March 7, 2011
Student life at university involves more than academic learning. It's a time of self-discovery, find out who you are and what path you are to walk in life. Catholic presence on campus aims at helping to develop the whole person.

Student life at university involves more than academic learning. It's a time of self-discovery, find out who you are and what path you are to walk in life. Catholic presence on campus aims at helping to develop the whole person.

RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Living one's Catholic faith in a university environment can be a challenging task for young people experiencing a high degree of independence perhaps for the first time. But Catholic colleges and clubs provide a supportive environment for doing just that.

There are friendships to be formed with other Catholics, Catholic organizations in which to be involved, professors and other staff well versed in their faith, and opportunities for regular worship.

For Cheryl Perera, it's possible to be a good ambassador for the faith in any educational environment, "whether it is supportive, indifferent or even hostile to the faith."

Be active "with other Catholics and like-minded people" and be informed about your faith, says Perera, a 26-year-old student at Concordia University College, a Lutheran institution on Edmonton's east side.

Perera says, "It seems that some people avoid institutions that do not openly support Catholic teaching or avoid people within those places who are not Catholic."

But, she says, "these situations can be great opportunities to be personally challenged to mature in your faith." In encountering non-Catholics, one has the opportunity both to explain "the wisdom and beauty of the Catholic faith" and to live it out "in your everyday experiences."

Every young person, Catholic or not, struggles with the question who am I?

They are trying to figure out what to do with their lives, what would really make them happy. And many young people have no means of finding that out.

Elyse Borlé

Elyse Borlé

But if they are Catholic studying at the University of Alberta, for example, they can find guidance at St. Joseph's College, a Catholic college affiliated to the university.

St. Joseph's College not only offers faith-based courses but also the means for Catholic students to learn about the faith and to practise it. The college also features an array of student organizations.

Basilian Father Glenn McDonald is the director of residence and of campus ministry at St. Joseph.

"The Catholic faith," MacDonald says, "has a rich tradition about helping the human person to grow. So if you teach young people how their faith can help them discern where the best place is for them to go, it just helps them to flourish as human beings."

FORMATION PROGRAM

The college offers Mass at times that are convenient for students, like 9 p.m. on Sunday night, and the chapel is usually full. The college's formation program covers the basics of spirituality and how it relates to the lives of young people, McDonald said.

The purpose of the program, McDonald said, is to "try to show how spiritually, the faith blends and helps young people succeed as human persons; so that it's not something separate from their lives."

The college offers formal university credit courses that deal with issues like the interaction of faith and science, ethics from the Christian perspective and the nature of the human person.

Its campus ministry offers the sacraments, the message of the Gospel and the spiritual tradition of the Church - "all these tools, all these treasure troves of wisdom help young people to find their place in the world," McDonald said.

Fr. Glen MacDonald

Fr. Glen MacDonald

Currently St. Joseph's has 63 students in residence who do a lot together, including praying together, going dancing together and enjoying theme parties together.

Calgarian Jesse Shets, 19, is studying biological sciences and last year began living in the residence at St. Joseph's. He is happy he did.

FAITH COMMUNITY

"It's nice being a resident here at St. Joe's because you are surrounded by the atmosphere of people that are going to remind you of Masses and are going to make sure that you are involved in the faith community," he said in an interview.

Shets appreciates having McDonald as director of residence because he organizes faith-based events and other extra-curricular activities. "There are always opportunities living here to get yourself involved in your faith."

According to Shets, there is little discussion about the faith in the university, outside St. Joseph's. When the topic comes up at St. Joe's, it's discussed in a respectful way - never attacked or diminished.

"Being a secular university has never really affected me at all in being detrimental to my faith," he said. "It's kind of in university you are on your own anyway, so you just kind of do your own thing and everyone else allows you to do that."

Jesse Shets

Jesse Shets

Elyse Borlé, who is completing her second year of arts with a major in psychology, lives off campus with a group of friends but comes to St. Joseph's often.

"One of the really nice things about St. Joe's is daily Mass and whenever possible I try to make it to that. Just having the Eucharist present is great," said the 22-year-old. "The chapel is always quiet to go there and pray."

Another advantage in having St. Joseph's is the possibility of taking theology courses, Borlé said. "It's a great place to discuss faith at an intellectual level and be challenged in it, but safe, you know. You can walk in and still feeling intelligent and believing in God, I guess."

Borle's minor is in theology "and I love just being able to take these courses." She also likes the fact there are several student groups based out of St. Joe's "so it's easier to get involved that way."

RIGHT AND WRONG

Like Shets, Borlé has never being in a situation where her faith is attacked or diminished. "But I've had a few profs express their firm belief in the fact that truth is subjective. As Catholics, we believe in objective truth and that there is a right and wrong in situations.

"That sometimes is a challenge at least for me to take in what they are teaching but at the same time I know what my limits are and how much I am willing to take of what they say."

Normally professors do not tell students what to believe but simply express their opinions. Borlé takes it for what it's worth.

Cheryl Perera

Cheryl Perera

"It's their opinion and I legitimately can hold a different position," she says. "But if students are talking about it or something I'll try to be in the discussion and not necessarily prove them wrong or anything but just to say there are other viewpoints and it's alright to explore them.

"If I get really frustrated then I just pray."

BIG TRANSITION

Shets says coming from high school straight to university is a big transition. "So it's good to know that you can still have your life grounded in your faith and still have that as a fallback for when you need it, instead of just feeling alone."

It's comforting to know that there are places to find support, he said. "Here you are never really alone, you can always find somebody here to support you and help you when you are struggling."

A big part of going to university is supposed to be finding who you are and what to do with your life, Borlé said.

"It puts a lot of pressure because I think a lot of students feel they have to make the right decision," she said. Students can feel a lot of stress if they discover they are not in "the right program."

"But at St. Joe's with the chapel and everything I've always found it a good place to come if I need to take a deep breath and kind of give over my troubles to God."

Being a student at Concordia has been a great experience for Perera. The Lutheran school has a diverse student body that also includes Catholics, other Christians, atheists and Muslims, she said in an email.

"My years there have afforded me countless opportunities to meet students and professors of all religious backgrounds and to step out of my element and share with them my beliefs and passion for the Catholic faith."

She's had the opportunity to share her stance on abortion in an ethics class and to counsel a friend experiencing relationship problems by using principles from the theology of the body. She also has invited classmates to young adult events like The Point.

"Sharing your beliefs need not take an 'in your face' approach," Perera continued. Sometimes the best way to affect someone's view on a topic like abortion is to have a heart-to-heart talk where you show empathy for their point of view, but also talk about the realities of abortion and the beginning of human life.

"To be open and unapologetic about your beliefs while being empathetic about the other, modelling respect for human dignity and genuinely striving to see the issue from their unique perspective, is what many people least expect but most desire and need."