Stranger in a Strange Land

Navigating the Challenges of a Secular University

Stranger in a Strange Land

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One Friday night in my first term of college, I found myself at a house party with other members of my university women’s singing ensemble. Standing there surrounded by people who were drinking and partying, I suddenly thought, “What am I doing?”

It was to avoid the student partying lifestyle and to meet people who could be my friends that I had joined the singing group. I was looking for healthy, supportive relationships like the ones I’d had with the religious and studious kids who had been my friends in high school. The girls in the ensemble were nice, but they seemed to have a different agenda. As the loud music swirled around me, I felt disappointed, lonely, and at a loss.

Just a Small-Town Girl. Before I came to college, my faith was the most important thing to me. I attended small Catholic schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade. In high school I was involved in campus ministry and helped lead my youth group. I sang in my church choir, attended daily Mass, went to Eucharistic adoration regularly, prayed the Rosary, read the lives of the saints, and owned a Bible that was falling apart from use. To my great embarrassment, I was even voted “most likely to become a nun” by my classmates!

In my last year of high school, I was praying about where to go to college. At a prayer meeting, I sensed the Lord Jesus directing me to attend the University of Michigan. “Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zone and be challenged.” Kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, with people around me lifting their hands and voices in prayer, I said yes to God’s invitation.

I had a vague notion that when I got to college, it was my faith that would be challenged. Overall, though, I didn’t think much about what the difficulties might be—not until they hit me square in the face that fall.

A Year of Challenges. The challenge that God had warned me about soon became clear, and my naivete quickly dissipated. Just weeks into the first semester, my roommate started returning to our room drunk on a regular basis. The girls on my floor encouraged me to get into an unhealthy relationship with a guy I’d casually met in one of my classes. They also urged me to go to house parties with them, get drunk, and have sex with guys at these parties.

In some classes, I was being taught that Marxist ideology is a great approach to thinking about life. I didn’t know anything about Marxist ideology (I didn’t even know what the word “ideology” meant), so I had to quickly learn. I also had to work up the courage to speak up to my professors and classmates, presenting my understanding of a more Christian view of life and morality.

In short, I spent that year mostly on the defensive, “putting out fires” in every aspect of my life. I went to daily Mass when possible, to Sunday Mass always, and I received the sacraments. But the challenges never let up, and by the end of freshman year, I felt burned out. “Lord,” I prayed, “I never want to have a year like this again!”

Back on Track. God answered my prayer by prompting me to take action. That summer, while working at an on-campus job, I decided to respond to the invitations I was receiving from a Christian student group. These people had reached out to me all year, though they didn’t even know me. Why not give them a chance?

University Christian Outreach was the lifeline I needed. In this group, I developed deep friendships centered in Christ. I finally felt supported and could open up about the challenges I was encountering. My spiritual life grew as I attended prayer meetings, read more Scripture, and, most importantly was prayed with to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Once again I could hear Jesus’ voice, the way I had been able to hear him during my childhood and high school years. Not only was I back on track, but I was going further and deeper in my faith than I’d ever dreamed possible.

Today, eight years after my exhausting freshman year, I look back and am deeply grateful that God was with me. Although I came to college as a committed Catholic, my faith would not have survived without his guidance and protection.

This isn’t just my story; it’s the story of countless other young university students who also need help and direction. Even those who grew up in strong Christian families need support as they face situations they never encountered while living at home.

What Am I Living For? The college years are a short but critical window. This is when young people are making significant life decisions: choosing a career, finding a spouse, and developing patterns of daily living. Some are trying to decide what to live for. Others are asking, “Do I believe in Jesus enough to practice my faith when no one is forcing me?” They need to know that Jesus loves them and has a plan for their lives, and that they are not alone as they seek to follow him!

This is why I’m still involved in campus evangelization today. It’s my great joy to reach out to students with the good news of Jesus Christ and with the guidance and support that made all the difference for me.

Lynne May works for The Word Among Us and volunteers for University Christian Outreach (ucoweb.org).