Before we drove away, there were some things I wanted to say, but every time I tried, a lump formed in my throat and tears filled my eyes. When Nana and Granddad dropped me off at college many years ago, Nana cried and had trouble letting me go — literally! To be honest, it kind of annoyed me at the time, but now I get it. If the tears hadn’t choked me, this is what I would have told you:
Respect your professors, but be aware of the philosophies that inform them.
Don’t be lured into thinking that just because someone is highly educated they are open-minded. College campuses have their own form of orthodoxy that at times can be more rigid in its application than any traditional religious institution. Many students get to college and think they’re rebelling against the closed-mindedness of their hometown, or church, or parents, when actually they’re just conforming to another set of dogmas. We like to think of universities as being safe places for the free exchange of thoughts, but higher education comes with its own form of censorship. For instance, if you tell someone on campus that you’re thinking of changing genders, you will probably be greeted with encouragement and support, because that aligns with the postmodern creed. However, if you mention you’ve attended the annual March for Life in D.C., you risk being stereotyped and ostracized. The true rebels on college campuses today are those who have the courage to question the status quo in spite of enormous pressure to buy into the culture, which tends to be aggressively secular and intolerant of dissent.
Go to church every week.
Mass is a subversive act on most university campuses. People tend to worship their own ideas rather than submit to a power greater than their own ego. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. You are going to form meaningful friendships, learn from gifted instructors and experience the joy of studying a subject you love. I’m excited for you. I really am, but I also want you to be informed. I want you to be able to make a free choice about which philosophy you make your own instead of blindly following one in which you’ve been unknowingly indoctrinated.
Flannery O’Connor said it best in her letter to Alfred Corn: “Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free — not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.”
You have the opportunity to meet a rich diversity of people.
Smile. Look up from your phone. Say hello. Start a real conversation with someone you don’t know while you’re waiting for class to start. No matter how different people seem, we all have one thing in common. We chose to leave paradise and have been trying to find our way back ever since. Some try to think their way back. Some try to sleep their way back. Some try to drink their way back. Some people are confused about their destination. Some think a destination does not exist. Our paths differ, but we are all on the same journey whether we realize it or not. Be kind to your fellow travelers. Not a false niceness that says, “I’ll never challenge or disagree with you,” but an authentic kindness that tells others when their turn signal is burnt out or they are headed the wrong way on a one-way street.
Finally, Dad told me about the orientation session with the human sexuality professor.
Aren’t you glad I wasn’t at that one! If I had been there, I would have said that a condom doesn’t protect the woman’s heart or yours. Even when we try to reduce sex to a merely recreational activity, our bodies know it was meant for more. Yes, it’s fun and thrilling, but it’s more than that. Unobstructed, sex has the capacity to form a completely new human. A game of tennis or ultimate Frisbee can’t do that. Given its life-giving potential, the Creator obviously wanted us to treat sex with great tenderness and care. Please keep this in mind even when everyone around you seems to be “doing it.”
As I finish this letter, I realize that, like my mother before me, I’m having trouble letting go. If you’re annoyed, I understand. When you were a baby, I used to play a lullaby CD. One song in particular got to me because it made me think of this day when we would leave you at college. It went like this:
“If I could, I would try to shield your innocence from time / But the part of life I gave you isn’t mine. / I’ve watched you grow / So I could let you go ...”
It’s time to trust you to find your way. I know that you will. Your path will not be my path, nor should it be. It will be uniquely and beautifully yours, filled with your own successes, mistakes, joys and failures. And perhaps someday, when you drop your son or daughter off at college for the first time, you’ll think to yourself: “Now I get it, Mom.” I love you!
Kathy Alton teaches theology at Lancaster Catholic High School in Pennsylvania and is a member of Women Speak for Themselves.