Returning to School, College Students Share How the Pandemic has Impacted their Faith
By Lindsay Peyton
Next month, many college students from Texas Annual Conference churches will head back to campus to face a new normal in academia. They already navigated through difficult waters, being back home, missing their friends and learning how to study and take classes online. Now, these students are preparing to face even more uncertainty – and leaning on faith to carry them through.
Caroline Harper thought spring break would be a relaxing break from her second year at Texas A&M University. Little did she know that an extra week would be added and then staying at home would extend until the end of the term, as the coronavirus spread.
“I had an anxiety attack,” she recalled. “I don’t really like change. And this was a whole lot of unknown. It took me a while to accept what was going on.”
There was also a lot that Harper was forced to leave behind. She loved College Station, her sorority and her in-person classes. She was also leading worship and growing in her faith.
Harper turned to prayer. “I can’t change these circumstances or this situation,” she said. “The Lord humbled me. I had to rely a lot on prayer. I’m not going to know what’s next, but I need to trust that the Lord is going to get me through this.”
She switched to online classes from her parents’ house, and on Sundays, they all virtually attended service at Faithbridge Church in Houston. A couple of times, she drove to College Station to record worship services for Declaration.
Eventually, Harper completed the semester and now is the leadership team at T Bar M camp. On August 8, she will move back to A&M. “It’s definitely going to be weird going back and getting back into the routine of being on campus,” she said.
And Harper knows that she won’t be alone in feeling uncertain about what comes next. Going back to school will not be the same this year, she said.
“I’m planning to seek out the community that I have built, and that may look different,” she said. “But pursuing relationships and sharing a love of Jesus through that will be important.”
Already, she is reaching out to roommates and talking to them about their quarantine experiences. “I just want to check in on their hearts, see how they are doing,” she said. “And I’m looking forward to getting plugged back into my church in College Station.”
Being in college teaches students independence and how to determine their own priorities, Harper explained. Finding a church on her own -- and connecting with the congregation -- reaffirmed how important her faith truly is.
“Being able to get back to that and continue making that a priority is exciting,” she said. “I’m definitely ready for that.”
Andrew Thompson is also eager to return to school. He spent his last semester online at Abilene Christian University and will head to graduate school at Duke Divinity on August 3.
“It’s been stressful getting the next step in place,” he said. “But things happen. The world keeps moving, and we’ve got to keep moving with it.”
Because of the pandemic, he was not able to visit Duke in person. He also had to rent an apartment from a distance.
Thompson joined a Facebook group for admitted students and started researching area churches from afar. “It’s just about getting the information and then putting it into play when I’m there,” he said.
He spent the summer as an intern at First United Methodist Church Nacogdoches, assisting Abbey Weaver, Director of Youth Ministry. In this post, he observed other students struggling with the same issues.
FUMC Nacogdoches is in a unique position, serving as the home church for many, as well as a new church for those recently enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University.
Some of the church members returned home to another church, while others who were away asked if they could join FUMC Nacogdoches youth groups, Zoom groups and Bible studies.
“Being at this church this summer has been a blessing,” Thompson said. “I was able to witness how others were managing.”
At the same time, he was able to help them stay connected. “It’s hard to build up one’s faith when you’re not able to be in person,” he said. “There’s also a heavy reliance on faith to get through uncertainty. People tend to lean on faith to get them through.”
Thompson has also enjoyed watching the church grow and seeing how it has used technology to become more accessible in this time.
Weaver plans for even more innovation in the future. In fact, she has been working with the SFA Wesley Foundation to develop more online college programs.
“We want to provide something, to provide faith formation,” she said. “Initially, we all had this idea that we were taking temporary measures. Now we have to reevaluate and find new ways to make this work for the future.”
Weaver can relate to the plight of students in college during the pandemic. This is her first year out of graduate school.
“There are all of these curveballs being thrown at students going back to college or grad school,” she said. “A faith community is more important than ever, having support in uncertain times.”
Weaver has received numerous texts and phone calls from students about to head off to college asking for advice.
“We have students in lots of different positions, trying to juggle and figure out their next steps,” Weaver said. “I want to be there for them as much as I can. The reason I do this is to help them, walk alongside them and support them.”
She is confident that other youth directors feel the same way – and encourages students to reach out to the leadership at their home churches or churches near their universities.
“They have opportunities for you and ways to get involved,” Weaver said. “We’re here for you and want to help you stay connected. We’re more than happy to help.”
She also recommends taking time for personal development of faith – and building small groups to pick up a devotional or a book to read together. They can discuss topics over the phone or on a videoconference – or gather as a small group on the lawn, properly socially distanced.
“Everyone needs community now more than ever,” Weaver said. “This is a time to stick together and look for a place to experience God and understand how to be a Christian.”
Alain Leistikow, Director of Student Ministries at Livingston FUMC, tells youth to incorporate visits to area churches when they go off to tour colleges. These days, that search may switch online but nonetheless, knowing where to go for worship, resources and community in a new area can be a game-changer.
“Visit and get connected to the community,” Leistikow said. “Reach out, talk to churches, talk to campus ministries. They’re always hungry to reach new students. There are always opportunities to get plugged in.”
He recommends that college students also consider volunteer opportunities at church – whether in a new congregation or back at home.
Leistikow likened the uncertainty students are facing to the up-in-the-air environment for early Christians. “The disciples had to hide and be separate,” he said. “They adapted and dealt with a lot of uncertainty. They’re a great example to us, to learn how to grow and adapt.”
One of the students at Livingston FUMC, Brittany Denton graduated high school this year during the pandemic. She will start at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall on August 13.
On top of the struggles of ending high school and starting college in lockdown, Denton also tested positive for COVID-19. She has leaned on faith to rise above all obstacles. “I have a strong belief that God will get me through, and that’s been really helpful to me,” she said.
Before heading off next month, Denton already found a new church to attend, FUMC Marshall. Going to church has always been a priority for her, and she asked Leistikow for a recommendation.
Now, she is excited to get to know a new congregation. “I just have a feeling God wants me there,” she said. “I know it’s going to be a blast.”