As higher education hurtles into the digital era, Christian colleges and universities face a pivotal choice.
Some are steering toward virtual classrooms, attracting tech-savvy students who seek flexible, affordable degrees, while others are prioritizing embodied, diverse relationships for students on campus. Those institutions investing in their residential programs are seeing a renaissance of campus life that blends classic charm with a fresh, student-centered approach.
Years of pandemic restrictions, increased polarization, and near-constant social media engagement have produced a new type of student—one who is in danger of deep loneliness and mental health struggles—so Christian colleges are upping their mental health game accordingly. This, of course, is in addition to helping students respond to the typical challenges of university life: learning how to manage one’s time, building relationships outside of the family structure, and wondering if it’s worth it to stay up all night studying for a chemistry final.
As new concerns converge with evergreen issues, leaders in residential life across the country are considering how to serve students in gospel-centered, life-changing ways.
Finding Common Ground
Tech-savvy students are drawn to online courses, and these programs often provide access to global perspectives. Recognizing the value in this, Christian colleges and universities are now exploring ways to create and prioritize those same cross-cultural relationships for on-campus residents.
Hayoung Peter Kim, student life and housing coordinator at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, realizes that he entered Gordon-Conwell’s seminary with a narrow view of church life. His time on campus broadened his view, teaching him that the church transcends personal biases and experiences. Today's students, like Kim, engage in face-to-face interactions that allow students to hear tone of voice, observe actions, and witness varying expressions of faith. “Being together in person,” says Kim, “affords you the opportunity to observe how people worship the same God differently than you.”
This richness of experience enables students to contextualize their classroom learning through in-person relationships. By regularly engaging in the most human of ways—sleeping, eating, brushing one’s teeth—students can resist the silos and labeling. And in this embodied experience, which is often messy and complicated, comes transformation.
In cultivating these face-to-face relationships, says Lyndsay Grimm, director of residence life at Messiah University, students are better able to “develop skills in communication, find commonalities, and value differences.”
Living in Community
Some institutions create living environments that group students of various backgrounds who share common interests. Calvin University, for example, offers themed living communities, including outdoor recreation and creation care. Through activities that include hiking, kayaking, local watershed restoration, and tapping campus maple trees, students of all kinds embrace their shared love for nature. These initiatives encourage students to form connections beyond academic pursuits, fostering personal growth.
Similarly, Dallas Baptist University provides intentional living communities where freshmen can develop skills for a disciplined life. These learning communities house 32 freshmen and eight upperclassmen mentors who guide the residents in stewarding their time, studies, walk with the Lord, relationships, physical health, and mental well-being.
At Pepperdine University, students can sign up for one of three interest communities to enhance their residential experience. The RISE interest community emphasizes wholeness and resilience, gathering for activities and discussions centered on physical, social, cognitive, spiritual, service, and life skills. The Gaming and Esports interest community brings together the video game buffs, while the Global Intersect community exists for international students and US residents who are interested in international exchange and cultural sharing,
Such experiences empower students to navigate conflict, a valuable skill for their personal and professional lives. Ben Goller, director of residence life at LeTourneau University, recalls a pair of students who requested new room assignments after a series of conflicts. Goller encouraged compromise rather than avoidance, and by the end of the year, the two became close friends, going on to lead on-campus ministries together and remaining close even after college.
In addition to facilitating interpersonal relationships, Christian campuses are also recognizing the rising mental health needs of individual students. In fact, the 2023 Council for Christian Colleges & Universities Multi-Academic Conference highlighted the significance of effectively addressing anxiety and other mental health issues.
Mental health care has become a central concern for residential life staff at these institutions. With each passing year, they encounter students in mental health crises more frequently. Self-harm, suicidal ideation, and panic attacks, which are a “weekly and sometimes daily occurrence” according to Goller, demand immediate and expert responses from resident life leaders.
During a recent fall semester, it wasn't until November that Goller’s team was able to go a full week without going to the hospital with a student at risk for suicide. Perhaps at a large state school that regularity, while decidedly sad, would not feel shocking. But only 850 students were living on campus at LeTourneau that fall. And still, every week the staff saw signs so concerning that they had to intervene and get outside support.
Residential life of the early 2000s focused on games and fun, notes Goller. Over the next decade it transitioned to educational programming. However, the 2020s and 2030s will center increasingly on mental health care.
Grimm has seen the power of residential living for students facing loneliness, trauma, and other hardships. One Valentine’s Day, a group of male residents were lamenting their lack of significant others. Rather than taking the evening to wallow, however, they decided to host a dinner for widows at a nearby assisted-living facility.
On these campuses, community plays an invaluable role in healing. Several times Grimm has been asked by parents to send a residential advisor to their child’s room so they wouldn’t be alone when learning of a loved one’s passing. Residential living, Grimm concludes, allows students and staff to come together in these transformational moments.
Leaning into “Life Together”
While mental health care is a top priority, residential life remains a place of joy and connection. The drive on many campuses to create memorable experiences and relationships notably contributes to students’ well-being. A giggle with a roommate can’t pull a resident out of an acute mental health crisis. But “purposeful community,” as Goller refers to it, goes a long way in helping students feel loved and less lonely.
Goller's experience at Taylor University highlights the impact of such communities. His residential advisor, Steve Conn, fostered a sense of belonging and camaraderie, which persisted long after graduation. It was through Conn’s prompting that Goller applied for his current role, and the bond between them continues today.
In an era marked by disruptions and challenges, students cherish their on-campus experiences more now as the pandemic underscored the importance of embodied community and shared faith journeys. “Students walk with each other differently, support each other differently, and appreciate gathering differently because they now know that it can be taken away,” reflects Kim, who sees echoes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together in the dorms and classrooms. All of these mundane and magnificent moments that are shared between residents are an “invitation to a discipleship-shaped experience where our formation is influenced by each other.”
Christian colleges and universities are evolving to meet the needs of a changing student body. They recognize the importance of diverse relationships and the imperative of mental health care. Through these efforts, residential life remains a powerful vehicle for transformation, fostering community, and providing support. While the challenges facing students today are significant, they have only reaffirmed the enduring value of Christian campus life. In these communities, the gospel continues to flourish, and something beautiful is always on the horizon.
Interested in more? Check out campuses that are living on theme.
Christian colleges and universities are building residence halls around special interests. Below are several examples of the types of communities that can be found on campuses across the US.
Global Intersect: A community for students interested in international exchange and cultural sharing.
Rafiki House: A safe space for students to engage and experience diversity with the spirit of friendship and belonging.
Shalom Community: An intentionally diverse living community focused on racial reconciliation.
Community and Creativity
Alliance Housing: a living-learning community for students seeking an active and intentional lifestyle.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Heritage House: A home for students who plan on pursuing the arts as a profession.
Gaming and Esports Interest Community: A residence for students who share a passion for gaming.
Honors College Living-Learning Community: A home for students who value intense study and rich experiences.
Abilene Christian University
Honors Scholar Floor: A living-learning community for students seeking intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and relational growth.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
MUHP Harbor House: A special interest house for female honors students committed to starting conversations, asking questions, and brainstorming solutions.
Outdoor Adventure Living-Learning Community: A residential hall floor for students who want challenging experiences in the natural world.
Outdoor Recreation and Creation Care Floor: A living-learning community committed to growth through wilderness-based experiences.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Restoration Houses: An intentional community that seeks restoration with God, humanity, and creation.
Abby Perry is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Texas. You can find her work at Sojourners, Texas Monthly, and Nations Media.