For many college students living away from home, this is the first time in their lives they are not attending religious services with their families — and some of these students may struggle with religious life on campus.
On the one hand, the drive to do well on exams, attend all classes, and submit assignments on time can conflict with religious holidays for observant students. On the other, they may feel pressure to maintain family traditions and rituals. As a result of these competing demands, some students will stop attending religious services altogether, while other continue to go, but less frequently. At the same time, there are students whose faith deepens in supportive campus congregations — and even those who experiment with new religions.
The Importance of Religion
American college students are almost evenly divided in their worldviews. According to data from a 2013 national survey of 1,800 college students across 38 campuses, 32 percent of undergraduates identify as religious, 32 percent as spiritual, and 28 percent as secular.
Your choice of college will not only affect your education and possibly your career; it’s likely to affect who your friends are, perhaps even whom you marry (if you choose to marry at all). While you are still in high school, discuss with your parents how important it is for you to attend a college with people who adhere to your religion. A denominational college is probably your best choice if this is a significant factor.
If you are comfortable going to school with students of other faiths, you may still want to make sure that you’re attending an institution at which you will be able to practice your religion freely and openly, without discrimination. When you take college tours, visit your denomination’s house of worship, ask to meet the chaplain, check out a religious fraternity or sorority, and talk to students of your own and other faiths about their experiences on campus.
Religion and the Demands of College
Once you enroll and arrive on campus, you may face a new set of challenges as you try to observe your religious traditions. Classes or exams may be scheduled at times that conflict with your religious holidays, and your professors may not know your religion nor the difficulty such scheduling imposes on you.
Don’t hesitate to approach your instructors and let them know about your religious obligations. I spoke with one student who recounted that, “Over time, I learned to ask professors to get permission to miss a lab or class to go home and observe the holidays with family. I also noticed that they truly didn’t mind and were mostly very accommodating for these events.”
Most colleges have non-discrimination policies that include religion; our policy at Trinity College is to respect all religious holidays. Faculty are instructed that “[i]ndividuals are not only encouraged to observe these holidays but are also not to suffer any academic or extracurricular penalty as a result of their observance.” Still, read a school’s student handbook to see whether it spells out a policy with regard to religious observance. If it doesn’t, you may want to raise the question with the admissions office.
Religion and a Community
When you first begin college, it can be challenging to maintain your religious identity on campus. Students I spoke with recommended joining a student religious organization. They explained that these organizations provide an opportunity to participate in group activities and to observe holidays with peers, often in a vibrant atmosphere.
Religion and the “Nones”
For many college students, being at a distance from family also involves moving away from religion. Mulling their identities, they may set off on a journey toward atheism or agnosticism. Such exploration reflects a national trend — the rise of the “Nones” (or those who do not identify with any religious group). Approximately 25 to 30 percent of young people today identify as Nones, and a plurality of these individuals were raised in households in which a religion was observed.
No Religion, but Spirituality
In addition to religious and secular students, there are those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, and who are yearning to hold onto the cultural aspects of their religious identification. They may create their own private religion. I have often met cultural Catholics and cultural Jews who were looking to reconnect to their heritage while stripping it of its religious trappings. It may sound clichéd to point out that young people are influenced by their friends, but it is nonetheless true. As one student put it: “If you are with non-religious people, you become less religious.” College students trust their peers — consulting, discussing, and confronting one another in-person and online. While such engagements can enrich a student’s educational experiences, they can sometimes be troubling if you are observant on a secular campus. One student, for example, recalled being asked: “Why do you get up so early on Sunday morning to go to church?”
Religion and Diversity
Colleges and universities try to promote diversity. Many of their websites boast of the large number of religious organizations present on campus, and these groups provide valuable resources to sustain religious practices for students affiliated with their faiths. The Hindu Students Council (HSC), for instance, organizes on-campus meetings, discussions, and celebrations of festivals at many colleges. Likewise, Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, acts as a resource for Jewish students, compiling information on colleges’ kosher facilities and Shabbat and holiday celebrations. Its college guide lists the 60 private and public colleges and universities with the largest Jewish student populations. And a variety of Christian campus organizations seek to reach out and connect Christian students around the country.
Universities make concerted efforts to build bridges and bring students of all religious and non-religious preferences together. Students who visit the websites for Hillel, HSC, or the Lutheran Student Movement, just to name a few, will learn that these campus organizations tend to welcome everyone, regardless of a person’s religious background, ethnicity, or social status.
This approach is vital. Religious and non-religious students on campus want to feel at home away from home. Tolerance, diversity, and respect for all religious and secular worldviews are critical not only for the experiences of individual students, but also for the creation of campus environments in which students feel accepted and free to build friendships with classmates who may or may not share their beliefs.
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Kosmin, B., & Keysar, A. (2009). American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population. Retrieved July 11, 2015, from Trinity College.
Kosmin A. Barry A. and Ariela Keysar with Ryan Cragun and Juhem Navarro-Rivera, 2009. American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population, A Report Based on the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, Trinity College, Hartford, CT.
"Nones" on the Rise. (2012, October 8). Retrieved July 11, 2015, from Pew Research Center.