So what's a religious high school senior to do? Staying within the fold of a religiously oriented college is an attractive option for many-enrollment at the 102 schools that comprise the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities grew 70.6 percent between 1990 and 2004. But other college-bound students want to spread their wings socially and intellectually in a more diverse setting. Some of the best colleges and universities in America are secular, from the Ivy League to state schools to small liberal arts campuses. But the temptations on American college campuses--alcohol and drugs, sexual promiscuity, a generally secular philosophy--can be enough to strike terror in the hearts of religious parents who ask fearfully, "Will my child keep the faith in college?"
A spate of new books from Christian publishers aimed at college students indicates that there is indeed something to be afraid of. Abby Nye's book "Fish Out of Water: Surviving and Thriving as a Christian on a Secular Campus" (New Leaf Press) warns that students will "find their faith and values under assault from Day 1." Her book is a Christian survival guide for college students, but parents find that they also have to rely on their faith when their children leave for secular colleges.
For years, Cindy Foster of Montclair, NJ has prayed for her four children's school experiences. So when her oldest, Bethany, now 20, entered the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, it was natural for Foster to continue to turn to prayer. Through the international organization Moms in Touch, a Christian group that organizes local parents to pray for their kids, she meets weekly with other mothers of college students and offers prayers for everything from safety to academic success to personal happiness and spiritual growth.
"I really have had to rely on prayer and release her to the Lord," Foster said of her daughter. Bethany is not actively involved in church groups on campus, but Foster is not concerned. "Even if she's not walking a faith walk, the Lord is working in her life," she said.
Recent studies suggest a growing spiritual hunger among college students. The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute's 2004 study of 112,000 college freshmen, found that 4 out of every 5 students say religion or spirituality is an important element of their lives.
But these are confusing times. Many religious families lament a culture of permissiveness that allows wide latitude on issues moral behavior. Shouldn't religiously committed students retreat to schools overtly affiliated with a particular faith tradition?
Not necessarily. For reasons ranging from the academic to the spiritual, religious college students are heading off to secular campuses with their eyes wide open and their deepest beliefs intact.
Arnold says that the Orlando, Fla.-based-organization, founded 54 years ago by evangelicals Bill and Vonette Bright, has grown so much partly in response to the popular idea of college as "a marketplace of ideas."
"In the midst of all the ideas, students are looking for something that will guide them in their decisions, in their values formation, in their behavior, and in their relationships--not only with each other, but with God, or some kind of spiritual presence," says Arnold.
In addition, tragedies ranging from the shootings at Columbine High School, to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to corporate scandals at companies including Enron have left college students feeling overwhelmed and in search of an anchor. "That apparent safety and security and feeling good about things, those things began to evaporate," said Arnold. Sometimes first-year students go through a testing time, where they throw off parent-imposed limits and go a little wild. But just as often they return to their faith with even more dedication, having tried and proven its worth for themselves.
But many religious students hold fast to their faith from the very beginning. Indeed, some Christians choose secular colleges in part to heed the call to spread their faith.
"The whole purpose of the Christian faith is to share it with others," said Anne Story, a freshman at the University of Georgia at Athens. "You can't share it with anybody if you all believe the same thing." Story considers herself an "evangelical Christian" and attends a non-denominational worship service on her campus.
The other students in her dormitory are curious as to why she doesn't drink, Story says. But when she explains to them that her faith motivates her, "they really respect me and my decisions," she said.
Her roommates, however, were not understanding of the changes she was undergoing, which included adopting a more modest style of dress and not attending parties where alcohol was served. (She had always abstained from drinking.)
"I was just starting to learn my faith for myself," she said, "It was difficult being around people who were often criticizing me."
The tension reached its apex when one of the roommates invited her brother to spend the night in their room. Shah objected, saying that her religious beliefs as well as her cultural upbringing forbade her from sleeping in the same room with a man other than her own brother, father, or, eventually, husband.
A residential assistant got involved and agreed that Shah's religious beliefs had to be respected. And Shah took away an important lesson.
"I learned how to talk to people about what my religion is about," she said. "I know now that I should always make an effort to maintain our common ground."
For religious minorities in secular schools, finding a community of like-minded individuals can be a challenging, but rewarding experience.
At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, Elli Eizik, an Orthodox Jew, was very involved in his campus chapter of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, an organization with a presence on more than 500 campuses nationwide.
Eizik, who graduated from Rutgers in January 2005, had transferred to the school after a semester at Yeshiva University, which is affiliated with the Orthodox movement. A secular school was a better place for Eizik, he reflects. At Yeshiva, he said, "I was 20 years old and being told still how to dress. I wanted a place with a more liberal attitude, so I could spread my wings and become my own person."
Being in a secular environment did not shake his commitment to Jewish observance, such as keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath.
"If anything, it strengthened my resolve," he said. Seeing other students, particularly unobservant Jews, going wild with alcohol and dating was "shocking" for Eizik.
"It could boggle your mind, to see the stupidity of these kids," he said, "It was an amazing thing."
Being committed to both his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and his academic studies helped Eizik resist those temptations, even if they were sometimes, well, tempting.
For other religious college students, like the University of Georgia's Anne Story, faith is a steadying force during tumultuous times. Five days before leaving her Dallas, TX home for school, Story found herself in the emergency room, literally sickened with sadness after learning that her boyfriend of two years had been unfaithful to her.
The experience was traumatic, but it left her with a renewed commitment to her religious life that would come in very handy when she was faced with the temptations and changes that college can bring.
"There's no way that [experience] wasn't planned for that specific moment in my life," she said. "I learned to completely rely on God instead of putting things before God."