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Would you give up your smart phone for a college scholarship?

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Dean Drobot | Shutterstock

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 11/25/22

Thanks to the unusual new “Unplugged Scholarship,” Franciscan University students are choosing to forgo smartphones.

The average college student spends 2 hours daily on social media, but things are a little different at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio.

Thanks to the unusual new “Unplugged Scholarship,” a small but growing number of students are choosing to forgo smartphones for their college years. And it’s changing the culture of their college campus in an incredible way.

The Unplugged Scholarship is a pilot program to award financial assistance to students who give up using a smartphone for the duration of their undergraduate studies.

Franciscan University alumni Justin Schneir (’99) and Hope (Batchelder) Schneir, along with a small group of alumni, initiated the scholarship after an eye-opening visit to Wyoming Catholic College, which fosters an unusual and refreshing phone-free culture.

These alumni have raised over $3 million for the scholarship, hoping that it will encourage a community of academic excellence, friendship, and spiritual growth at Franciscan University. The goal is to encourage wholesome interpersonal relationships that better reflect Christ’s incarnational model.

The Unplugged Scholarship is certainly an intriguing concept, but how does it work in practice? A few months into the school year seemed like a good time to check in with students and administrators…

Students’ experiences

Alison Wong is one of the students participating in the program, and she says so far it’s been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“It’s only been two months since I began participating in the Unplugged Scholarship, and I have already seen it bear fruit in my life,” Wong said in an interview with Aleteia. “The greatest of these fruits is the authentic human connections I have experienced because I am not on my phone.”

Wong said that the scholarship was an answer to prayer for her.

“I heard about the Unplugged Scholarship through an email sent to me by Franciscan’s financial aid office at the end of the summer. All summer I had been praying that the Lord would provide for me additional financial aid,” she said. “The opportunity to apply for this scholarship was an answer to that prayer.”

Wong is really happy with the pilot program so far. She said, “The freedom found in the simplicity of not owning a smartphone is far greater than the inconveniences.”

Junior Austin Doty is participating in the program for similar reasons, and he’s also happy with how it’s going so far. He’s found it funny that other students seem less happy with his lack of a smart phone than he is. 

“I probably annoy more people by my inaccessibility then I am annoyed by my own inaccessibility,” he said in an interview with Aleteia. “The inconsistency of other students and their planning can be quite frustrating.”

But he feels lucky and relieved that he is “slightly removed from the plethora of media flying at people.” He said,

Using a ‘dumb phone’ has been quite a source of joy in my life; I find that I am rarely distracted from what is at hand. I’ve found that I’m able to sustain a state of peace, without a smartphone. I honestly find it is mostly convenient. I am not distracted, I am at peace, I am in the present moment, and the present moment is where we meet eternity.

Occasional snafus

While there is freedom and simplicity in not owning a smartphone, it’s only fair to acknowledge that at times the lack of a smartphone can make life unexpectedly complicated. 

Bob Lesnefsky, Director of Evangelization at Franciscan University, said that students in the program have reported occasional snafus.

“It’s difficult to make such a vast switch, living a high-tech life to a no- or low-tech life,” he said. “There are QR codes everywhere, links for the internet, etc., that now students must engage in conversation or ask for help. For instance, there are hilarious stories of students who had to ask for help in an airport or stop and buy a paper map.”

At the same time he said, the Unplugged Scholarship has brought a healthy and positive change to campus.

“This has really blossomed from a scholarship to a movement on our Campus,” he said. “It’s exciting to see how it has pulled in so many students that don’t even have the scholarship. It’s also exciting to see how this is normalizing the option of being low-tech. Before there would be the occasional student who opted for a ‘dumb phone’ but was a little embarrassed about it; now they are encouraged in community.”

So despite the occasional complications, the consensus seems to be that the scholarship is a boon to the Franciscan University campus community. 

“This generation is the first generation of students that have been raised by and large as phone and screen addicts from a very young age,” Lesnefsky said. “It affects their mental health, resiliency, and addictions. For many of them, the scholarship is like breathing fresh air for the first time.”

The experience of living smart-phone free is something that will affect the students even after their time in college is ended. Hopefully they can carry the positive effects into their lives for years to come. 

Hope Schneir, one of the scholarship founders, said, “We hope these brave students pioneer an unplugged lifestyle that carries into their vocations as businesspersons, educators, religious leaders, medical professionals, mothers, and fathers, and that they might be free and more capable to make their lives ‘something beautiful for God.’”

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