2021 has been a strange year for many people, having come out of a chaotic 2020, and having to adjust to the changes made in the wake of Covid-19. New Zealand has been among the most privileged countries with our Government’s response to the coronavirus, but that does not mean that being a university student does not come without its challenges.
For many students, living away from home for the first time can be a massive shift in their lives, and the way that they place themselves in the world. Father Juan Pedro Maldonado, who is chaplain at the University of Waikato tertiary chaplaincy — known as Waicath — said that, while being away from parents and the general structure of their lives so far, during their time at university, students can face “loneliness . . . . exposure to addictions. . . peer pressure . . . [and] academically, being unprepared to critically analyse what they are taught. Being challenged by an alleged split between faith and reason”.
The chaplaincy on campus is there to offer support to students during this transitional time in their lives, and create “a supportive environment where they can find peers who share their principles and goals in life”, Fr Maldonado said. The chaplaincy provides activities, personal guidance and advice to students as a way to help them “keep or establish a connection with the supernatural.”
Support structures within and around universities are clearly a welcome resource and aid to those studying, as expressed by fellow students. Rose Devine said: “I come from a long line of big Irish Catholic families, and I think I may have taken it for granted that I’d stay practising when I left home for university. What I didn’t know then was that, although universities are meant to be mediums for the free exchange of ideas, this was apparently limited to popular ideas. God was only ever mentioned as a kind of folklore, and the new Pro-life club [on campus] was immediately faced with a petition to remove it. I hadn’t realised how much anger there was towards these beliefs, but fortunately, because of the Waicath community and formation at Rimbrook (a study centre for women run by Opus Dei), this became another opportunity to learn.”
Student Zoya Vincent agreed that “Being a Catholic on campus and practising the faith can be a challenge, but it is not impossible. God found me and vice versa in this very university that I studied in. Growing up, my parents did their best to transmit the faith (which I am so grateful for) and, though I believed in God, I did not have a personal relationship with him.”
“In the beginning,” Zoya continued, “I found the university environment difficult because I did not have a strong grounding in my faith, hence I was easily influenced by relativistic ideologies. This made me confused about a lot of things in life. But I discovered the beauty of the Catholic faith through genuine and authentic friendship. I made friends that truly cared and wanted the best for me — and they brought me closer to God through their lives as examples.
“I rediscovered my faith in the past three years I was at university. Through Waicath (university club), I went to doctrine classes held on the university campus — which helped me to understand the Catholic faith at a deeper level. And, as I started understanding (the reasons to believe), I started growing closer to God and having a personal relationship with him,” Zoya said.
Speaking for myself, as I wrote this article, I reflected that I have also shared in some of these struggles. Having lived either on campus or extremely close to it for the past two and a half years, I have found that having these types of support systems can be incredibly useful.
I come from a Latino family and have lived on a farm here in New Zealand for most of my life, so I have always felt somewhat removed from certain aspects of society.
Attending Catholic schools has been a core part of my upbringing, so making the transition to university in a country that is largely secular has certainly led to having a feeling that the structure of my faith has suddenly disappeared. .
A group of people with shared beliefs has maintained some of that structure (albeit it is comparatively somewhat harder to maintain.) I anticipate this being an ongoing challenge for myself and many other Catholic students following their graduations, but I believe that maintaining the effort to be active in faith will only enrichen it.
— Pilar Mackinnon is a student at the University of Waikato