ENGLISH: Campus ministry helps college students find their paths

June 8, 2021

Photo by Tim Gouw

Thirty years ago, when I first started working in ministry to college students, I was an assistant dean of students in charge of the residence halls at a small Catholic college in the Northeast. It was not my best job.

While I found that I was not cut out for that sort of administrative work, I did learn that I loved the college students and appreciated their joys and struggles. I was fortunate to find an opening in campus ministry after my second year and happily “made the leap!”

In those first years, though, I did learn a great deal. One thing is that we who were unaccustomed to university life had a habit of calling the students “kids.” For several reasons, we were persuaded not to do this. One, many of the undergrads were — and are — in their 30s and beyond.

It’s also true that the university treats them as the adults they are: their bill, regardless of who pays, goes to the student, the grade reports do, too.

In this new scenario, parents are “interested” but not officially “involved” the way they were in earlier schooling.

After making the move to campus ministry, the challenges and the growth of the young men and women became much more apparent to me. Particularly for the students coming right out of high school, university life is a time of encountering new ideas and knowledge on every side.

For many, it can be almost overwhelming, since college life, academics, socialization, hours of hard work and the responsibility of freedom all make for a very different way of living, of organizing their life, of finding their path, their friends, their God.

I am blessed to serve in campus ministry now at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

With the added variable of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have needed a place (if only a virtual one) where they could go and find encouragement, solace, prayer and opportunities to move beyond their challenges. My colleagues who have been at the university a few years more than I, have put together an impressive and multi-faceted ministry, seeking to aid the students — as well as the faculty, staff and administration — in seeking and finding God in everyday university life.

The many offerings have attracted a surprisingly large number of students to become involved in praise and worship, in liturgical ministries, in service to the community, in faith sharing and Bible study, in drilling down into Church teachings on a variety of topics.

The retreats offered by campus ministry have numbers far beyond any I have seen in my 30 years in this ministry: 80 or 90 students participating in a retreat!
Then they return to everyday life inspired to continue their faith journey, often through offerings at campus ministry.

Our Archdiocese has an association of campus ministers who share prayer, support and ideas. I have found this collaboration to be a delight. What a blessing to be able to provide these opportunities to college students here. †

Father Paul F. English, CSB, is chaplain of the University of St. Thomas Campus Ministry.