I had to face that decision once, so I know that it’s a doozy. I’d like to share with you some ideas I think are crucial in these, the waning stages of your college application process—these recommendations come solely from my experience, and are likely a tad subjective, but you can glean from them what you will.
It will be okay. No, actually, it will be. You know how you hear that a lot and it just kinda goes in one ear and out the other? You should really take a second to let that sink in. It validates everything you go through. Because everything is going to be alright, it’s okay for things to be really tough occasionally, it’s okay to struggle and fail, because you’re going to survive. You are indomitable. This is excellent news.
Though, if you want to be totally positive that it will be okay…pray. God needs to be a part of this decision—really, God needs to be part of every decision, but He really needs to be a part of this one. These are going to be (at least) four formative years. You will be a different person by the end of this decision, this decision that will have echoing consequences for the rest of your life. I don’t say this to freak you out, but I would like to impress upon you the magnitude of this choice: it’s important, and if you forget God in it, that will come back to bite you. There is no moment in life wherein asking God for guidance and love is a bad idea—this, particularly, is a good one.
Have a game-plan. In one of the best confessions I’ve ever head, my father confessor told me “Benjamin, forgive my slang, but don’t screw around with this.” It was a pretty funny moment, but there’s a lesson in there. I just told you how important this decision is gonna be—so don’t screw around with this. Sit down (after you pray for guidance and love) and ask yourself: “What things are truly the most valuable to me?” A friend of mine was accepted to the best art school in the nation, but declined because the structure of the curriculum did not beget the aspects of art she honestly valued. “What resources must my University have?” I knew I needed a big school, near a city, with an expansive core curriculum—and I got one. “Will I be able to continue doing the things I love?” I get to run on Lake Michigan every morning and watch the sun rise; I get to attend an OCA church every week. Be honest with yourself and what you need. Considering how crucial an OCF is to the continuation and growth of your faith is a must.
Don’t go it alone. I’m writing this post so that you don’t make this decision cold-turkey, having never heard another perspective before. Access people you trust—those who are still in college, recently graduated, and graduated ages ago. Bounce your ideas off of them and let them bounce off of you. Odds to evens, you aren’t the smartest person you know, so access some other people. P.S. This doesn’t stop once you choose your university. It keeps going. Have trusted individuals, with which you can be vulnerable. A wise man once told me: when we’re at our most vulnerable, we’re at our strongest.
Choose, then be at peace. You got it right—and even if you got it wrong, check out recommendation #1. Be at peace. God will be with you no matter where you go, and even if it’s awful for four years, you will emerge a stronger individual for it if your trust is in the right place.
Get pumped. YOU’RE STARTING COLLEGE! It’s game time, baby. You get to start impacting the world, on a drastic scale, right now. Here we go.
Benjamin Solak is a undeclared first-year at the University of Chicago. He’s a fan of football, priests who dish out communion really fast, and brightly-colored pants. He invites you to check out his personal blog on Christian living and personal development at benjaminsolak.wordpress.com
One of my very best friends at school and I first met at our OCF meetings. And through that, we started going to Liturgy together.
During our freshmen year we lived on campus, about a fifteen minute walk from our church. Every Sunday morning – whether it was raining, snowing, sunny, or freezing outside – we met in the quad and walked past the sleeping houses to Liturgy. While we walked, we chatted about our weeks, complained about homework, talked about our families. It was during these walks to church that we became friends.
Here we are!
We’re now juniors and roommates in an apartment we rent from a lady who goes to our church. I teach church school. Parishioners come up to us during coffee hour to ask questions about OCF and the priest’s wife gives us all a round of hugs. We’ve made friends with other young adults outside of our OCF friends. I feel like a full-fledged member of a church and a community.
This feeling of belonging I attribute to walking to church with my friend. If I had to go alone, it would have been harder. I’m not sure I would have stuck around during coffee hour to meet people or gotten out of my bed on those sub zero mornings.
St. George Cathedral in Pittsburgh, PA
And that’s my biggest piece of Orthodox College Prep advice: find a friend to go to church with. You’ll feel alone and lost and confused during your first semester of school. That’s okay. The Church is a place that welcomes you and surrounds you with her arms. Just look up at the outstretched arms of the Theotokos behind the altar, embracing you into the glory of her Son. Then look to your left or your right and see the Mother of God also embracing your new friend.
Starting college is a scary time – alone and away from home, trying to navigate your way through the unknown territory of classes, dorm living, and new friends. To guide you through the blur of beginning, here are some words from real life OCF students who survived their first year.
“College (and freshman year especially) is an exciting time, but it’s also easy to get swept up in a wave of busyness. While juggling classes and clubs and plain old fear of missing out, a lot of college students underestimate the value of taking the time to just do nothing…to just be. Try to take just 10 minutes every day to unplug from everything and pray. Life doesn’t get any less stressful after college (surprise!), so making the effort now to be intentional about quietness and prayer will go a long way for you as your journey continues.”
–Tim Markatos, Georgetown University
“College will give you some of the best times of your life… but it may also give you some of the worst. My words of advice are to please remember who you are, no matter where you are. And in times of doubts, stay connected with the Church community. Remember the story of Thomas who demanded proof that Christ resurrected. Even during his doubts Thomas stayed connected with the apostles, and they stayed with him. The Orthodox Church has the testimony of men and women who had their lives radically changed because of the resurrection of Christ. Among those was Thomas himself, who was so convinced he had seen the risen of Christ he died a martyr’s death. Gladly he died for which he once doubted.”
-Elyse Zappia, LIU (Long Island University) Post
“Christ says, ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you’ (Matthew 6:33). There is going to be a lot to get used to in the coming days weeks and months, but I urge you to seek out the local parish by your school at your first opportunity, if you have not already. By doing so, you have a whole community of people to help and support you. Also, meet and become friends with the OCF at your school, and if possible at nearby schools. College is a place of a variety of values, but whatever time you spend with your OCF friends, whatever you are doing, you know that you are surrounded by people who share your values, which can be surprisingly refreshing in the middle of college life. I know for sure that every aspect of my life (academic, social, musical, athletic, spiritual) would not be as successful if I was not a part of my local parish or OCF.”
As we’ve mentioned before, the first forty days of your freshmen year of college are going to be foundational for the rest of your college experience. We’ve spent a lot of time encouraging your parents, your priest, your catechetical school teachers, and your camp counselors to help us connect you to an OCF chapter in the first forty days of school this fall. But what will you be doing in those first forty days to stay connected to Christ and His Church? After all, you are the one who will decide if all the efforts of those who love you will come to fruition. You will choose your friends, and you will choose how to spend your time. You alone will decide where your path will take you. Will you listen to Christ calling you to repentance and transformation? Will you continue to dedicate your life to Christ as your parents and godparents have done for you?
A lot will be decided–whether you are conscious of it or not–in the first forty days of classes this fall. The habits you build then will likely stick with you throughout your college career. So here’s my advice for those first forty days:
Go to Liturgy. Sounds simple enough, right? But after an intense first week of getting oriented to your classes coupled with no sleep as you make new friends, when Sunday rolls around, it will be so easy to tell yourself, “I’ll go next week.” But next week often rolls around and hears the same song. And trust me, the longer you are away, the harder it will be to take the leap to go back for the first time. Being in Liturgy, in the presence of God and surrounded by the Christian community, and receiving Christ’s very Body and Blood are absolutely essential to the life of a Christian. You can’t go long without them without starting to lose a sense of who you are. Don’t know where the nearest church is? Here ya go.
Go to Class. There’s a reason that freshmen year courses are often considered “weed out” classes: they can be really overwhelming. Actually making sure you make it to that 8 AM bio class will be worth it in the long run. So will doing your homework. You do, after all, want to get that degree at the end of this whole thing.
Pray on Your Own. Take five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night to be silent, be thankful, and offer up a prayer to God. Like going to Liturgy, having a prayer life will keep you centered on who you really are and will give you a chance to reflect on the challenges and choices that you are facing as a young person.
Read Scripture. If reading Scripture isn’t already a part of your daily routine, now is the time to add it in. The words of Scripture stabilize, sustain, and strengthen us. As you meet challenges to your faith and your morals, having the words of Scripture to turn to, especially the words of our Lord in the Gospels, will help you make sense of the world around you and will help you navigate difficult times. Not sure where to start? Download the OCF Connect App to get the daily readings right on your phone (along with lots of other pretty cool stuff).
Just remember, a little bit goes a long way. Forty days is not a long period of time, but it’s long enough to build a strong foundation for what you lies ahead. Do what you can without making excuses, and keep the work of salvation at the forefront of your mind.
Nowadays, you hear a lot of talk that the value of a college degree is its earning value in the job marketplace. Take, for example, this inspiring message from The College Board (you know, the people who make the SAT and AP exams):
Thanks to all the knowledge, skills and experience you’ll gain in college, you’ll be able to adapt to a greater variety of jobs and careers. Statistics show that a college diploma can help you:
OK, it may be true that statistically speaking, you are more likely to get and keep a job as well as earn more over your lifetime if you have a college degree than if you don’t have one, but if this is the primary reason for getting an education, I find it rather depressing from a Christian standpoint. This point of view woefully diminishes the greater power and purpose of being an educated person–of the opportunity the college environment provides for self-discovery, the sharing of ideas, discourse and dialogue, deepening knowledge, and experience of the world. In short, the formation of the person.
I’m certain at this point you’re probably calling to mind all the negative things that people have warned you about college life, and yes, they are certainly there–we’ll address them later in this series–but if college were just about getting a degree so you can get a job while trying to survive an onslaught of negative social experiences, I don’t think we’d all be so eager to sign up. At minimum, the sheer amount of freedom that college allows you demands that you take seriously the important questions about who you are and who you will become.
Whether it’s in philosophy class considering the writings of Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Derrida or during rush with your sorority, whether it happens in Biology 101 or in the lounge of your dorm, whether it occurs when you change your major, you end a relationship, you finish an internship, or you fail a class, college will demand that you ask yourself,
Who am I at my core?
This is not a trivial question by any means, and it is certainly not a question only for liberal arts majors. This is the paramount question we will be asked not only by the world, but by Christ on the day of judgement. Who have we become? Are we icons of Christ in our love for God and neighbor, or have we become so distorted that Christ says to us, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt 7:23) It’s a question we will answer not only with our intellect but with the fruits our lives have borne.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Preparing for college is more than just picking out a roommate, lining up your first semester of classes, and getting used to the bus routes on campus; it’s preparing yourself to be challenged, to question your intentions and assumptions, to seek a deeper understanding of life. I encourage you, start now. Ask yourself now, before you are asked by the world: Who are you? Why are you an Orthodox Christian? Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know yourself–your talents and your sins? Have you sought God’s love and mercy? Do you want to be His child? In the process of self-discovery, you will have to come to terms with your own life’s story–the good and the bad. You don’t have to make the journey alone, but you will have to decide for yourself what path your life will take.
College will be a time of formation, whether you actively engage in the process or not, the question is: will you be conformed to this world or transformed in Christ?