Finding Faith

Francesca Jarosz

During her senior year of high school, Weinberg sophomore Megan Dold started searching for a religion other than the Catholicism she had known all her life. She read about principle-based faiths such as Buddhism and attended Protestant services with a friend.

Three years later, Dold still searches for a faith that fits. From the types of services she grew up with, she said, she just did not find satisfaction.

Now she uses a less formal approach. She might take a religion class at Northwestern. And she loves to talk about religion with her friends.

“That is more insight I can get about it than from a priest who has been telling me the same thing for the past 20 years,” said Dold, who calls herself a “Chreaster” because she only attends mass with her family on Christmas and Easter.

Dold is among the college students leaving their worship houses to find spiritual footing in less-obvious places.

About 80 percent of this year’s entering college freshmen attended church at least once last year, according to a study released Wednesday by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles.

But by their third year, only 29 percent of students surveyed in a 2000-2003 longitudinal study by the same research institute attend religious services frequently, a drop from the 52 percent that said they attended freshman year.

These discoveries aren’t unusual at NU, said University Chaplain Timothy Stevens. Many college students find ways other than services to investigate religion.

“Everybody has to go through this process when you step back and say, ‘Is this something I’m really committed to, or is it something I could live without?'” Stevens said. “Students tell me conversations about that go on all the time. It may be 2 a.m. in a residence hall, not 11 a.m. in a campus worship center.”

the perfect time

Some students said college is the perfect time to develop spirituality because they can explore religious options without the influence of family.

“College has been one of the best things for my faith in that I’ve been able to kind of own it,” said Ben Mangrich, a McCormick junior who is involved with two different Christian fellowship groups on campus. “You’re not just doing it for your family tradition. You’re able to see it’s something you really believe in.”

Religion classes help some students seek spirituality.

At NU, the number of religion majors has more than doubled since the 1996-97 academic year, when there were 24, according to data from NU’s religion department. Now there are 59 religion majors and 40 minors.

“A fairly large number of students in our classes are either committed to a religious tradition or are in some way seekers,” said Prof. Richard Kieckhefer, chairman of NU’s religion department. “Students who take religion classes do so because of interests that go beyond the purely academic.”

College students develop spiritually through other means, too. About 80 percent of freshman said they discuss spirituality and religion with friends in the recent UCLA survey. Some 61 percent said they pray weekly .

“There are so many different types of experiences that can be qualified as religion,” said Ali Agalar, a Communication senior and non-practicing Muslim.

Agalar said he took a Muslim religion class in fourth and fifth grades when he was living in Istanbul, Turkey, but his dad let him choose what religion to follow.

Agalar added that he considers some drug experiences to be religious.

For other students, learning more about their religion means spending time with those who share their faith.

Weinberg junior Eric Farbman became more involved in formal religious practice at NU through his involvement in the Fiedler Hillel Center and the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. But he said the informal aspects of his religion have influenced his faith more.

“It’s the hanging out with my friends who are Jewish that has reaffirmed my Jewish identity,” Farbman said.

NU has 23 religious and spiritual groups, according to the Associated Student Government Web site. Some additional religious groups, such as the Om-Hindu Students Council, are classified as cultural.

sense of community

For some students, these groups provided a sense of community that helped strengthen their faith.

Erica Busillo, a Communication freshman, said she drifted from Catholicism at her New Jersey boarding school, where few people shared her religious beliefs.

To kick off New Student Week, she attended a Sheil Catholic Center overnight program where students bonded and got to know one another before classes started. Ever since the event, Busillo has gone to weekly mass, fellowship groups and Eucharistic bread-baking sessions.

Busillo said the fellowship at Sheil has made her enthusiastic about mass and encouraged her to explore other aspects of her spirituality, such as Taize prayer, which involves chants.

“It’s a nice place to get away to,” Busillo said of Sheil. “If I need a hug on a given day, they’ll give me a hug. If we want to go out for pizza, we can do that, too. That’s been a huge part of why I’ve gotten so involved.”

Nausheen Zia, a Weinberg junior, said the close-knit bonds of the Muslim-Cultural Students Association has given her better understanding of Islam.

But no matter how strong the social aspect, she said students must want to seek religious involvement.

“You have to have the personal motivation to go to prayer,” Zia said. “Otherwise you’re just going though the motions, and it doesn’t mean anything.”

Dold, who has searched for a religion since her senior year in high school, has yet to seek a religious group on campus. For now, she said she doesn’t miss formal religion being part of her life enough to try practicing a new one.

“I have the choice now to do what I want to do,” Dold said. “If I find something, I’ll know.”

Francesca Jarosz can be reached

at [email protected]

faith facts:

  • 75 percent of college students believe in God.
  • 80 percent attended religious services in the last year.
  • 61 percent pray weekly.
  • 28 percent pray daily.
  • 69 percent said religious beliefs provide support and guidance.
  • 40 percent said they follow religious teachings in everyday life.
  • 84 percent of students have spiritual experiences at least occasionally. These range from listening to music to looking at nature.

Source: 2002-2003 UCLA study