who are “conflicted.”

Such was the experience of Catie Kunkel, a Montclair University graduate, who “stumbled upon” the faith at college.

“During my freshman year, I did a lot of observing,” Kunkel explained of the time before her conversion to the Church.

“I observed how people interacted with each other, what they did for fun and what their values were. There was something about the Catholic people; they were the most genuine, loving and joyful people I have ever met, and that is what had me hooked.”

Shawn Reeves, director of religious education at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, shared similar insight.

“Really, it could even be reduced to that word alone: ‘experiences’ — experiences that carry the emotion of wonder and foster a curiosity about a Catholic lifestyle are always part of the stories of those students I meet through RCIA,” he said. “Occasionally, those experiences are more intellectual in nature … but these are always coupled with experiences of pursuit of something they lack or observing Catholics enjoy something they still desire to have. And when those experiences are then built upon by a strong social connection to dedicated Catholics and a sense of belonging fostered by our staff, the Catholic faith and all it represents becomes even more captivating and enriching.” 

Added Griffin: “We don’t make friends to convert them, but our lives hopefully speak well of Christ and draw people to learn more about the Church.”

Kathryn Mihaliak is a recent

graduate of the University

of Dallas and works in

accounting and finance.


College Choice

I am often asked by co-workers, friends and acquaintances, “Why did you choose the University of Dallas?” Perhaps my choice seems especially strange, given my New England blood and East Coast heritage. I always take a deep breath before I answer, because the list of factors is quite extensive: the study-abroad program, the strength of the liberal arts studies, the high-quality business school, the competitive location and the general culture. And it is Catholic, really, genuinely Catholic.

But “Catholic” is much more than just a reason to choose a school. It’s a gift, a blessing, which encompasses every other reason and makes those reasons that much stronger.

And as great of a blessing as attending a Catholic school was, it wasn’t (and couldn’t ever have been) the only reason why I chose my school.

In choosing a college, the student must necessarily take into consideration more than just personal preference. College is an investment; and one not entirely about the student, but about the student’s future vocation and the way in which he or she will use this education to fulfill God’s will. Sometimes this can be accomplished at a Catholic college. Sometimes this is completed at a secular institution, preferably with a solid Newman Center. Regardless, it is four years in one’s faith journey of a lifetime, full of successes and failures, growth and discovery, and a constant call to respond to one’s vocation as it is in the moment.

Going to a Catholic college is a great gift. So is going to an Ivy League school. Or going to a college near your family. Or going to college at all.

Gifts are meant to be used for good. We see this clearly in the parable of the stewards who received the talents in hopes that they would invest and double the original amount. Likewise, our gifts are unique — and so is the context in which we can use them.

Kathryn Mihaliak