(WNS) -- Shaquille Robinson grew up in a strong Christian home in Catlett, Va., and thought he could handle anything he might face on a secular college campus. But when he moved into the dorms at Bridgewater College, in Bridgwater, Va., he found more challenges than he expected.
"There were temptations that I didn't have before: parties, random sex, drinking … it was a change of scenery," he admitted.
Robinson felt like he was floating in a pool of secularism. After struggling to resist the culture around him, he finally had what he described as a "religious breakdown."
"I called home and told my mom I thought I was losing Jesus," he said.
Christian students attending secular colleges face more than academic challenges. Secular campus life often causes them to wrestle with their beliefs, with many even walking away from faith before graduation. But those who minister on secular campuses say with a little planning and a lot of prayer, students can survive school with an even stronger, more vibrant and personal faith.
Like many students going away from home for the first time, Robinson experienced a contrast between his precollege and college life. Greg Jao, national field director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, says conflict often exists between the internal and external life. Students grow up with a privatized faith, dependent on group activities and social context often set by their parents. They don't have a clear idea of how to integrate their faith with everyday activities.
"There is no essence of what the issues you engage with have to do with faith," Jao said.
When students enter college, all of their social-based support for that internalized faith is gone, leaving them to test its structural integrity, said Bob Fuhs, associate national director of the Pacific Southwest region for Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ.
"That spiritual scaffolding is taken away. The question is, is it strong enough to stand on its own?"
The answer to that question often depends on the community students choose to keep, said Robert Bember, senior communications advisor for Beta Upsilon Chi, a national Christian fraternity. Students face an enormous amount of peer pressure, he said.
Displacement and peer pressure are not the only factors challenging students. Young Christians often find their faith challenged intellectually, Jao said. On a secular campus, students are confronted with questions of science, religion and the truthfulness of the Bible.
Despite these stresses, students can take steps to combat stumbling. Bember, Fuhs, and Jao all stress the importance of community in a Christian's life.
Joining a church, youth group or Bible study help students connect with others who share their faith. Students can find community among their peers and with older Christians on and near any campus.
"If you're looking for something, you'll find it," Bember said.
The students who struggle the most on secular campuses often make no connections with other Christians, Fuhs said: "It's all about community. You can't go it alone."
And students should remember the importance of studying, knowing and loving God's word. During his first year at Bridgewater College, Robinson found that reading his Bible and praying day and night helped him adjust: "It's little changes that make the difference," he said.
Fuhs encourages students to have a plan before entering college. He suggests students ask themselves questions about situations. "What am I going to face? What will I do when I face it? What does being an ambassador look like?"
Students also should make and keep goals. Saying no to temptations and yes to other life choices is a must for students, Bember said. Making commitments to good grades, good relationships and involvement on campus are ways to clarify the college experience.
"You begin to find your goals contradicting your college environment," he said.
Fuhs found sharing his faith helped him in college. When students are honest without being pushy, people can learn to respect their beliefs, he said.
Through all the stress, Jao encourages students to remember that they are not at a particular campus by accident. Christians on campus likely have been praying for other godly students, he said: "You are the answer to those prayers."
And above all, students need to remember they are not alone.
"It's normal to feel the way you do and have the confusion and struggle you're having," Fuhs said. The transition might take longer than students expect. "If you don't have a best friend before the end of the first semester, that's okay too."
After his religious breakdown, Robinson prayed with his family and felt God giving him some direction. He stopped doing some things he knew he shouldn't be doing and made new commitments to getting good grades and a developing a closer relationship to God.
"Sometimes you have to fall and hit rock bottom to get back up," he said, adding that the fall allowed him to see the bigger picture of how God works. "We all fall short of the glory of God."
c. 2012 WORLD News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: August 13, 2012