Catholic Campus Ministry Association’s Crossroads

Student Survival and the CCMA

A Q&A with the authors of The

Freshman Survival Guide

Of the many challenges campus ministers face, few are as difficult as helping first year students make the transition to college life. Sadly, the tales of freshmen leaving home anxious to begin a new life on campus only to crash and burn are all too common. It was with that reality in mind that longtime editor in chief Bill McGarvey and Nora Bradbury-Haehl -a Busted Halo contributing editor and 20-year veteran of youth ministry- began discussing what they might create to help both students and higher education professionals manage this transition. What emerged from their conversations was The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing, and Everything in Between…a comprehensive handbook with a twist not found anywhere else.

Bookstores are filled with guides for picking a college, getting into college, and getting good grades but McGarvey and Bradbury-Haehl felt they all used a very one-dimensional approach. These books didn’t take into account how challenging college was – not only for the mind, but for the body and spirit as well

College is a time for asking questions; small ones like how to deal with a difficult roommate to big questions such as “what am I doing with my life?” The Freshman Survival Guide is the first truly holistic look into the lives of college students and life on campus. Addressing everything from studying to sex to spirituality, The Freshman Survival Guide deals with the whole student, treating the intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual lives of college freshmen as intimately connected aspects of their overall success.
Since its publication in April 2011, tens of thousands of copies have been purchased by everyone from students and parents to orientation staffs, residence life professionals and campus ministries. But years before it became a book, CCMA and its members were among the earliest supporters of The Freshman Survival Guide when it was still just an online feature at In fact, CCMA’s strong support was instrumental in attracting a bidding war between two of the world’s biggest publishing houses for the rights to publish a print edition.
On the eve of the start of the spring semester, the authors took some time to talk with CCMA about their research and how schools are using their book as a resource.

CCMA: What makes The Freshman Survival Guide different from other college guides?

Bill McGarvey: Nora and I always wanted to include all the practical information found in all the other college guides out there, but we were surprised that no one had really tried to go deeper than that. We both knew from our own experiences–particularly in Nora’s work in ministry–that the issues are much more substantial than “should I bring my X-box with me to my dorm?” For most students going to college, this will be the most freedom they’ve ever experienced. Beyond all that, there are big questions about who they are and who they want to become that are percolating as well. For us, it just seemed painfully obvious that not discussing the emotional and spiritual challenges happening with them would be a huge omission and really wouldn’t reflect the reality that countless students are experiencing.

CCMA: The first words of the book’s introduction are, “There are options.” Why start the guide this way?

McGarvey: That line actually came from a student survey we did at the University of Iowa. I was pulling together some research at the end of our writing process and that simple line from a young woman in her junior year at Iowa just jumped out at me. I believe the question was “what single piece of advice would you like to tell incoming freshmen?” It struck me that her comment encapsulated what the whole book was trying to do. We had no illusions that we could shelter college freshmen from the realities of life on campus, nor did we have any desire to. These students are well aware that they now have the freedom to push the boundaries. Our approach has always been to speak to them like adults and let them know that countless other people have been through this before and they can learn from those people’s collective wisdom and experience. Our hope is to remind them that they mow have options and information in front of them to make good decisions.

CCMA: The Freshman Survival Guide is layered with contributions from educators, campus ministers, counselors and college students. What was the research/interview process like?

McGarvey: Because we began doing this as an online only feature a few years ago, we really had a head start in terms of research when we got the book deal. A real turning point for us came a while back when we decided to bring together campus ministers from different faith traditions to discuss how they handled various issues with incoming freshmen. We had a priest, a rabbi, a minister and a Muslim scholar talking to each other. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it really worked and it opened my eyes to how much all of their experience and advice harmonized so beautifully. There weren’t doctrinal issues or anything like that. All of them had a deep concern for the well being of their students and had seen a lot of tough situations in their years of campus ministry. After all was said and done, the book truly was the culmination of years of research, interviews and surveys with hundreds of students, administrators, professors, education experts, psychologists and campus ministers from across the country.

CCMA: Why is it important for campus ministers, in addition to students, to read this book?

Bradbury-Haehl: Campus ministers were a great resource to us as we wrote the book, the wisdom they shared, the tips they had to offer students made the book so much stronger. In many ways The Freshman Survival Guide is Best Practices Seminar for and by campus ministers.

CCMA: What is the biggest mistake freshman make when they start college?

Bradbury-Haehl: Skipping Class. Without a parent and the normal structure of their “old lives” back home, too many students too early on think that skipping a class or a few classes is not a big deal. It turns out to be the thing that takes them out of the game. Go to class. We say it again and again throughout the book but we can’t seem to say it enough. We tell students (there’s a whole chapter on going to class!) that no matter what– tired, depressed, sick, angry, or whatever–get your butt in that chair, especially during that first month. Once they understand this new landscape they might, near the end of the semester, realize they can miss one, but not going to class early on is the slippery slope to disaster freshman year.

CCMA: You have a chapter called, “’Growing Up’ Your Religion.” Tell me about that.

Bradbury-Haehl: One of the things we challenge students to do in the book is to not settle for little-kid knowledge of their own faith tradition… grow it up. In the same way, they wouldn’t settle for a grade school understanding of math, physics, history, or English, they need to look at the scholarship of their religious tradition before they make a decision to stay or go. They shouldn’t presume that what they’ve been exposed to thus far is the entirety of what the tradition has to offer.

CCMA: How can schools use The Freshman Survival Guide?

Bradbury-Haehl: Some schools are using it in Campus Ministry as a handout to new students. Others have written programs around it and are using it in their Res. Life programs. Some schools have established a curriculum around the book and are using it in their First Year Experience programs. Another college sent it out to incoming freshmen with their acceptance letters.

CCMA: After writing this book, what would you do differently if you could repeat your freshman year?

Bradbury-Haehl: If I were a freshman now, I would avail myself of the resources on campus. There are so many people on campus who are there to help! Academically, socially, emotionally, there are professionals and resources there for students to use and I was not aware as a freshman of how many people were “on my side.”

CCMA: Talk about the book’s web presence.

McGarvey: Our book was born out of the web which is a highly interactive medium and the students we are trying to reach are deeply enmeshed in that world so it was never in question that the book needed a strong online component. The book really needed to be as interactive as possible so in each chapter we point readers to additional content/quizzes etc on our site or via Facebook and twitter (@freshmanguide). We plan on using some of that information for future editions.

But one of the things we are most excited about online is our Interactive RA. We have a team of RAs from around the country available to answer questions students might have or might be embarrassed to ask their own RA. Our team of RAs also blog frequently about topics they are coming across on campus.

The Freshman Survival Guide is available for purchase wherever books are sold. Special bulk discounts for CCMA members are available as well. Please email for information.