What happens when religious teenagers head off to college? It’s a issue that Alex Chediak, an associate professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University. has given a lot of thought. In his new book, Thriving At College, he offers suggestions on how student can keep and build their faith while in college, as well as succeed in college.
I’ll have more to say about this book momentarily, but the book inspired me to share my own experience as a religious teenager.
When I was signing up for freshmen classes at the University of Missouri in St. Louis in the 1970s, I had performed well enough on the English placement test that I was offered a spot in one of four honors English classes. (I fared so poorly on the math placement test that I barely missed having to take remedial math.)
The staffer at the registration table rattled off my four English options, but I didn’t catch all the titles. Rather than simply asking again, I said I’d take the fourth option.
What I ended up selecting was an existential literature course and I spent the semester reading many books by the likes of Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka and Kierkegaard.
A Good Catholic School Girl
Prior to college, I had spent the previous 12 years of my life attending Catholic schools. I could tell you the difference between a venial sin and a mortal sin. I could share the wondrous story of the loaves and the fishes and why Easter is more important than Christmas. I could tell you where unbaptized babies end up if they died.
But that existential literature class made me realize that my Catholic education had utterly failed to prepare me to examine my religious beliefs in any meaningful way and that tore at my soul. I felt angry that my education had left me in the lurch when what I desperately wanted to do in class discussions and in my English essays was to cogently defend a religion that seemed as much a part of me as my blue eyes and Irish ancestry.
After sharing what I was learning with my parents, they were ready to yank me out of the school and send me to St. Louis University, a Jesuit university and my dad’s alma mater. Of course, I’m sure that the liberal Jesuits, who were revered in our household (here’s the reason why) were offering their own existential literature and philosophy courses in their catalog.
Thankfully the commotion died down by the next semester when I moved on to a contemporary American literature class.
It could be that this class sped up my eventual decision to leave the church, but frankly I think that the chasm was based primarily on the intransigence and actions of the church’s male hierarchy. Three years later when I was a student at the Journalism School at the University of Missouri in Columbia, I stopped attending church on Sundays.
Staying Religious in College
So what does my experience have to do with Alex Chediak’s book? Sorry Alex for not getting right to it. One of the intentions of Chediak’s book is to decrease the chances that my experience doesn’t happen to other students and particularly to the conservative Christians who will be attracted to this book.
The professor laments that 70% of young people who attend a Protestant church regularly for at least a year in high school will stop going to church regularly between the ages of 18 and 24. The problem, he notes, is particularly acute at state universities and other secular campuses.
While the professor told me he thinks his book is appropriate for all colleges students, I think it will resonate with the teenagers who were raised as conservative Christians. I’d recommend this book to students in the category who dearly want to hold onto their faith. Thriving at College also offers lots of practical suggestions on other issues such as dating, time management and treating college seriously.
I suspect Chediak would have been appalled at my semester-long encounter with existentialists, but I am grateful for it. College is about exploring the world beyond your own experiences and being open to where ever the path leads you.
Of all the classes that I took during my four years of college, three stand out – my intro to journalism class which required that I sit at a typewriter and write my first-ever news story, an advanced journalism course that required me to write articles for the town newspaper, and yes, my existential literature class. These three classes rocked my world and I’m glad that had the opportunity to take them.
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