by Bob Hart
Special to The Leaven
EMPORIA — The freshman year of college brings with it new freedoms, a new independence and new temptations.
Absent from the daily watchful eye of parents and family, young students on campus quickly discover there’s no one else to make sure they get up in the morning, get to class on time and make good choices.
Suddenly, it all falls squarely on each student’s own two shoulders.
And even at a midsized school like Emporia State University, with a fall enrollment of just under 6,000 students in 2016, there’s the risk, at times, of feeling like just another face in the crowd.
Where can a new student go to find a sense of purpose and direction?
“I discerned my vocation in the context of doing this type of work,” said Father Nick Blaha, chaplain and director, on a recent afternoon in his office at ESU’s Didde Catholic Campus Center. “This is such a crucial stage of life — things can really turn on a dime.
“Students who come to us are not typically in crisis, but they may be searching for direction, asking the normal questions like, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’
“I think it’s part of my job to be a credible friend, to make the introduction to Christ and the church, and then sometimes to get out of the way.”
The role of credible friend begins on move-in day for the freshmen dorms, when Father Blaha and Didde volunteers take part in a venerable ESU tradition: greeting students and their parents as “Hornet Helpers” (Corky the Hornet being ESU’s mascot) and literally doing the heavy lifting.
It’s a point of pride at ESU that these freshmen and their parents rarely carry so much as a box. Volunteers — including faculty, staff and older students — take care of that.
In fact, they have each student’s belongings transferred from vehicle to room in a matter of less than 10 minutes, on average.
The Didde volunteers at Freshman Move-In, which takes place on a Friday, wear name tags that also include a message that reads: “Ask me about the Didde Catholic Campus Center.”
Many students do, and they’re promptly invited to an afternoon volleyball game that same day. It’s just the beginning, when it comes to making them feel welcome.
By Sunday of that same weekend, new students are included in a back-to-school barbecue on the grounds of the center, which is directly across Merchant Street on the west side of the campus. Before long, they’re introduced to the many opportunities the center offers them — not only to attend Mass and receive the sacrament of confession, but to take part in social events, Bible study and social justice activities.
“Those first two weeks, we’re out there, highly visible,” Father Blaha said. “We’re at the fairs and at the block parties. We’re making contacts and inviting people to be part of our community.”
“There’s a place for everyone here,” said Bobbi Jo Rockers, a junior elementary education major from Greeley and president of the Didde Center’s student council.
“We don’t push anything down people’s throats,” she said. “We accept anyone and everyone, and we’ll meet you where you’re at.”
The center is even a clean, safe place to study and do laundry.
With all it has to offer in mind, Father Blaha has even given the Didde Catholic Campus Center a nickname.
“I sometimes call it a frontier outpost of divine life,” he said.