Lauren DeFries put her faith to the side when she started at Northern Illinois University.
A transplant to the DeKalb area, the excitement of being a new college student eclipsed years of going to church. It’s not that DeFries, now 21, didn’t want to stay connected to her faith, but going to church alone felt awkward and she didn’t have faithful friends.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about religion,” the NIU senior said. “There’s a stigma about it.”
Religious leaders on the NIU campus know college is a time where students explore in ways that might take them away from their religion or spirituality. That’s why they’re determined to provide a strong network where students can feel at home and keep the faith.
One day during her sophomore year, DeFries walked into Grace Place, a campus ministry center based in Lutheran and Episcopal beliefs. She’s been a regular there since.
“I feel like I’m back where I need to be,” DeFries said. “I’m not practicing everyday, but I’m moving forward.”
Watching college students make the foundational decisions about their lives is part of the reason Amy Fallon loves her job as the Campus Pastor at Grace Place, where she’s worked for nearly two years. She said coming to church often helps students integrate all the new experiences they’re having with where they see their lives after college.
“It helps students put the pieces together,” Fallon said.
On Wednesday, a group of more than 15 students and pastors gathered around a small fire burning at the corner of Lucinda Avenue and Normal Road outside of The Grace Place. They sang hymns and read Bible verses amid a sea of passing students, cars and buses.
“Campus ministry is at the heart of campus,” Fallon said. “I think that has some strong symbolism.”
NIU has more than 20 religious student organizations, including Grace Place, the Newman Catholic Student Center, Hillel Jewish Student Organization and the Islamic Society of Northern Illinois University, to name a few.
“Between all of us, hopefully we can provide a home for the students of faith,” the Rev. Jeremy Trowbridge said Wednesday after Mass at the Newman Catholic Student Center.
Newman leaders aim to provide the regular spiritual nourishment or a safe place to turn. The team also tries to have fun, Trowbridge said. Wednesday night, for instance, students come for confession or Mass, but also enjoy pizza and a game of bags afterwards.
Peter Aiura found nourishment at the church before he graduated from NIU in 2011 with a degree in mechanical engineering. After working in his field for a few months, Aiura, 25, came back to NIU to be part of the Newman Catholic Students Center’s missionary team.
He said when he’s out among college students, he finds they often seem thirsty for a human connection. He knows living the college lifestyle might not seem compatible with a religious one, but contends NIU has a strong network of faith organizations.
“I think it is there, but it’s not something that’s celebrated,” Aiura said. “It’s not like the football program where they’re going to hang up banners saying we have great churches and Bible studies.”
While many students wander away from their faith as they start college, Montana Hernandez is determined to maintain it. The 18-year-old Morrison native lost her father earlier this year, which is when she started regularly attending church again.
“I just think if I keep with my faith,” Hernandez said, “It will help me with my classes and keep me close to my dad.”