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College Catholics and Faith 101

Florida Catholic survey asks why keeping the faith is often a challenge for college students


MIAMI | Thousands of high school graduates entered college for the first time this fall. Thousands more will return to continue their journey in higher education. Before leaving home, they packed their bags with essentials, from toiletries, to laptops and headphones, notebooks and pens, clothes, and comfort food like pastelitos and Cuban coffee.

But did they pack their faith? And if they did, how are they engaging it on campus and in their lives? While college brings many firsts, for many students it is also the first opportunity to practice the faith on their own.

From July to mid-August, the Florida Catholic, Miami edition, through the archdiocesan Office of Communications, released a survey via social media asking past and present college students about their faith experience on campus. Participants selected answers from multiple choice options or selected “other” to provide their own feedback. Exactly 101 responses were received from students who attended colleges in and out of state.

Granted, this is self-selected and therefore not scientific survey. But here are the questions and results:

“How did your faith change in college?” offered four response options:

  • 60 students (59.4 percent) said their faith got stronger
  • 21 students (20.8 percent) said their faith weakened
  • 18 students (17.8 percent) said that their faith stayed the same
  • 2 students (2 percent) said they lost their faith completely

When students were asked what kept them practicing Catholicism in college:

  • 44 students (43.6 percent) said campus ministry helped them maintain their faith
  • 24 students (23.8 percent) said they did so independently
  • 11 students (10.9 percent) said a local parish helped
  • 11 students (10.9 percent) said they did not keep practicing
  • Five students (5 percent) said they continued practicing because of friends

The remaining students selected “other” as their answer and filled in various responses, including “God called me back,” “I was in college seminary,” and “my family” as reasons for continuing to practice their faith in college. 

Catholic Gators

Allie Jackson, a student at the University of Florida, felt encouraged by Catholic Gators and FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) to dive into her faith.

“The group is filled with so much joy and love and if it weren’t for such a powerful group that welcomed me when I got to college, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today,” Jackson said.

At UF, the Catholic Gators have Mission 10,000, an outreach initiative aimed at finding, forming and launching into lifelong discipleship all 10,000 Catholic students at the university in four years. Similar campus ministry engagement can be found at other colleges and universities across the state and country, whether Catholics are physically present on campus, or across the street at a nearby parish.

When asked if a local parish or Catholic community kept them coming back, the reasons and results were varied:

  • 20 students (19.8 percent) said they were moved by inspiring, relatable and relevant homilies
  • 19 students (18.8 percent) said they continued to attend out of habit
  • 5 students (5 percent) said that music helped
  • 4 students (4 percent) said they felt a sense of fellowship and belonging
  • 3 students (3 percent) said they enjoyed the community

Remaining students selected “other” as their option and responded with “The ability to learn and grow more through formation,” “Jesus and friends,” and “It was the right thing to do.”

For Aramis Perez, who attended college in Cambridge, Mass., it was as simple as having a church within walking distance from campus.

“I was finally able to go to Mass every Sunday because I could walk there,” Perez said. “At home, I didn't have a car.” 

‘Rude’ encounters

A few students said they experienced “rude” encounters and did not return to church. In exploring why students stopped practicing the faith during college, the survey asked, “What caused it?”

  • 29 students (29.71 percent) said they didn’t stop practicing
  • 13 students (12.9 percent) cited a change in routine
  • 10 students (9.9 percent) cited lack of community
  • 9 students (8.9 percent) said the college environment affected their practice
  • 7 students (6.9 percent) said it was inconvenient
  • 3 students (3 percent) cited independent study

Students who selected “other” as an option wrote “beliefs from the Catholic Church towards the LGBTQ community,” “being left out and unwelcomed,” “unintelligent representation of the faith,” and “too preoccupied with all else” as reasons for stopping the practice of their faith in college.

A student, who wished to remain anonymous, noted “Other Catholics have led me away from Catholicism as a faith system, but I have retained my own private religiosity separate from the confines of the Church.”

That response is similar to what many millennials and other adults define as being “spiritual but not religious.” A Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year revealed that about a quarter of adults in the U.S. (27 percent) claim the trending label, up eight percent since 2012.  

‘God’s search for us’

During an October 2012 lecture at Florida International University on “Spirituality in the Contemporary Catholic Church,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski reminded students that the Church encompasses different forms of spirituality and private prayer, such as Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite.

“Authentic spirituality, then, for the Christian, is not so much about our search for God but about God’s search for us,” said Archbishop Wenski. “It’s a big Church. So we can talk within Catholicism of distinct spiritualities that fit the temperament and personalities of everyone.”

Archbishop Wenski noted that Mass, whether it is celebrated in the Roman Rite, in the new form or the extraordinary (old Latin) form, in the Byzantine or other Eastern rites, is meant to bring all to pray together. 

Father Phillip Tran, Catholic chaplain at the University of Miami, said he asks students to consider changing their perspective from "How is church not pleasing to me?" to "Why do I go to church?"

“Hopefully the reason is not just for you, but for God,” said Father Tran. “Mass is ultimately an act of worship oriented towards God, not for ourselves, and thus if you go, and even if you don't like it, it's an act of love because you're purposefully giving that hour to God. Give it a chance.”

Florida Catholic intern and freelancer Christy Piña contributed to this survey and story.


• Six private Catholic universities, three in the Archdiocese of Miami: archdiocesan-sponsored St. Thomas University, Adrian Dominican-sponsored Barry University, and St. John Vianney College Seminary.

• The State University System of Florida has 12 public state universities, and the Florida College System has 28 public and state community colleges.

• The majority of colleges and universities have Catholic campus ministries available on site, or in a parish close to the school.   


Barry University, Miami Shores

• Director of Campus Ministry Karen J. Stalnaker, 305-899-3650,

• University chaplain: Father Cristobal Torres, 305-899-3836, 

FIU - University Park Campus

• Chaplain: Father Sahayanathan Nathan,, 786-304-7104

• On Facebook @catholicpanthers 

FIU - Biscayne Bay Campus

• Advisor to Catholic Student Association: Isabel Capella,, 305-919-5307 

St. Thomas University, Miami Gardens

• Director of Campus Ministry: Claudia H. Herrera, 305-628-6515, 305-628-6721,

• Online at: 

University of Miami, Coral Gables

• Catholic chaplain: Father Phillip Tran,

• On Facebook @umiamicatholic.

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