7.5 Tips to Survive and Thrive in (a Jesuit) College

by | Sep 9, 2015 | Catholic Writing, Education

Editor’s Note: This text was adapted from an address given to the first-year class of 2019 at Loyola University Maryland, where the author teaches (Go Hounds!). It has been lightly edited here.

You’ve arrived at a place that can change your life – and for the better. But like so many things, this change is not automatic. Jesuit colleges and universities are in the business of offering educational opportunities of all kinds: intellectual and religious; personal and communal. But, my new friends, opportunities can only bear fruit when you seize them.

You’ve been hearing a lot of important “don’ts” this week: don’t burn candles in dorm rooms, don’t plagiarize, don’t walk alone…all good advice.  But let’s take a different approach. Let’s call it the “please do!” approach. In that spirit, I offer you 7.5 Tips to Survive and Thrive at (a Jesuit) College. Please, do:

  1. Cultivate Wonder

Apparently it was Aristotle who said that “philosophy” – love of wisdom – “begins in wonder.” You know: awe or admiration at something we see in the world. But to be honest, I learned this lesson not from Aristotle but from two pretty unexpected philosophers:

Adorable Nephews of the AuthorMeet my nephews. Now, I know what you’re thinking and yes: they do get their good looks from their Jesuit uncle. But they taught me a lot about wonder when I was with them this summer. Like most kids, this world is big and new and absolutely amazing for them. And they are completely and unabashedly amazed by it.

One of them is particularly obsessed with ceiling fans. The other angel has a true love of doorstops. These are not the most majestic of God’s creations – but they do fill my nephews with energy and joy and delight. Wonder will do that.

We Jesuits believe that humans are built for wonder, built to marvel at reality. The word university comes from a Latin word that means ‘wholeness;’ as in “all things put together.” At a Jesuit university, we assemble all elements of the human experience for you to wonder about – including the Source of reality itself.  And we think that beholding them with awe will not only make you smarter, but can even draw you closer to God.

  1. Try It (At Least Once)

“If it’s legal and moral and you haven’t done it, try it once.” This is the advice reportedly given to new students by John Sexton, president of New York University.  Dr. Sexton graduated from a Jesuit university not once, not twice, but three times. No doubt Dr. Sexton would be glad to know that one of my philosopher nephews agrees with him.

Definitely Not Sugar in the Raw

I can assure you that eating sand at the Jersey Shore is both legal and moral. And I can assure you that I have witnessed this at least once.

You will be bombarded with things to try during the next four years. Try them – keeping in mind “legal and moral” advice, of course. Some things you won’t do again, and that’s okay. But some opportunities – like engaging in service sponsored by your school, or making a retreat with Campus Ministry – will stretch your heart and may even reshape your idea of yourself. Some courses (especially the ones you are required to take!) will stretch your mind in new and unexpected ways.  They may even change how you see the world and yourself.  In fact, that’s what the “core curriculum” at our colleges and universities is all about. Stretch, my friends, at least once.

  1. Make Friends with the Words “I Don’t Know”

“I don’t know” may seem scary words to utter in school – because we are conditioned to think that not having an answer means getting something wrong. But actually, saying “I don’t know” is the root of all discovery, including at a Jesuit university committed to faith seeking understanding. After all, what’s the point of researching, of exploring, something you already know?

This is the difference, one you’ve probably heard a few times since you arrived on a Jesuit campus, between being students or pupils and being co-learners. You would not be at one of our schools if you weren’t a good student. But as you enter the Jesuit intellectual community, we ask you to be a co-learner. That means beginning with “I don’t know,” but never stopping there. It’s to say: “I don’t know – and I need to find out.”

Your mentors on the faculty and staff are your partners in “finding out.” We too are still learning, even in fields where we are regarded as “experts.” Your questions, your concerns, your ideas: these all shape not only how we teach but how we think, how and what we research, and how we write. Get to know us outside of class (and let us get to know you). Come to office hours, even just to say hi. We’re nice and we don’t usually bite. We love what we do and are eager to talk about it.

  1. Read Books (even those you think you’ll hate)

When St. Ignatius was recovering from his fateful injury (cannonball, leg), he read two books that were anything but his first choice: the Life of Christ and Lives of the Saints. They changed his life – and frankly, yours and mine – since without Ignatius there would be no Jesuit higher education. You’ll be asked to read – a lot – on our campuses. Marinating in ideas is why you are here for four of your most precious, formative years. Read broadly, even when you dread a particular text. You never know what books and ideas might change your life – and, through you, the lives of others.

  1. Exercise

You’ve seen the gym on your campus and maybe even have scaled the rock wall already. That’s good, keep it up. But there’s another kind of exercise that’s part of life at a Jesuit university: spiritual exercise.  St. Ignatius likened our spiritual development and relationship with God to physical exercise. If you’re playing along at home, that means you could graduate physically ripped, and spiritually – well – not. Kind of like this:


Swole Thy Soul, Bro.

Don’t let this happen to you! We have the gym, but Jesuit campuses are also filled with chapels – sometimes several of them. Many Jesuit schools even have their own retreat centers. Use them!

The Jesuits in general, and especially our schools, aren’t neutral about faith: Jesuit education is built on the idea that to be fully human, to be fully alive, means that we live in conscious relation to God. Our spirituality calls us to imitate the compassionate love of Jesus. And we live out that compassion in a community of both worship and service.

That said, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome here. You may have lots of questions and doubts about faith, or you may feel secure in your beliefs. That’s great. Perhaps you are committed in a particular tradition, or perhaps you are not sure what you believe. Wherever you are, go deeper, and know that we are here to help.

  1. Open Your Door!

I mean this literally: get a doorstop, and use it. Get to know the people you live with and who live on your floor. Ignatius and the first Jesuits were college roommates in Paris. They came from different countries and socio-economic backgrounds – and they became the best of friends. They changed the world. You can too – but you will have to turn off your Xbox (at least sometimes) to talk to each other.

I also mean this figuratively. Open your door to the people who live beyond the comforts of campus during your college years. Most Jesuit schools are located in urban areas, which can be places of great beauty – and great brokenness. Come to know both. It will redefine you, and it will define your time here.

  1. Practice Rigorous Gratitude

For Ignatius of Loyola, everything we have is a gift from God – literally everything.  The air in our lungs, our talents and abilities…even the scrambled eggs and frozen yogurt in the dining hall. One risk for us in private schools is thinking we have earned our education and therefore we deserve it. But we owe a debt of thanks to those who have sacrificed for Jesuit education long before you or I turned up on campus. And learning to see the world this way changes our sense of entitlement into an attitude of gratitude. It also changes how we relate to each other, and ultimately how we relate to God.

This is more than saying thank you, though that’s important. It means taking time to recognize: who are the donors (yes, other than your parents and the bank!) who make my education possible? Why is my professor’s office light still on at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday? Who is up at five to make the latte I down before my 8:00 a.m. class?

If you’re looking for happiness, start practicing gratitude.

And last, but certainly not least, please do:

7.5 Fail

Now before you text home saying that a Jesuit told you to flunk at your new school – that’s not what I’m saying. (That’s why this gets only a half number.)  The point is this: anything that is truly worth doing is worth failing at. Jesuit schools talk a lot about the concept of magis – which means striving for ‘the more’ or ‘the greater’ for God. Your Jesuit education asks this of you, but it is not possible without risk.

The truth is that we Jesuits are professionals: at failure. We’ve started works that were flops, built schools that didn’t last, and the order itself was completely disbanded for over forty years.  

Take it from us: to act boldly is to risk failure and misunderstanding. To love is to risk rejection. To seek justice is to risk ridicule and defeat.

If you want to learn how to live safely and securely, you have come to the wrong place. Study diligently, love deeply, live boldly. And when and if you fail, try again.

* * *

Who you are today, and who you become in these four years, matters a great deal to us as Jesuits. Because we believe that who you are and who you become matters for this world of ours. Because we believe that who you are and who you become matters greatly to God.

You’ve arrived at a place that can change your life. Please let it. We Jesuits are eager to help as you become the person God dreams you to be.


Title Image: Eton College courtesy of Juan Salmoral on Flickr


Timothy O'Brien, SJ

tobriensj@thejesuitpost.org   /   @tob_sj   /   All posts by Timothy