Following Their Faith at Dartmouth

by Emily Fletcher | 11/12/09 11:00pm

When I was in third grade, writing what was to be my illustrious autobiography, I wrote that my favorite day of the week was Saturday, because that was the day of the weekend when I didn't have to go to church. In those days, my parents practically dragged me to church every Sunday.

These days, however, our parents aren't here to drag us to services and some of us have stopped going altogether.

But what about those who didn't?

In an optional online survey conducted each year by the Tucker Foundation, which oversees spiritual life and service at the College, approximately 20 percent of those incoming freshmen who responded self-reported as Roman Catholic, and another 30 percent said they belong to another sect of Christianity.

Another 10 percent self-reported as Jewish, while about 3 percent reported themselves as Muslim and about 3 percent listed themselves as Hindu.

Approximately 20 percent reported having no religion, 5 percent said they were agnostic and 7 percent identified as atheist. The rest reported following an assortment of other religions, including Quaker, Sikh, Baha'i, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist and Mormon, according to multi-faith programs advisor Kurt Nelson.

About half of the Class of 2013 responded to the survey, Nelson said.

The separation from parents afforded by college serves as the catalyst for many students' religious introspection, several students said.

Amy Schuman '12, a member of Christian Impact, said that she is very close with her family, but added that being away from them has helped her to explore her faith on her own.

"It's my decision and it's something that I choose for myself," Schuman said. "That's enabled me to take it to a much deeper level. God was the only one I could trust to continue to be there for me in each moment."

Schuman said she doesn't like the word "religion" and describes her Christianity as "a relationship."

"I see religion as man trying to reach up and find a way to God, and in Christianity, Jesus came down to Earth," she said.

Many students interviewed for this article agreed that they found strong communities in the religious organizations on campus, which made it easier to practice their religion.

"I became more curious," Ahmad Nazeri '11, a member of the Muslim group Al-Nur, said. "I just didn't want to do something because that's how I was raised. I wanted to find meaning in the practices and the rituals."

Some students, however, said they encountered obstacles as they sought to define their own religious beliefs at College.

Mackenzie Howell '10, who grew up with a Jewish mother and a Christian father, said her parents focused simply on helping her to mind faith in some sort of God, and did not seek to press religion on her.

When Howell arrived on campus in 2006, she became involved in the Jewish organization Chabad, learning everything she could about the Jewish faith, she said.

"The more I learned about it the more beautiful it seemed," Howell said.

Howell later traveled to Israel with Birthright Israel, a program that sponsors free trips for Jewish students because its founders believe every Jew should be able to visit Israel at least once, Howell said. She returned to Israel for her junior fall and again the following summer. After each trip, she became further in touch with her faith, she said.

Howell recently started observing Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath that lasts from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.

Shabbat is intended as a day of rest, and there is a list of 39 things Jews are not allowed to do, including turning on lights (technically kindling a fire is the forbidden act, but turning on lights serves the same purpose and is therefore included) and driving or riding in a car, Howell said.

If she wants to get into a dorm during that period, Howell must wait outside for someone else to open the door for her because the card readers are electronic.

Even getting food can be a challenge, because an electronic card swipe is required for that as well, she said.

Howell also seeks to keep kosher, which she said is difficult on a college campus. On Saturdays, Howell said, she either eats meals at home that do not break any of the Shabbat rules or eats with the Rabbi Moshe Leib Gray.

When the mentoring program she's involved in had a Saturday event, however, she was unable to attend because her transportation would have required riding in a car and she must ask professors to reschedule Saturday exams.

"Most professors are very understanding, but it can definitely be awkward when I have to ask a professor who has blatantly told the class that he or she is an atheist to reschedule a final exam because it falls on Shabbat," Howell said.

There are also less tangible aspects of Dartmouth that can make practicing religion difficult for some students.

"I think students who are really actively religious sometimes feel isolated from the broader campus," Nelson said.

Aparna Krishnan '12, president of the Hindu organization Shanti, said she sometimes feel hesitant to bring up her religion because she's not quite sure how people will view it.

In India, where Krishnan is originally from, Hinduism is the most common religion. Being a small minority has therefore required some adjustment, she said.

Krishnan's parents have acted as her anchors, she said, keeping her connected to her faith even since she has been at Dartmouth

Some students, however, don't have those types of religious anchors. Many come to Dartmouth and begin exploring faith, spirituality and religion for the first time, said Eric Schildge '10, student director for the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.

"What religious groups are offering to students is unique in that it is giving students an opportunity to prioritize their life and find meaning," he said.

Michael Gordon '12 attended an all-boys Catholic high school, but did not identify with the Catholic Church and described himself as "spiritual" before coming to Dartmouth. Now an active member of the Zen Practice Group, he said he was drawn to Zen because he finds it "spiritually fulfilling."

"I wanted something that would hold me spiritually accountable without learning about a new dogma that I wasn't going to be that interested in," Gordon said.

Gordon, however, said he does not identify as a Zen Buddhist. Not being required to proclaim his faith is part of why he likes Buddhism, he said.

The Zen Practice Group also seeks to do at least one major service project each term, Gordon said, which helps remind him not to be self-serving.

"It's really about remembering that there's something bigger than yourself out there or right here on campus, and it's not all just frat basements and classes," Gordon said.

While Nelson and Schildge noted that religious conversation occurs often at meetings of the Tucker Foundation's Multi-Faith Council and at events like "Voices of Faith," many students said they wish there was more dialogue on campus about different religious beliefs and what it means to be spiritual.

Some also said they want to lessen the divide between their religion and their education.

"Sometimes I go into a class and I feel like I have to leave my faith at the door," Schuman said. "Everyone filters information through their world view and no one ever completely agrees with what the professor says. Academia thinks that faith and reason are completely incompatible."

Schildge said he wishes students realized how open every religious organization on campus is, and that the groups are not "searching for converts."

"I think when we're doing our jobs well, [the religious organizations on campus] have a sense of humility about their own faith and sense of belief," Nelson said. "Anyone who knows what they're talking about knows that they don't know very much at all. And that opens more doors than it closes." Schildge emphasized his hope that the topic of faith and spirituality will be more openly discussed across the Dartmouth campus.

"I wish that students also felt more comfortable exploring or expressing that faith-based identity in the classroom and in social settings," Schildge said.

Still, all of these students agreed that their faith provides them with purpose and comfort.

"It's good to know you have a support system," Krishnan said. "It's there, it's always there."

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