The gift of my university was the sisterhood I took with me after graduation.

After high school, I attended one of the largest universities in the country on a full academic scholarship.

I’d looked at smaller Catholic schools, applied for a few, but the scholarship money didn’t come through. Truth be told, I wasn’t too disappointed. I had big aspirations for myself, ones that went beyond tiny no-name schools. I had convinced myself that I needed a “true” college experience: one that was full of opportunities, Greek life, and big-time sporting events. Most importantly, I wanted to go somewhere that was sure to catapult me beyond my small town into a world of opportunities and success.

So there I was in the middle of my freshman year, living the dream, and I was restless. I had met friends, been to crazy keggers, attended the raucous football games, and was left wondering why I felt so out of place. On a whim I began looking into service opportunities, suddenly desperate to escape college for a bit and find some meaning in my life.

When I approached my parents with my plan to get away, they were nervous. Both from immigrant families, both with postgraduate degrees, for them education was of utmost importance for their children. It was the one thing we grew up knowing was not optional. It was also a rule of the house that you went where the scholarship money took you.

After posing various options for a year away, they reluctantly agreed — with two conditions. First, the university had to agree to place my scholarship on hold and second, I had one year and then had to return to school. The school said yes, I gave my written intent to return the following academic year, and I left.

I spent the year traveling around the United States doing Catholic youth outreach. I was part of a team that gave retreats in lower-income city parishes, on Indian reservations, and in small towns. The experience changed me. It opened my eyes to the richness of the Catholic faith and its universality. I had a newfound appreciation of the responsibility of truly living my faith and felt empowered by making my beliefs my own, not simply a heritage from my parents.

When I returned, I was refreshed, and ready to bring my newfound evangelistic spirit into my college experience. Yet as I prepared myself to dive back in to school, I received a call that would change my life. Without solicitation, but based on my year of service, I was offered a scholarship to Franciscan University of Steubenville. It wasn’t a full-ride, and I would have to take out loans, but it meant that I could attend. That summer I wore many pencils down writing lists of pros and cons. As the summer ended, I declined my full-ride scholarship, packed my bags, and nervously headed to a small town in the rustbelt. Would it be worth it?

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I wish I could tell my nervous 18-year-old self that the worries and hesitations she wrestled with during that long summer were fruitless. That in fact, the risk taken then would become the best decision of her life. She would be happy to know that now, at age 40, the only debt she would carry with pride, and pay monthly without hesitation or regret, would be for her Franciscan University experience. Her college experience at a small Catholic school would far surpass her expectations, bringing her not only academic and career success, but arming her with things that would become exponentially more important.

College is a time of growth. It is an unnatural period where one is blessed with an abundance of freedom without the yoke of responsibility. For the first time in a child’s life, they are outside of their parents’ watchful gaze and decisions are their own to make.

Not only do these Catholic schools provide an unparalleled education but they take great pains to promote spiritual guidance and formation. Most importantly, though, they foster a social environment in which peers have common core values and beliefs. And this will most certainly have residual effects in a young person’s life, as it has with mine.

The gift of Franciscan University to me is the relationships, and more specifically, the sisterhood that I took with me.

Last fall, more than 20 years after that fateful decision summer, I found myself on a bright sunny day sitting outside of a café in Atlanta surrounded by college friends. Even though graduation had scattered us around the country, we had kept in touch. Not only were we connected by the experience of attending college together, we were naturally and ever more tied together by our common desire to live out the gift of our Catholic faith. Though faced with different problems over the years, we all approached each hiccup, some big and some small, with the same tool box: our Catholic faith. And in doing so, were able to provide invaluable spiritual comfort and support to each other. As the conversation that day segued easily from Natural Family Planning woes to monitoring children’s electronic devices, peppered with reminiscing about our carefree college days, I was overwhelmed by the blessing of my small Catholic college experience.

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With college decisions approaching, I urge you to not discount the small authentically Catholic schools the country has to offer. Franciscan University of Steubenville is just one of them. There are others all over: Benedictine in Kansas, Christendom in Virginia, Thomas Aquinas in California, and University of Dallas in Texas, to name a few.

While I’m certainly not saying that the experience of Catholic faith and fellowship that I had can’t be replicated at larger and/or secular schools — programs like FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and SPO (Saint Paul’s Outreach) were formed with this very purpose — I am saying that attending a small Catholic school makes it easier. And that in itself should be worth considering.

This article first appeared on Aleteia

Maria Davis

Author and Co-Owner of Pio Prints

Maria Garabis Davis holds a Juris Doctor degree and a BA in theology. A former youth minister and now a practicing attorney, she is the founder and co-owner of the greeting card company Pio Prints.  Maria resides in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and four children

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