Against the Current: Understanding the Mindset of an Incoming College Freshman

When I was in college, I went rafting with some friends. We were coasting down a medium-size rapid when, all of a sudden, we dropped about four feet on a dip that we didn’t see coming. Falling off my tube, I remember having to swim upstream to get back onto my float that had become lodged between a rock and a hard place. Tired from the struggle, I remember wondering if the experience was worth it at all.

In just a matter of weeks, college campuses will be flooded with a new class of freshmen, eager to begin this next stage of life. These students have spent the past 12+ months dreaming about this opportunity, and now that it’s here, plan to run full speed into the wall of freedom.

So, how, as a college pastor/campus minister, do you care for these campus newbies? Before you can answer, you first need to understand the spiritual mindset of a Christian college freshman.

For the past few years, a typical Christian high school student has lived his life in a bubble of sorts. By their senior year in high school, many are generally coasting down a spiritual and social current of life. Like the rapids of a flowing river, these students are steadily drifting through their senior year without having to paddle. They live comfortably  through the year leading up to college, knowing where to go for community, discipleship, and accountability, and often without having to deal with peer pressure or social insecurity.

These students have lived in a nurturing environment with (up to) four major spiritual influences: family, church, friends, and mentors. These influences have built an infrastructure of care, support, and knowledge that has given this soon-to-be college freshman a false security for the days ahead. Believing the old adage that “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” many incoming freshmen think they are mature enough for college, just based on their track record in high school. “Peer pressure wasn’t a problem for me in high school, so I don’t expect to have to deal with it in college,” they might say confidently before moving on campus. But, as many of us have seen, approximately three out of four of these Christian students get to college and do not pursue growth in their faith during the first few years of college. The main reason for this is that they don’t truly have a plan for themselves to connect well in college. The currents in college flow differently than they did in high school. These students don’t yet understand this, but you do.

So, how do you best help an incoming college freshman connect well and make a healthy spiritual transition to college? You become their guidewire. When I was paddling upstream in college (both spiritually and in the story above), I would have loved for someone to throw me a rope. These soon-to-be college freshmen need someone to help them navigate through the new currents of college. Those that I talk to who had a smooth transition into college, all share a story of an individual or a group who helped them from the very beginning. Here are three things you can do to direct freshmen as they begin their journey in college:

1. Before you promote a welcome event for your ministry, become their friend. You might call it “earning the right to be heard.” These students need to find community before anything else, and they will be eager to do so. Some will connect to anyone they can find that will make them feel welcome. So, first and foremost, be their friend.

2. Before you promote a welcome event for your ministry, lend a hand. They need to know where to go for class, the best place to get gas, and the closest store to buy Ramen Noodles. They are going to get invited to a lot of things in those first few weeks, but not many of those inviting them will also invest the time it takes to actually help them adjust to college life.

3. Invite them to a welcome event for your ministry. They need community, accountability, and mentorship, and as a campus &/or college pastor, you can offer them that. But, they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you are a personal friend by the time you invite them to your group event, they will feel that much more willing to come and participate.




  • Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Since many of us are comfortable with our campuses, we forget what it’s like to be the new guy. Add to it that many are doing laundry and buying ther own food and living needs for the first time. It can be pretty intense when reality sets in.

  • MJ

    “many incoming freshmen think they are mature enough for college, just based on their track record in high school.”- Don’t we all think this way? Great thoughts and great metaphor for picturing this huge transition. Thanks, Tommy!