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Students re-examine religion

CLAIRE C. LAURENCE/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Rev. Daniel Rolland raises the Gospels before a stained glass cross at the Catholic Newman Center Friday afternoon.
By Nathan Tafoya
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
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When she arrived at the UA three years ago, Christine Yafuso turned away from her Christian faith.

"I came here by myself, not knowing anyone," said Yafuso, an ecology and evolutionary biology senior. "I was very homesick and I didn't find a church to attend. I started hanging out and making friends with people in my dorm, many of them not being Christians. We would always go out to parties and drink a lot."

But after three years of partying and with the arrival of her sister on campus, Yafuso decided to return to her faith last semester, attending church and on-campus Bible studies on a regular basis.

According to a recent survey, published in the Chronicle for Higher Education, more than two-thirds of college students have a strong interest in religious or spiritual matters - a finding that surprised many of the survey's researchers.

"Higher education is often seen as a bastion of secularism," said Alexander W. Astin in the article, "but the fact is that students are very interested in these issues." Astin is the director of Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, which performed the study, and was a leader in the survey.

But students such as Yafuso illustrate that religion - the surefire topic to raise hell and decibel levels in even the most tranquil settings - is not as simple as the statistics might show.

While students are interested in religion, the UA experience is doing more than preparing students for future careers; it is allowing them to re-examine their faiths both inside and outside the classroom.

CLAIRE C. LAURENCE/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Journalism freshman Max Stettner worships during Shabbat at the Hillel Center early Saturday evening. Worship, along with singing and dining, is one of the many activities in which students participate.

A time to question

Religious institutions dot the UA landscape, where there are 35 recognized religious clubs attempting to cater to the spiritual interests of more than 37,000 students.

"People are discovering and rediscovering themselves. A lot of it is people shifting from childlike faith to one they can own and sink their teeth into. People want grounding," said Rev. Daniel Rolland of the Catholic Newman Center.

Sydney Roth, a religious studies junior, converted to Islam this year from Christianity. She attributed the conversion to influence from Muslim friends, who shared their religions and opinions with her.

"At one time, I decided to start researching for myself some of the things they saw and how I felt about everything, and it just kind of made sense," Roth said.

Sitting in his white habit and drinking a Pepsi in the Catholic Newman Center's library, Rolland listed students' newfound freedom from their parents, encounters with sickness or death, and exposure to a variety of choices as possible reasons students choose to re-evaluate their faiths in college.

"People question their faith all the time," said Yusra Tekbali, a molecular and cellular biology freshman and Muslim. "I think that's just a part of accepting your religion and learning to love it."

"I think college is the right time to question the faith that you have," said Nate Gandomi, a senior majoring in English and a member of the Bah‡'’ Faith. "You're being exposed to all these different ideas and different beliefs and these things. I think it's not just natural, but beneficial to question your faith."

Gandomi said his faith has been strengthened during his years at the UA because in learning to analyze and critique literature, he has become better equipped for Bah‡'’ holy writings.

Gandomi is not the only one whose faith has strengthened in college.

I think college is the right time to question the faith that you have.
ö Nate Gandomi
senior majoring in English

With a copy of the first book of the Torah on the table between them, Adam Baskin, a business sophomore, talked to pharmacology sophomore Ben Sloviter last month as Sloviter finished his lunch at Oy Vey Cafˇ.

Sloviter said he was an Orthodox Jew and, with a grin, called Baskin a "conservadox" because he fell somewhere between the conservative and orthodox Jewish sects.

Baskin said he has always had a strong identity with Judaism, but never observed Jewish customs daily.

Then Baskin enrolled at the UA.

"The UA has a pretty rich influence in religion, especially the Jewish religion," said Baskin. "So meeting a lot of other people who are more observant than I has strengthened my faith, actually -brought me into the whole scene."

Baskin said he has recently begun studying Jewish holy writings.

Sloviter started wearing a kippa, headwear that represents a modest barrier between God and an individual, after he started college, but said college alone has not influenced him to pursue his faith.

"There's an under-the-surface push and emergence of Jews," he said.

Sloviter said this emergence is due to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who started a movement for a return to the Jewish faith by launching rabbis into cities to set up houses called "chabads."

"Because of him, a lot of us are becoming more religious," Sloviter said. "A lot of people are finding their path."

At the Hillel Foundation Friday night, about 50 students greeted each other with "Shabbat shalom."

"Over the last five years, we've definitely seen an increase in students participation in Friday night services," said Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of the Hillel Foundation. "Probably a 50 percent increase."

Blumenberg attributed the students' motivations to both spiritual and social reasons.

"I think that people are coming to Shabbat because more of their friends are coming," Blumenberg said. "Friends need friends, and it's a fun place to be."

But religious devotion on campus is not the same at other places of worship.

Concluding a midday prayer at the Islamic Center of Tucson down the street, mathematics graduate student Ali Amjad said he has noticed a slight decrease in student attendance.

"Not many students are coming in after September 11," Amjad said.

Due to recent graduations and a drop in incoming student attendance, numbers have been down, Amjad said.

WILL SEBERGER/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Religious studies sophomore Sydney Roth, left, reads the Quran with molecular and cellular biology freshman Yusra Tekbali at the Islamic Center on Saturday afternoon.

College's challenge

Religious tensions can mount and spiritual feathers get ruffled as students try to maintain religious standards in and outside of the classroom.

Mohammed Abdelwahab, a pre-physiological sciences sophomore praying in the Main Library last semester, said he has confronted challenges to his religious principles on campus.

"I am in a secular environment," said Abdelwahab. "There are dos and don'ts."

Two years ago, during Ramadan, while he was trying to abstain from negative thoughts and images, Abdelwahab faced the decision between academia and

religious principles.

In an English course Abdelwahab began to watch a video about sex changes in which graphic scenes of the operations were shown.

Abdelwahab said he told the instructor he did not want to watch the movie and although the event turned out not to be a big deal, it was something he had to deal with.

"If I'm in a situation where I believe religiously or just personally, that I'm not comfortable with doing an assignment or watching this movie, then I won't stay

quiet. I'll let somebody know," he said.

Abdelwahab is not the only student to confront challenges between the secular world and faith.

Anamaria Gonzalez, a Mexican American studies senior and Catholic, said she used to give up alcohol for Lent.

"The first season I did that, it was difficult, cause we made it to the Final Four," Gonzalez said. Since she is a social drinker, Gonzalez said the sacrifice was difficult to carry out during the spring games.

"I won't be giving up beer again for Lent," she said.

The UA is also involved and interested in the spiritual welfare of student body.

The University Religious Council meets once a month to discuss the dynamics between religion and academia, and to find ways each can facilitate the other. It is made up of religious leaders in the UA community and a liaison from the Dean of Students.

Ron Rude, president of URC, said finding others of similar faith is a factor in remaining committed to that faith.

"I think it is important to have a community," Rude said. "The university is a big place and it seems like every student needs some sort of small community."

Named after an Irish-Celtic goddess of wisdom and inspiration, Cerridwen Johnson, a psychology junior, said she has a hard time finding people who identify with her religion; Johnson is a British Traditional Gardnerian Wiccan.

"Coming to the UA, with a population of almost 40,000, you think you're going to meet others your own age, and they're not that many," Johnson said.

Aside from the few people she has met at Arizona Student Pagans, a UA club, Johnson said she has met a lot of Pagan posers, like Goths and what she called "fluffybunny pagans."

"I've spent my whole life studying, and it would be nice to meet someone, more than one or two people, who are really dedicated," said Johnson. "I grew up in a very close-knit community, and here on the UA campus, there really is no community. And that's hard. It's like culture shock."

The college spirituality survey in the Chronicle of Higher Education was financed with a $1.9 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion.

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