Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Student blues

Home Front
Catholic Herald 30 Sept 2005

Home Front by Sarah Johnson

Are you currently empty-nested? Have you a bedroom in the house that seems unnaturally still and tidy because its normal occupant has packed her iPod, phone and laptop and tripped off to university for the first time?
If so, be warned; at this time of year the freshers’ honeymoon fortnight ends with an abrupt crash to earth. It’s about now that the tearful phone calls home begin - or, even worse, the tight-lipped, wobbly-voiced phone calls in which nothing is said, but everything may be guessed at.
For an awful lot of students, university life means a continual sense of social inadequacy. One half of the student population is cooler, taller, thinner and cleverer than you are…and therefore out of your league; while the other half is duller, podgier and spottier than you, therefore not to be touched with a bargepole.
The trouble with going away from home for the first time is that there is no return. While at college, you long for the comforts of home, but just try going home for a weekend: you find yourself longing for the freedom of having your own space, feeling like an adult. So you schlep back to college, and the loneliness of your institutional little room hits you like a wet fish.
At university you are metaphorically issued with a blank piece of paper headed “what I am“ and given the frightening task of filling it in. You have the freedom to reinvent yourself from scratch.
At the same time, it is deeply tempting to try to live without all the little personal disciplines which parents have been trying to instil for 18 years. Fresh vegetables, alarm clocks, clean clothes, religious observance.
The happiest students are those who most quickly pass through the blank paper stage, and are confidently defining themselves, while also entering the adult world of self-discipline: getting up early to work, visiting the laundrette weekly, even eating the odd carrot.
Many young people, however, stare hopelessly at the blank sheet for months, while subsisting on Pot Noodles and being frankly terrified of the prospect of creating a new identity. If they happen to be Catholic, however, they can trot along to the Catholic chaplaincy and tell themselves they are only there because Mum or Granny asked them to check it out, “just out of curiosity“.
Among the many things I wish I had known before I went to university was this: the university’s Catholic chaplaincy is not necessarily a totally uncool place. At least it does not organise what appear to be impromptu social events which turn out to be carefully planned religious recruiting exercises, leaving freshers feeling distinctly cheated and distrustful of anyone with a religious agenda.
All universities are crawling with religious groups who try to pull in converts under the guise of making friends with freshers. These groups may do good, but they have given university Christians a bad name.
Catholic chaplaincies, by contrast, seem more to exist for the already converted, so do not have quite the scary aspect of proselytising groups. Many young people are terrified of being involved in anything that might turn out to be uncool or simply not to their taste.
Catholic chaplaincies, of course, vary a lot in nature, depending on where you are: at Bradford University, everything centres round something called the Melting Pot Bar, which involves a lot of Guinness, I gather. Exeter University’s catholic chaplaincy lays great stress on Devonshire cream teas and in Sheffield, brisk walks to the Peak District are planned regularly. Bath University’s chaplaincy is proud of its Shrove Tuesday “pancake night”. And of course, many university “CathSocs” organise ceilidhs.
University life is largely a process of putting out feelers, looking for like-minded souls at a time when you aren’t entirely sure what your own mind is like. So now is a good time to suggest to the student in your life that he or she looks in on the Catholic chaplaincy - just out of curiosity , of course.
At the least, your student will have a chance to commiserate with others about the privations of a Catholic upbringing…in between feeling strangely consoled by the familiar rhythm of Mass.

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