Smartphone-Free Students: Franciscan Sees Benefits of ‘Unplugged Scholarship’

Tuition assistance is first step at forming foundation to help humans engage in reality and step away from the digital universe.

Justin and Hope Schneir, co-founders of the scholarship, and Mary Saarinen, a scholarship recipient and Franciscan University senior, say living without a smartphone is freeing.
Justin and Hope Schneir, co-founders of the scholarship, and Mary Saarinen, a scholarship recipient and Franciscan University senior, say living without a smartphone is freeing. (photo: Courtesy of subjects)

On Sept. 13, Franciscan University of Steubenville launched the pilot of its “Unplugged Scholarship,” a scholarship that awards financial aid to students that give up their smartphones during their college careers. 

“Franciscan is leading the way and inviting a generation of young adults to detach from this digital universe,” said Justin Schneir ’99, an alumnus who helped to start this initiative, “a universe that has been holding many back from engaging in the joy of being a child of God.” 

Justin, his wife, Hope, also Class of ’99, and a group of alumni started the “Unplugged Scholarship.” They plan for this scholarship to be a part of a larger movement called The Humanality Foundation, an initiative that will help curb digital dependence.

“The Humanality Foundation was created for the sole purpose of helping humans engage with reality by gaining control of their digital universe,” Justin said. “We value a life lived fully, a life connected to meaningful engagement with self, other and God.”

Although smartphones are an immensely efficient tool, often people become the product of the phone, Justin said. 

“A lot of us have enjoyed the benefits that come with a smartphone, but we feel that we’re wanting to reclaim who we are and what’s been lost,” Hope said. 

When Hope and Justin were in college at Franciscan, Big Tech hadn’t taken stage yet, they said. 

“Coming of age in the ’90s was a sweet time,” Hope said. “We remember life without the internet; 50 years from now, no one will remember life without the internet.”

Justin said he enjoyed meeting people while walking to class. Neither of them walked with AirPods in on campus and instead learned to be at peace amid silence. 

“We want to encourage people to take steps to reclaim what it means to be human,” Hope said. “Mostly, it’s having your relationships be more authentic and real, creating space in our lives for silence, and embracing the world that’s incarnate, the world that God made, rather than multi-living.”

On social media, it’s easy to live different lives on and offscreen, and often, we can miss what is right in front of us. But in college, students have everything they need within reach, Hope said. They have meal plans, dorms and classes close by, but they also have people God has placed in their midst, not on a screen. 

In its pilot phase, the “Unplugged Scholarship” has granted 30 students a $5,000 scholarship. Franciscan had 171 students apply for the scholarship, according to Tim Delaney, the executive director of alumni and constituent relations at Franciscan. 

Even though only 30 students received financial assistance, almost 50 students also chose to go smartphone-free, Delaney said. 

“The goal that the donor group has is that every kid who wants to live without a smartphone would be funded,” Delaney said. 

Mary Saarinen, a scholarship recipient and Franciscan University senior, said the group of almost 80 students has met twice already this semester, coming together to support one another and share their personal experiences with going smartphone-free. 

At the second meeting, Hope and Justin Schneir gave an inspirational talk to the group. Hope said she thinks students are hungry to be challenged in this way.

“The students are being very brave for giving this up,” Hope said. “You don’t have all the information at your fingertips, and you have to get creative.”

Saarinen said that the scholarship has helped her become more intentional, more peaceful and more grounded in her daily tasks. 

“It’s really helped me become so much more present,” Saarinen said. “I just learned too that sometimes you don’t need to be available 24/7. It’s good to just take a step back and slow down a little bit. Just because things are available to us doesn’t mean that we always have to busy ourselves all the time.”

Saarinen also said it’s been humbling to recognize it’s not all about her. Rather than busy herself with checking texts and scrolling on social media, she has seen herself truly encounter people more. 

Saarinen has also seen her hobbies change. She started practicing guitar more, calling her family more on her new track phone, picking up more books, and especially praying, she said. Instead of listening to music in the car, often she prays Hail Marys on her drive. 

“It’s made me so much more aware of how dependent I can be on my smartphone,” she said. “I just like the freedom of not having it constantly.”

One struggle with not having a smartphone is lack of access to GPS, Saarinen said. 

“I’m horrible with directions,” Saarinen said. “Once I was driving to a friend’s house, and what should’ve taken five minutes took about 20. But I’m learning to know the streets pretty well around me now.” 

The Schneirs underscored that this is a timely initiative. 

“So many have become addicted, and it’s affecting their mental health. This scholarship is really more about hope. It’s helping youth regain their lives.”

At Franciscan, some staff members have even begun to get involved with a smartphone-free lifestyle. 

“There’s actually two or three staff members right now involved with the program that have given up their smartphones,” Delaney said.

With The Humanality Foundation, not only do the Schneirs want to fund every student at Franciscan who applies for the scholarship, they also want to move into other colleges and high schools. 

“I believe Franciscan is starting a movement, and showing that it’s possible, and that many colleges and universities, religious and secular, will follow in their footsteps,” Justin said.

“Franciscan is like a light on a shining hill, and we want them to lead in this space,” he added. “We feel like we can’t function without smartphones, but they’re doing it and showing that it can be done.”