Let’s be real: choosing a college means deciding the path of your future. It’s not the simple “choose the red pill or the blue pill” setup from The Matrix. You might as well visit a Sherwin-Williams paint shop to see just how many color options there are—there’s just as many colleges out there to choose from too.
But I won’t overwhelm you. Instead I’ll highlight a certain aspect of the college search by grouping them by religious and non-religious—Catholic institutions versus non-Catholic institutions, to be more specific.
They aren’t for everyone. For some students faith has never played a role in life. Others may have had an upbringing that has since been strayed from, a possible a point of contention, or maybe religion was a force that was present while growing up and now is the first time they can willingly divorce from the environment. Not that these students can’t go to a Catholic school, but the majority of the community at a Catholic school will hold religious values.
Take it from me; I attend Gonzaga University, a Jesuit college. The Jesuits are a particular sect of Catholicism who focus on social justice advocacy and the Ignatian spirit, with a core value of cura personalis, which translates to “care for the whole person.” This basically means an emphasis on service, morality, and developing yourself as a complete being.
Gonzaga University's iconic church on campus, St. Aloysius
“I like the whole cura personalis, mind-body-spirit idea and care for the whole person. That stood out to me here,” said Gonzaga University sophomore Beth Stoddard, a religious studies major. “They genuinely care about developing the whole person, which comes from Jesuit beliefs.” Stoddard described a background of being born and raised Catholic and strongly identifies with the values.
Gonzaga sophomore Beth Stoddard
Religious schools’ ideologies translate into core course requirements, which involve taking core classes in religious studies; this means 12 credits at Gonzaga. However, the classes are not solely for those of the Catholic faith. There is a variety: African Catholicism, Principles of Christian Morality, Hebrew Bible, Judaism, even Feminist Christian Doctrine or Islamic Civilization.
“It’s through all aspects: they don’t pressure people to be Catholic,” Stoddard said. “Even though they make us take religion classes, it [Catholic faith] is definitely still there, so if you want to explore and enrich it, you can.”
If you attend a Catholic school without having any religious experience, you’ll encounter the option to learn in many ways. “It wasn’t a primary focus for me, but I’ve been surrounded by people who I can talk to about that with,” said Gonzaga sophomore Mark Houston. “This is a community where I can learn about it.”
Gonzaga sophomore Mark Houston
Of course you’ll see the crucifix in every classroom and crosses that adorn many of the buildings, but you don’t have to pray to the patron saints to get out of weekly Mass, because services are not required.
“I love how we have student Mass. It’s not required, of course, because not everyone is Catholic, but it gives us that option. When I go it’s such a good community that I find there,” said Stoddard.
College is a choice, and you’re willingly attending to learn and take courses for the degree you choose. Whether religion is a part of the process is up to you.
“The importance is on ‘you’ as an individual,” said Houston. “There’s an overall acceptance of other people.”
At Catholic colleges, there are alternatives to getting involved in terms of faith beyond the obvious church services. At Gonzaga, the University Ministry office coordinates all the faith-based endeavors of the school. University Ministry leads retreats, runs the grotto, and keeps up student Mass. Youth groups are prevalent, and gospel services are also present. For example, youth groups at Gonzaga are called CLCs, or Christian Leadership Communities, which anyone can join. These organizations vary from college to college, but an outstanding similarity with these groups is that they are often tight-knit and allow for individual development of faith in a student-to-student safe space. This dynamic is representative of Catholic schools as a whole.
“Ultimately, Catholic schools tend to be smaller with more tight-knit communities,” Stoddard said. “When it comes to colleges, we don’t have 40,000 students, and that’s one of the great things when considering going to a state school versus a private Catholic school.”