MHC Students Speak Up: Religion on Campus

Posted: March 25, 2008

By Victoria Kerman '08

On a secular campus, students say, there are still many who care about faith. On Wednesday, March 12, students and faculty representing nine religious groups joined together in the Blanchard Campus Center's Great Room to hear about each other's experiences at Mount Holyoke and brainstorm ways to better integrate spiritual life and academics.

During a panel discussion about faith in and out of the classroom, students across the board said that their religious involvement not only informs their decisions, it actually determines the course of their lives here. "Keeping the Sabbath keeps me sane!" Devora Kremer '11, a Jewish student, said.

"I have bonded so much with Muslim women from all backgrounds at MHC," Aissatou Diallo '09 said.

"My Unitarian friends are my support group. We're like a family," said Erin Scott '09.

"The Newman [Catholic] community here was the first place I felt at home," added Jennifer Soltis '10.

The purpose of the panel "Making Room for Faith" was to begin exploring the intersection of faith and the various spheres of life on a secular campus. There are 12 religious student organizations listed on campus, sometimes with multiples from within the same faith, and that doesn't include every faith group represented at Eliot House, the College's designated place for spiritual life. Multiple faith groups at the panel identified the same issues in their narratives, highlighting the interrelatedness of experiences on campus.

In class discussion, students want to hear more from their colleagues of different spiritual orientations and to feel at ease exploring the intersection of their course material and their personal convictions. Religious beliefs help define opinions about what students learn, and hearing different perspectives enriches the collective classroom experience and ultimate understanding of topics in every discipline. "Although this is primarily an intellectual environment, people appreciate religion to a certain extent," said Janice Ndegwa '11, a Baha'i student who took a course on Islam.

"My religion is ingrained in my culture and my way of life," said Kunzang Wangdi '11, a Buddhist. It can be difficult to hear one's own faith group criticized, so professors need to be careful to contextualize their remarks when they lecture on a subject that involves religious ideology. Although they said most MHC professors are doing a fine job, several students expressed a wish that professors would discuss their beliefs and guiding principles in a separate forum, as part of a holistic approach to education. "My life isn't about my grades," Soltis said. "My life is about what I want to do with my faith."

Sharing core beliefs can be difficult no matter what the situation, and many students say that overcoming their apprehension to do so is vital because it is so easy to let spiritual well-being fall by the wayside. When Monique Killins '10 of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship first came to Mount Holyoke, she felt uncomfortable sharing her faith in a classroom situation. As a SAW mentor, she eventually got up the courage to pray with an overwhelmed student with whom she was working. "Her appreciative and grateful response almost brought me to tears.… I have really come to recognize the fact that I am the only person who can truly silence my beliefs," Killins said. Kate Irvin '08 was also reluctant to say she was Christian when she started meeting people on campus during her first year. "I wasn't being true to myself," she said. "I don't avoid the subject anymore. It's a big part of who I am, so I just have to be that way. My friends aren't going to run away!"

The night concluded with many students saying they felt optimistic about the future for their spiritual lives on campus. As people slowly trickled out, chatting and eating "Chef Jeff" cookies, some members of the Catholic Community and the Christian Fellowship were arranging to have a charades night together. "I was inspired by students' ideas about how to incorporate and normalize the place that spiritual life plays on campus. My hope is that the dialogue on spiritual life does not end with this event, but continues to inspire students to vocalize their needs and desires," said Michelle L'Archeveque '08, a member of the Catholic community who was the impetus behind this event.

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