Program helps college Catholics stay connected to their faith

by Kara Hansen

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — After sending three children through Catholic grade school and high school, Bill McHale was more than a little surprised to learn that each of his children, one by one, stopped practicing their faith once they left for college.

Dismayed, McHale started talking to other parents of college-age children and quickly discovered he was not alone. Ultimately, his participation in his local Serra Club, an organization that helps foster vocations, encouraged him to do something about it.

“In talking with other members of the Serra Club, I realized many other families had similar situations and that’s what got me really committed to the College Connection program,” said McHale, a member of the Serra Club of Kansas City, Kan., and a parishioner at Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park.

The College Connection program was created by Serra International and is being implemented in the archdiocese for the first time this year through local Serra Clubs like McHale’s. It is designed to connect incoming college freshmen with the Catholic presence on or near their campus, in the hope that, by making that initial connection, each student will be more likely to continue practicing his or her faith throughout college and into young adulthood.

“Each student’s name will go to the Newman Center, Catholic campus center, or closest Catholic church to the student’s college, so they can get in touch with the kids as they arrive,” explained McHale.

To get the program off the ground, McHale and other members of archdiocesan Serra Clubs have coordinated with Catholic high schools to obtain the names of their graduating seniors and their college of choice.

Then, members of the Serra Club will contact the various Catholic campus centers, ministry programs, or Catholic parishes to give staff there the names and contact information of the respective incoming freshmen. Students are, in turn, given written information on the Catholic presence at their college of choice, courtesy of the Serra Club.

“We are hopefully reaching all the [college-bound] students in the Catholic high schools in our archdiocese this year, which is approximately 850 graduating seniors,” said McHale.

What’s at stake in this attempt by the College Connection program to keep college kids practicing their faith is staggering.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., if campus ministries reached just 10 percent more of the nearly five million Catholic college students across the United States and kept them active in their faith, it would add approximately 500,000 practicing Catholics to dioceses across the country.

It is no surprise, then, that College Connection has garnered the immediate support of Catholic school administrators in the archdiocese.

“I think the College Connection program is a great program,” said Kathy O’Hara, superintendent of archdiocesan schools. “Young people between the ages of 18 and 22 are still very impressionable and vulnerable and need to continue to mature in their faith.

“As a parent of now-grown children, I know firsthand the value of encouraging young adults to practice their faith at this time in their lives.”

There is already a program in place at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park to help graduating seniors get connected with campus ministry pro- grams at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, said president Bill Ford. But he is glad of this new program, nonetheless.

“We think the College Connection will enhance our efforts at the two largest Kansas Regents universities,” said Ford. “Since we already have this program in place at KU and K-State, their work with our graduates at other public universities will provide a broader outreach.”

O’Hara said that while many Catholic parishes already assist and encourage their college students to get involved at their Catholic campus centers while in college, the College Connection program could help fill in any gaps and expand efforts currently underway.

“The Serra Club program will assist those parishes that may not have the capacity to take on this type of project,” she said.

McHale said even though the program is starting with the archdiocesan Catholic schools, it is meant to encompass all high school Catholic seniors in the archdiocese who are graduating — regardless of whether they attend public, private, or Catholic schools.

“We would like to do one program through the Catholic high schools and one program with the public schools through the parishes,” said McHale. “We’re concentrating on making contact with all the students in the Catholic high schools this year and getting them the information on campus for their respective Catholic ministries.”

But McHale recognizes that reaching the public school students, through the parishes, will be more difficult.

“We’re targeting a few parishes to start the effort with the public school students, since that is where the majority of the students come from — approximately 70 percent.”

But a large-scale effort will have to wait.

As for McHale, two of his three children are once again practicing their Catholic faith, and he has high hopes for the third.

But he hopes that the College Connection program will help spare other parents the worry he has known — and keep upcoming generations of Catholics faithful to the Gospel their whole life long.

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