Words by Victoria Pruitt – Co-Managing Editor
At 7 p.m. on a Monday night, Fenna Engelke walked into the Strates Room in Hendricks Chapel, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Engelke’s parents had let her look into different religions and she discovered Paganism when she was in the fifth grade. She looked up more information on the Internet and found some Pagan celebrations in her area, but she had a difficult time finding a group that she could connect with and learn from. At Syracuse University she heard about Student Pagan Information Relations and Learning (SPIRAL), a Pagan group on campus, but put off going until her sophomore year. She was hoping the group would be the “real thing” and that she would get a chance to learn more about the religion from people her own age. According to Engelke, there’s a cliche in the Pagan community that often, kids begin to think that they’re Pagan, because it’s a cool thing to do, but rarely stick with it. “I was really worried when I got there that it would be a bunch of those kids and I would just run away,” Engleke says. But what she found ended up being exactly what she was looking for.
The group of about 12 students lit up when they saw the new attendee. They sprang to their feet and began chatting with her. The group did basic introductions and welcomed everyone who was there. They talked about their past and what religions they grew up with. They also made sure everyone knew that any person of any religion was welcome.
“They were like, it’s OK if you’re not Pagan and you’re in our group,” Engelke says. After that, she began attending the meetings every week and became a regular in the group.
Engelke’s religious experience may seem like a unique case, but it’s actually quite common. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said in a February 2012 interview with Glenn Beck that college is a place where young people lose their religion. But recent studies and personal student accounts show that college campuses are not as toxic as Santorum thinks.
One study performed at the University of Texas at Austin states that, contrary to common belief, college students are not more likely to lose their religion than those who did not attend college. “Many people assume college is public enemy number one for religion,” Mark Regnerus, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin writes in the study. “But we found young adults who don’t experience college are far more likely to turn away from religion.”
The study shows that 64 percent of people who attend a four-year college attend religious services less often, whereas 76 percent of the people who never enrolled in a college stopped attending services.
Tiffany Steinwert, dean of Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University, says that when students are away from their families, they begin to see things differently and often look for somewhere to belong. “I think for many college students, that sense of belonging, that sense of being a part of something bigger than yourself is what is a draw,” she says.
Steinwert believes the critical thinking skills students learn in college, as well as the self-reflection that happens naturally at this age, help students in their search for a new religion or in strengthening one they were raised with. That goes against the conventional idea that such reflection can sow seeds of doubt about one’s faith. “Deep commitment to any religion requires critical reflection on it,” she says. “And most times when people do that, they find that their spirituality and their commitment to their faith is deepened rather than shaken.”
Critical reflection changed how recent graduate Chelsea Bodansky viewed her faith. Raised in a Jewish family, Bodansky distanced herself from religion and God, and considered herself an atheist before coming to SU in 2008. She went to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting at a friend’s request. “I went so I could be like, ‘OK, I checked them out. It’s a crazy cult,’ and be done,” Bodansky says. “But I actually met people who were so sweet. They were so nice and open and welcoming.” Once she told them she was Jewish, they began talking to her about religion and explaining anything about Christianity she was confused about.
Bodansky kept going to the meetings, and talked about religion with the different members outside of the meetings. She learned what Christianity meant to other group members. She also used the group as an outlet to debate about different religious and political issues such as evolution and equal marriage rights.
A few months after her first Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, Bodansky stood in a large group of students from different schools at a Christian retreat singing “Mighty to Save” by Hillsong. Students around her swayed and waved their hands in the air. Bodansky stood still, not feeling anything special from the music. Trying to find a sense of connection and meaning, she sat down and said a prayer. “I really don’t understand stuff like this. I’m a science person. I like tangible evidence,” Bodansky whispered. “I need you to show me evidence that I can feel.” Suddenly, a lyric in the song hit her. She shivered and felt a warm sensation envelop her — but no one was touching her. “It felt like God was hugging me. I had never felt so good, so happy before.”
Soon after, a student standing in the Rochester Institute of Technology group collapsed, hitting cement floor with a bang. Everyone began praying for the student, who eventually with help stood back up. Later, in a smaller SU group, Bodansky and the other students talked about what happened. Bodansky’s hand shot up. “I don’t get it. Why would this happen?” she asked.
A senior member of the Campus Crusade for Christ had an answer ready. “Well, you saw what happened right after he collapsed. Everybody came together, and they were praying,” said the member. “Some people may have needed this moment to put their eyes on God.”
This had a profound effect on Bodansky. “After that I realized that maybe God does let things happen for a reason,” she says. “And since then, I never really looked back.” She converted to Christianity and became a very involved member in Campus Crusade for Christ.
The sense of togetherness in the religious groups on campus is one of the biggest factors affecting what a student chooses to believe. “I think community is what religion is about,” Steinwert says. “It’s about asking the big questions and finding a community of people who can help you through that questing.”
For Engelke, finding a group of people she could talk to about her faith helped her strengthen and define that faith. “Because I had a hard time finding people that could tell me about it and because I didn’t really have that support group, I sort of let it lay dormant for a while,” she says. “But when I went to college and found the Pagan group, it was like suddenly there is actually a support group with kids my own age that believe the same thing.”
On SU’s campus, students can find many chances for dialogue among the religious organizations. “I think the thing we do have going for us is that there’s a lot of openness about it,” says Nikelle Snader, an SU senior and member of Campus Crusade for Christ. “We might not ever get to a point where we are going to agree about where we are in our faiths, but at least it’s open enough that in those certain situations, we can talk about it.”
That openness is part of what helps students find or keep their religion while away at college. “You can ask questions and you can believe what you want,” Engelke says. “But you have to be open to other people who are open to you.” The people who don’t get a chance to go to college sometimes miss the exposure to new religions and the open-minded thinking that come with that as well.
Aside from the different groups on campus, the colleges within SU try to increase religious dialogue and expand students’ spiritual horizons with a range of classes about various aspects of religion. SU anthropology professor John Burdick teaches courses on non-traditional religions, and finds that the courses tend to open the minds of the enrolled students. Students who were raised in more traditional religions find that his course shows them something they could never see before: new religions and ways of thinking without judgment.
Burdick says once students come to college, their critical thinking and exposure to new situations makes them more likely to listen to other people’s perspectives. “I think for anything to stick, it has to have substance,” Burdick says. “That seems to generate more critical thinking that just analyzing a text.”
Students rarely finish exploring religion while at college, but the years provide an important stop along the way to finally deciding what it is they believe. Burdick says college seems to come at the middle of the process of finding a religion. People begin to hear about religion — especially their parents’ religions — when they’re younger; as they get older and go to college, they get to explore more before they make a final decision on their religion on their own. “My role in the courses that I teach is not to get students to come to a conclusion, but to shake them up enough so they can come to a firmer, more informed, deeper conclusion later on — one that they come to because they have seen a broader range of things,” he says.
In an August 2011 study published in USA Today, researchers found that the trend of college students having stronger religious ties than people who don’t go to college holds true even years after college is over. They found that church attendance declined more among people who did not graduate from college than among those who did.
Steinwert believes that the thought of what lies ahead for students after graduation has a great influence on their religious inquiries and discoveries. “You’re in a place of higher education, and you spend your days thinking really deep thoughts about academic things,” Steinwert says. “But you also know that in four years you’re going to have to leave this bubble.” The uncertainty of what lies ahead leads students to look for something they can keep with them and continue learning about after they graduate.
College gives students a chance to discover and investigate what they believe while they are still in a somewhat secure environment. “If you don’t feel comfortable in the religion you’ve been practicing until now, you can see why that is,” Engelke says. “Or if you know what you actually believe in and you haven’t been able to try it out, this is a good chance to.”