For Catholic high school students on their way to college, faith runs the risk of being lost in the shuffle of new roommates, classes, studying, and activities.
Campus ministries are often available to students in college – if they can get connected. One group is doing just that: helping high school students make a smooth faith transition into college by connecting them to their college’s Catholic center, even before they arrive.
“We reach out into the Catholic high schools and parishes to identify graduating seniors and where they are going off to college,” said Matthew Zerrusen, director and co-founder of The Newman Connection.
“We then get that information and send it to their respective campus minister. The idea is that the campus minister can then reach out to the student even before they arrive on campus,” Zerrusen told CNA.
The Newman Connection is a non-profit organization that provides national brand and support structure for campus ministries, assisting them in outreach, programming and organization development, said Zerrusen. Their main program is high school outreach, in which they contact Catholic high school students and connect them with the campus ministers at the colleges they plan on attending.
“We are essentially providing a list of warm leads for them [campus ministers] to boost outreach efforts,” said Zerrusen.
“We are changing the culture from a throw-darts-at-the-wall outreach plan to a strategic outreach plan that can target students based on the information given to us during high school,” he continued.
According to Zerrusen, around 80 percent of students stop practicing their faith in college. With such a substantial number of young people drifting away from the Church during formative years of their lives, Zerrusen believed something needed to be done.
“We have to change this,” he said, calling Newman Connection’s high school outreach program “a good start” in helping campus ministers connect with students and help them keep their faith on campus.
With the Newman Connection model, Zerrusen said students will already have a real, personal Catholic connection on their campus and will not have to rely on pamphlets or handouts to hear about Catholic events nearby.
JoAnn Shull, the campus ministry director for the St. Thomas More Newman Center at the University of Missouri, said the Newman Connection has allowed its campus outreach to focus more on actually ministering to students instead of spending time searching for them.
“When high schools and parishes communicate to the campus ministries through the Newman Connection, they provide a seamless transition for students to find their faith home in college,” Shull told CNA.
“From the campus ministry side, I see Newman Connection as another team member, albeit outsourced, that helps us find out Catholic students on campus,” she continued.
Over the past few years, Shull said she has seen significant strides in student outreach and remains “incredibly impressed” with the Newman Connection’s ability to make outreach more efficient. The St. Thomas More Newman at Mizzou has credited the Newman Connection for tripling its outreach numbers – taking their ministry from 400 students 5 years ago to over 1,200 students today.
Looking forward, Shull hopes more youth ministries, parishes and dioceses will come to understand the “critical nature of the mission of Newman Connection,” and its impact on the future of the Church, saying college students “need the Church’s support to help them grow in their adult faith.”
“Newman Connection can be a conduit for that process if parishes and dioceses can understand the critical importance of connecting these young adults to campus ministry,” she said.
The Newman Connection has been endorsed by almost 80 different dioceses and has connected upwards of 150,000 students to campus ministries in the past two years, according to Zerrusen. Moving forward, Zerrusen hopes their program can expand to even more parishes across the nation.
“We have to get out into the parishes. There are over 15,000 Catholic parishes in the U.S. and we want to reach them all,” Zerrusen said.
“It is aggressive but we think its achievable. Every year our numbers grow considerably, but getting more support from the public would certainly increase the speed at which we are able to operate.”