Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Is the Church Missing out by Not Evangelizing to Community College Campuses?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Is the Church Missing out by Not Evangelizing to Community College Campuses?

Article excerpt

As a high school student, Matthew Fernandez was active in his parish's youth ministry programs. He volunteered in service activities and talked about his faith so often that his classmates looked to him as a spiritual leader. He assumed that he had his religious life figured out as he began the shift from high school into adulthood.

That is, until he enrolled at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. Although Fernandez remained involved as a volunteer with his family parish, he had a hard time finding Catholic friends his own age with whom he could speak vulnerably.

"I wasn't being spiritually fed," he says. "During my first semester I was called into a lot of difficult situations that required me to use my faith to help others. I was giving of myself, but I wasn't receiving anything back."

After a few months, Fernandez began to struggle with family and relationship issues. He started to feel a kind of "spiritual dryness."

"I felt like I had nothing to show for anything, and I didn't feel like I had anything to feel proud of," he says.

It wasn't until Fernandez became involved in the Newman Catholic Center at University Heights at nearby Rutgers University that things began to turn around.

"The Newman Center helped me realize that I needed to start again with my relationship with God and that I needed to mature in my faith as I was approaching a much different atmosphere in college," Fernandez says. "I was able to get back into the rhythm of prayer and carry over what I learned about my faith into what I needed to do in school."

Two years later, Fernandez now attends Rutgers, where he is pursuing a degree in humanities with a focus in English literature. He credits the Newman Center for helping his faith grow during what would have otherwise been a lonely time in his life. Yet he also knows that his experience was a lucky one: He wouldn't have even known about the Newman Center if a friend hadn't mentioned it to him. Without a Catholic support network in which to confide, he might have fallen even further away from his faith.

Fernandez's experience is far from unusual in the United States, where the vast majority of community college campuses have little or no Catholic pastoral presence. According to a 2017 study from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Catholic Education only 1 in 60 community colleges have a Catholic spiritual presence on campus. This is a sharp decline from traditional four-year colleges and universities, where Catholic ministry programs are active at 1 in 4 campuses.

Data from Columbia University's Community College Research Center show that approximately 6.1 million students were enrolled in two-year colleges in the fall of 2017. When you consider that these students are statistically more economically, ethnically, and racially diverse than those at four-year colleges and universities, it is easy to see the lack of ministry programs as a missed engagement opportunity for the church.

Reaching out

So why aren't there more Catholic ministries for community college students? That's a question the USCCB's Secretariat of Catholic Education is currently seeking to answer.

Compared to four-year colleges and universities, "community colleges are complicated," says Barbara Humphrey McCrabb, assistant director for higher education for the secretariat.

In addition to being more diverse, community college students also vary widely in age and life experience. While many enroll right out of high school, others have returned to school after having spent years in the workforce.

"The vast majority of community college students are working at least part time or even full time," says Father David Frederici, diocesan director of campus ministry for the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, home to both Cape Cod and Bristol community colleges. "Many students have children of their own, and they tend to be a bit older than traditional college students. …

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