Keeping the faith during college is a challenge, research shows

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SALT LAKE CITY — As thousands of students head off to college each year, they often leave family behind. Many also lose touch with their faith.

But some University of Utah students are keeping the spiritual in their lives while others are discovering a new interest in religion.

When U. sophomore Allyshea Sexton started college classes, she was anxious about a lot of things. There were the demands of a music theater major, worries about making new friends, and a fear of losing touch with her Catholic faith.

But on the Sunday before finals Sexton was inside the Saint Catherine of Siena Newman Center near the U. campus directing a small choir of students preparing to observe the birth of Jesus Christ. The group meets together often in a Mass designed especially for college students.

"I think I would have left (Catholicism) and become very disconnected with my faith if it had not been for all the great people I've met here," Sexton said.

Those people include the Rev. Lukasz Misko, pastor at Saint Catherine of Siena Newman Center, who strongly believes the Newman Center "should be a home away from home for a student whether they live 20 miles away or 2,000 miles away."

U. senior Sully Hughes came to the college as a freshman from a rural Utah community. "Right away I felt so welcomed here and I thought that was awesome," he said.

Freshman Ian Wright agreed. "It was so good to have something familiar to latch on to," like the weekly Masses and other activities at the Newman Center, he said.

The chance to study game design at the U. meant Wright had to move away from his Catholic family and community in Chicago. But he quickly discovered a vibrant faith community in Salt Lake City.

"If you're struggling with your faith, come to the Newman Center for the people, and through that you might be able to grow in your faith," Wright said.

Keeping the faith is a struggle on most campuses. A Pew Research Center study found that since 2007 the practice of all organized religions by college students dropped 9 percent over the four years most are in school.

Julie Bellefeuille is campus minister for St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center and believes "it's hard to reach students right now. They're so involved in their schoolwork and in all of the other things that they're doing."

Professor Maeera Shreiber is the director of the U.'s religious studies program. She isn't discouraged by the numbers or the presumed attitudes about religion on college campuses. In fact, she believes faith exploration is alive and healthy at the U.

"I think the universities honestly are becoming very safe places to discover and talk about faith," Shreiber said.

Lukasz agrees, describing the Newman Center as "a place of conversation most importantly. And once people come together, they start sharing."

Last year, Lukasz and Bellefeuille opened Cate's Cafe in the Newman Center. Besides free coffee and pastries, it's a place where students can be themselves, no matter their beliefs.

"It's a space where we're not manipulating any experience. We're just saying come and have coffee together, come and study together, come and be together," says Bellefeuille.

It's also a safe place for students to discuss the role faith can play in their lives during challenging times. Some may even suggest ways organized religion can grow to meet the needs of young people in the 21st century.

"I think that's how religions stay alive is by people loving them and questioning them and stretching within them," Shreiber said.

For Sexton, the college experience has actually broadened her understanding of Catholicism, strengthened her faith and helped her better understand the impact it's had on her life.

"You don't realize how outstanding something like that can be until you push yourself to be involved no matter how hard it is" to fit faith into a busy college lifestyle, Sexton said.

Shreiber is also impressed with the respect students have for each other's beliefs. Besides teaching religious studies classes at the U., she is the adviser to a growing and vibrant interfaith group on campus.


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Sandra Olney


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