‘Keeping the faith’ a major step toward success during freshman year at college

Andrew Bilgri, Lisa Hallen and Eric Parks said one of the most important lessons they learned during their freshman year at college was to make their Catholic faith a priority "Being surrounded by people who are faith-oriented changed everything," Parks said. (Provided photos)

Colleges often provide a list of items freshmen will want to bring for their dorm room, but some of the most important things they’ll need to make a success of their first year probably aren’t on that list. Those who “survived” freshman year and thrived advised students to bring a Bible, a rosary and their faith, too.

“When you’re coming to campus you have this whole new open life ahead of you without so many checkpoints, such as your parents and a community that knows you. There are more chances to get off the track that you need to be on,” said Lisa Hallen, a senior at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

“I feel so much better, when I’m stressed about something, just going to church and praying about it. It really helps ease my mind, knowing that I’m not in this alone. God’s watching out for me and these are God-given talents that I’m working on. He wouldn’t let me take the wrong path.”

Lisa Hallen

The way she keeps everything in perspective is by being involved in the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Newman Center, where she sings in the choir and is an altar server, lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion. Having that weekly reminder of Catholic values at Mass is a help, she said.

“I feel so much better, when I’m stressed about something, just going to church and praying about it,” said Hallen, who is preparing for a career in music education. “It really helps ease my mind, knowing that I’m not in this alone. God’s watching out for me and these are God-given talents that I’m working on. He wouldn’t let me take the wrong path.”

KEEP MOVING FORWARD

Eric Parks, a sophomore at the University of Illinois who lives in the residence hall at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign, credits an early encounter with one of the missionaries from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) for helping him get his priorities straight during his freshman year.

“He was the reason I made the friends I made, the friends who are in my closest circle,” he told The Catholic Post. “Being surrounded by people who are faith-oriented changed everything.”

The same FOCUS missionary also encouraged Parks to stay on top of his studies for his degree in computer engineering and look at all areas of his life, as well as his spiritual life.

“The college transition can be bumpy — you can keep the faith or not keep the faith,” Parks  said, admitting that he was homesick at first. While that lasted a short time, the poor decisions he made as a result took longer to resolve.

“Don’t go backward,” is the advice he gave to the students at this year’s freshmen retreat. “You worked hard to get to where you are — keep moving forward.”

Parks has done that by attending Mass every afternoon at St. John’s Chapel, leading a Bible study and participating in a Bible study, and being involved in a process of building disciples by mentoring a younger student even as he is being mentored by an older student.

He said the reason he encourages people to find a spiritual anchor is not because the church will isolate them from the world, but help them look at the world around them and find truth.

“As a freshman you have all this freedom, but true freedom doesn’t mean you can do anything you want,” Parks explained, noting it carries responsibilities. Viewing that through the lens of faith can help them face the challenges that come their way, he said.

CHASING AFTER CHRIST

Surrounding themselves with Christ-centered friends has other benefits, according to Addison Ely, a junior who is working toward a degree in biology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. She is involved in many of the activities at the St. John Paul II Catholic Newman Center in Normal.

“Your spiritual life will suffer if you don’t have people lifting you up. And if you’re doing something that’s not good, a Christ-centered friend will call you on it.”

Addison Ely

“Your spiritual life will suffer if you don’t have people lifting you up,” she said. “And if you’re doing something that’s not good, a Christ-centered friend will call you on it.”

She has also found that when your friends are chasing after Christ, that’s what you want to do, too. Not only does Ely have a regularly scheduled Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, but she is one of three people who help other students sign up for Holy Hours.

“If you don’t have a prayer life, you’re setting yourself up for disaster,” she said.

She also serves on the music team for praise and worship on Wednesday nights, goes to Bible study on Thursdays, and participates in socials. This summer, Ely went on a mission trip to Florida with the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who minister at the Newman Center.

Andrew Bilgri, who attended Illinois State University and was also involved in the St. John Paul II Catholic Newman Center during his freshman year, has joined the U.S. Army Reserve in Chicago and plans to return to ISU after his military training. His goal is to complete his degree in music education and use that to boost the morale of his fellow service members as part of the 85th Army Band.

“Having faith as my foundation is what made my freshman year so successful,” he told The Post. Asking for help is important and he said he did that by going to Mass.

Among the items he carried with him every day was a spiritual journal, to write down things he noticed or insights he gained during his Holy Hours; a Bible to read during time between classes or to help defend the faith during conversations with friends; and a rosary.

“It’s a nice feeling to have Our Lady there in the backpack, helping me to carry the load,” Bilgri said.

TIPS FOR MAKING THE MOST OF COLLEGE

The four students interviewed by The Catholic Post also offered these tips to help people make the most of their freshman year at the college or university of their choice.

  • Use a good calendar app or daily planner: “I think everything about being successful in college comes down to organizing your time and prioritizing your work,” said Lisa Hallen, a music education major at Western Illinois University in Macomb. “You have to know what needs to be worked on now and what you can work on later. . . . It’s all about figuring out how you’re going to organize your day-to-day, week-to-week life.”
  • Seek the wisdom of older students: Hallen said her area of study required her to be in ensembles with students of various ages. Interacting with them was helpful, she said, because “they’ve already taken the class you’re struggling with and they can help you with how to study for that test or how to study for that class.”
  • Ask for help: Go to your professors during their office hours and ask for help, Hallen said. “It can be intimidating — I get it. But every professor I’ve ever had is thrilled to get to know you and help. And you can help them to discover that they didn’t explain something well. When you come in and ask questions, it’s helpful for them,” she told The Catholic Post.
  • Don’t commit to everything: “There will be 10,000 people trying to get you to join activities and clubs, but don’t fill your schedule with all those things,” said Addison Ely, a biology major at Illinois Wesleyan University in Normal. “Join a Catholic group or spiritual group first. If you don’t make it a priority, it will be harder to make time for it later on.”
  • Don’t spend all your time on social media: Not only does social media eat up a lot of time that could be used on studying, prayer or even sleeping, but it can give you a false sense of who you are and how you’re doing if you’re comparing your life to everyone else, said Eric Parks, a sophomore studying computer engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “There’s only one you. God loves you the way you are,” he said.
  • Don’t worry about dating: This can be a big distraction at a time when freshmen are dealing with so many changes in their lives, according to Parks. He advised them to concentrate on making friends, studying and keeping the faith.
  • Keep your desk free of distractions: “Keep it for work only,” said Andrew Bilgri, who attended Illinois State University in Normal during his freshman year and will return when he has completed his training with the U.S. Army Reserves. He also advised leaving the video games at home. “You go to school to learn, not play games.”
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