Four Things To Do Before Choosing A College
1 – Know Yourself. Growing up in a supportive religious environment and day school setting, it is often very hard to separate which religious convictions, values, and activities are coming from peers, school, community or family as opposed to what you truly feel internally. College is the first time in which most of your Jewish expression and living will come from internal considerations, not external pressures. This can be an excellent opportunity to develop a personal sense of Jewishness and conviction, but without a strong sense of self it is easy enough to not make the right choices, which will have lasting consequences. Self-exploration is best begun before the transition to campus, whether in high school or a gap-year program. It will help you enter university focused on specific goals and values and guide your decision of going to a campus that creates the best environment for nurturing your goals and values: You may find that the intensive learning opportunities and cohesive Jewish environment offered by Yeshiva University or Touro are more in line with your spiritual or professional goals. Or feel best served on a campus with the excitement and opportunities of a large, active secular-campus Orthodox community. Still you might decide you would best thrive in a close-knit smaller community where you won’t get “lost,” and are part of a community that needs every student to participate. However none of these considerations are really possible before you know your own personality, inclinations and goals.
2 – Know Your Options. Use this website as a first step in becoming familiar with campuses and the resources they offer. It can help identify which campuses offer the most robust resources and opportunities for Orthodox students such as the presence of an OU-JLIC couple, an active Chabad or Hillel, regular Orthodox minyanim, a cohesive Orthodox student leadership group and programming. The website also has incredibly useful tools for Orthodox students including a map of kosher food offerings on campuses and overview of other campus resources, developed by the OU’s Rabbi Hart Levine. You can also find additional information about any particular campus on the Hillel or Chabad website.
3 – Know Your Peers and Associates. While the resources mentioned above may provide a good start for focusing on the best potential matches, DON’T stop there. Don’t make your decisions solely through print or online resources. Do reach out and talk to current or former students, as well as campus professionals, such as the local OU-JLIC Torah Educator, Chabad rabbi, Meor or other kiruv professional, or Hillel staff member. Each may provide a specific, though important perspective on the college experience at any particular university. Prepare a list of general questions, such as “how does one succeed at this campus religiously?” or questions that hone in on specific issues such as: “How does an Orthodox student on this campus handle the challenges of coed residence halls?” “Can I choose my own roommate?” “Why does it seem to be only freshmen and sophomores, as opposed to upper-class students who are involved in religious leadership and community at this university?” You can use the checklist of questions on this site to help you.
4 – Know Your Community. At the very least make a campus visit. Once you have limited your college considerations to a few options, the best way to get a real feel for a campus and its community and resources, as well as to speak to stakeholders in-the-know, is to spend time on campus. Any perspective you may gain through speaking to people, as opposed to seeing it firsthand, is likely to be highly subjective and limited, and potentially deceptive. Just as you wouldn’t normally buy a car, or a house, or relocate to a new community without checking it out in person, you should not make a campus decision without seeing it firsthand.
The best time to get a full sense of a Jewish community on campus is Shabbat, where you can meet the campus Jewish professionals and see if they are a good match for your needs and personality. Shabbat is when you are most likely to find students willing to spend time with you, answer your questions, and introduce you to what the community has to offer. You can get a feel for the intangibles such as the characteristics of the students, whether the community is as warm and welcoming as you would like, as well as a feel for the overall chemistry. In addition, the Shabbat atmosphere on a campus will quickly indicate whether or not the community is vibrant, positive and active. Of course, contrasting this with time spent during the week is also helpful, but given a choice between the two, visit for Shabbat.
If you are considering commuter campuses, don’t rule out participation in the campus community, since they too can boast vibrant campus communities and robust OU-JLIC programs. While a Shabbat visit may not be as relevant at a commuter campus, visit when it is relevant, such as during club hours, or check out the campus Mincha and stick around to speak with students and staff. You won’t regret any time spent on considering your potential “home” for the next four years.
By Rabbi Ilan Haber, National Director of OU-JLIC, Collegiate and Young Professional Programs