As the Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) and a mom of two emerging college students, I am often asked this question by parents and guardians: What can I do to prepare my children for success in college?
Sending a child to college, especially one far away from home, is traumatic; it marks the moment that our little ones are called to stand strong as adults. As parents, this transition may require an enormous leap of faith - the idea of letting our children go into the fast-paced, over-stimulating world of college, is downright scary. Yet, as college approaches, I have heard parents say that they are proud of who their children are. They put their trust in God, pray (daily!) that they are ready to face what lies ahead, and look forward to seeing them shine as they become economically responsible, socially independent, and spiritually mature.
So, what will our children face as they pass through the gates of higher education? They, along with their parents, will experience the financial pressures of college as more students are working to cover the escalating costs of room, board, books, and tuition. They will feel the intense pressure to perform academically, to work hard, manage their time, keep up, and produce strong analytical work. And, of course, they will be faced with huge social decisions - from choosing a peer group and getting involved on campus to going to parties where binge drinking is the norm and learning to respond to sexual advances. These decisions can make or break their college experience.
This is a lot for any college student to manage and balance. Fortunately, what we see here at OCF is that engaged Orthodox Christians excel as college students, athletes, scholars, and leaders in their school communities. They stand out because they set social limits. They go to parties, but do not overindulge; they date without putting themselves in risky situations and they achieve academically by managing all the demands of college. They continue their spiritual journey by getting to Church and developing an Orthodox peer group. They leave college having integrated their faith into their lives - clear about who they are at their core.
Unfortunately, this is not everyone's story. Some of our students will go to extremes. They will exit the social scene and dwell in small, socially isolated groups to avoid temptation and overstimulation. There are those who will put their identities in a lock box, jump into the social scene with abandonment, take unhealthy risks, and hope at the end of the four years that they will return to their true selves. But often, these students will have drifted, and at worse, have dropped out. OCF's goal is to aid and assist parents and Churches to continue their good work of preparing their children to face the challenges and reap the benefits of college without compromising who they are. But to do so, we must ensure that all of our young people leave home and go to college with a strong sense of self, so they can remain the beacons of light they are meant to be.
Train up a child in the way he should go,
And when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
We at OCF believe that the Orthodox Church, in its traditions and foundation in Christ, is raising strong college students. It seems that there is a positive relationship between raising children in small, tight, and culturally identified churches and the development of a strong sense of self that ultimately impacts achievement and school behavior. Through supportive and like-minded small communities where the practices are different from the mainstream, young people develop a clear vision of who they are, where they are going, what they will do and what they will not do.
It is not just our small communities that build strong college students, it is our Orthodox liturgical practices that fortify them. For example, by practicing the faith through fasting and prayer, young people learn to control their passions, exercise mindfulness, and delay gratification, all the while bringing them closer to God. Look at fasting: it restores and preserves our bodies as temples of God. It also helps young people to control impulsivity. It is not a surprise that if a young person can say no to eating meat for 40 days, that they are more likely to say no to drugs and alcohol. Also, prayer: we as Orthodox Christians take time to ask for God's forgiveness, to give thanks for our blessings, and to direct our thoughts towards His Glory. Prayer also settles our minds and tunes out overstimulation. It allows young people a time to calm their thoughts and reflect on past and upcoming decisions. Prayer teaches young people to slow down, remember who they are in the midst of all the social pressures, think how their actions might impact themselves and others, and come to the best decision. Prayer helps college students to think clearly and hear God. These skills are essential to navigating college culture and staying safe during four years of unprecedented freedom. This tells me that if we, as parents and guardians, are teaching our children to participate in the Church, we are preparing them for success in college.
But we do not expect our college students to manage all of this on their own. From the research on college retention, we know that half of the students that start college will not finish, but we also know that students who stay connected to their communities of family and faith are more likely to graduate. This is where the work of OCF becomes critical.
The Work of OCF
Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) is the official collegiate campus ministry program under The North American Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops . Our mission is to support fellowships on college campuses, whose members experience and witness to the Orthodox Christian Church through community life, prayer, service to others and study of the Faith. OCF becomes a "home away from home" so our young people do not have to leave themselves behind when they go off to college. Our headquarters are located in Brookline, Mass. and support more than 300 local university chapters across North America. Chapters are student-run, but facilitated by local Orthodox clergy and lay people. Every chapter provides a multitude of opportunities for students to get involved in the Church from weekly Liturgy as a group to service projects in the community, from Bible study and fellowship to weekend retreats with other chapters. In addition, we provide a variety of thoughtful and innovative programming, including regional training, annual conferences, and domestic and international service learning programs.
After graduation, OCFers return to parishes as active stewards of the faith. In a study of OCF graduates, alumni who participated in the survey (39% of the respondents) told us that they are very active in their parishes. Astonishingly, 94% of these OCF respondents who had graduated described themselves as very active and somewhat involved in their parishes. Additionally, close to 100% of the graduates attend Liturgy regularly and over 70% receive confession, make regular financial contributions, and volunteer in church ministries. OCFers are not only making their way from college to parishes, but are also contributing in tangible ways.
OCF Real Break
OCF Real Break is a popular alternative to the traditional spring break. Each spring, over 100 students attend various trips in the United states and countries around the world. Past destinations include: Constantinople, Greece, Dominican Republic, Jerusalem, Romania, Mexico and Alaska.
OCF College Conference
Each year during Christmas Break OCF College Conferences host hundreds of college students from across North America for 4 days of fellowship, prayer, and some of the best Orthodox Speakers around! Conferences are currently held at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania and St. Nicholas Ranch in California.
Please visit our website: www.ocf.net to learn about our many chapters across the United States and Canada - including how to start a new chapter - our North American Programs - Real Break and College Conference - and how to get involved!
Jennifer Nahas is the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF). She has dedicated her career to improving the future prospects of youth, particularly in the field of college transition and retention. She is also the co-founder of Brigham Nahas Research Associates (BNRA), a firm specializing in providing evaluation, strategic planning and technical assistance to schools and organizations designed to help young people succeed in education. She has a Master's of Management in Human Services. She and her family attend St. Mary Antiochian Church in Cambridge, MA.
A Student's Prayer
Christ my Lord, the giver of light and wisdom, who opened the eyes of the blind man and transformed the fishermen into wise heralds and teachers of the gospel through the coming of the Holy Spirit, shine also in my mind the light of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Grant me discernment, understanding and wisdom in learning. Enable me to complete my assignments and to abound in every good work, for to You I give honor and glory honor and glory. Amen.
--From My Orthodox Prayer Book by the Department of Religious Education.