People of the book: Students, chaplains call for more religious resources

The three members of the Campus Ministry, a rabbi, a Catholic chaplain and a Protestant pastor, share one office on the fifth floor of the McCarthy Center. Few students ever knock on their door.

All three of these chaplains work on a volunteer basis and hold weekly office hours.

Religious life on campus does not seem visible to some of the student body, except for those who seek it out – and some of the students who do, believe there needs to be more resources for them to be able to practice their religion fully.

Olivia Millikin, a senior, said, “As someone who’s not particularly religious, I haven’t gone looking, but I don’t see [religious activities] too much.”

She added that there seems to be a “negative stigma” around being openly religious for students in their early twenties, partly because of advances in technology and access to information. “It’s unfortunate. People should believe what they want to.”

On a late February morning, in the Campus Ministry office, Hai Ok Hwang, FSU’s Catholic chaplain, wore a tan cardigan as she spoke softly, pausing for a long time between words to consider what, precisely, she wanted to say.

Religion for students has been “decreasing, obviously,” she said. “There are challenges for academic work, peer pressure or they don’t find value in religious life. But some do find it.”

She added that “probably when students have questions, [they] overlap with their spiritual questions, with psychological questions, so they go to the Counseling Center rather than Campus Ministry. Students are embarrassed to ask questions about God.”

Hwang said it’s important for students to “find what spirituality and religion” is right for them, and to find it “not because of duty, but because they find definition of identity in God or see value in different way of relating to God.”

She added that often, college life can make it difficult to find religion, but that it can be an especially important time in someone’s life to have spirituality as a support system because college students often feel “isolated, anxious or stressed out. You don’t have to be alone in those times.”

Though, she added, students rarely come visit her, and only about four consistently come to the Catholic services provided on Sundays.

Olivia DiFranco, a sophomore, said she is “relatively” religious, meaning she goes to church “on high holidays,” but otherwise, doesn’t attend.

DiFranco said she is open about what she believes, but sometimes, people will assume because she identifies as Christian that she “hates gay people. Actually, no.”

FSU’s Protestant Chaplain Leslie Scanlon, the pastor of the Lutheran Church of Framingham, said many students find it surprising that she is a young woman with a scientific background. She was a chemistry major as an undergraduate, and began to study pre-med before finding her calling with the ministry.

On a Thursday morning in March, the time during the week when she holds office hours, she wore a robin blue cardigan, the same color as her socks, over a traditional black clerical shirt and white removable collar.

Scanlon said there seems to be a lot of challenges for students to be religious while in college, including negative connotations they may have about religion based on the violent stories they might have heard about religious extremists.

She recently hosted a table outside the McCarthy Center on Ash Wednesday, offering hot chocolate or cider to passersby and ash to those who were interested in partaking.

“I really saw that hesitancy on Ash Wednesday,” she said. “People were lurking by until I said, ‘No strings attached.’ And people were like, ‘Really? I don’t have to do anything? I don’t have to believe anything [to ask questions or get a hot drink]?’ They thought there would be some pitch.”

With a warm smile, she said, “I got to have a lot of good conversations with people, asking what Ash Wednesday was, what the ashes represented. I had, I think, a science professor and a person of a different religion come up and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I believe anyway. That we’re from dust, and that’s what we’re going to go back to.’ So that was really interesting to find those religious connections. I think more often than not, we focus on what divides us instead of what unifies us.”

She added that there were a lot of students who were worried that they wouldn’t be able to receive ash, and were very thankful for there being a resource on campus to do so.

Scanlon was recruited as part of an effort by the Dean’s Office to “get Campus Ministry up and running again.

“It’s definitely been a slow start,” she said, but added, “I think there are more [religious students] than we think, and they just don’t practice in traditional ways that we are looking for or are expecting to see.”

Jonathan Monthanez, a sophomore, said he doesn’t think a lot of students are religious. “I go to church,” he said, but added that religion is not a major part of his life.

He said he thought people “are not really aware” of what resources exist for religious students, and thinks “people deserve to be educated.”

Rabbi Yakov Lazaros, the director at Congregation Bais Chabad in Framingham, used to volunteer as a Jewish chaplain at FSU 20 years ago. He said he doesn’t remember why he left, but came back again four years ago, and has been volunteering time at FSU ever since.

On a February morning, in the Campus Ministry office, Lazaros leaned back in his chair and spoke calmly and with warmth. He wore black clothes and a yamaka, and had a long beard.

He said one of the first goals he accomplished was to make more kosher foods available to students, especially during Passover, but they really aren’t available any other times of the year.

He said more resources are needed on campus, but these initiatives need to be spearheaded by students.

He encouraged any students who are interested in talking about faith to come see him in the Campus Ministry office, and if they are interested in Judaism to come to temple services at the Congregation Bais Chabad.

“I think it would be extremely difficult for a religious Jew to be a student here for several reasons,” he said, referencing the lack of kosher food. Another reason is that many of the important and entertaining school activities are planned during the Jewish Sabbath, which is Friday night to Saturday night.

He said, “Many students are tempted to abandon religion once they go to college. How long can they live on cornflakes and milk?

“You sometimes have morality issues on college campuses that would be sort of a conflict for a religious student,” Lazaros said.

He said when he was in school, many students turned to religion, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with college students of this generation.

“There are a lot of things that I’d like to do, but the students are pretty apathetic. It’s not just the Jewish students. I’ve spoken to the other clergy and they have the same problem,” he said.

Diana McDonald said she thinks many college students “don’t think about it much. It’s just this generation.”

She added that when she’s home, she goes to church with her family, but didn’t really consider doing so when she’s at school. She said she didn’t know what the Ecumenical Center was for. “I never really understood what actually went on there. Like I didn’t know if they held services or whatnot.”

Senior Zack Aidoidis also said he goes to church with his parents and grandparents, but doesn’t think about his religion much while living at school.

“I think a lot of people are in the same boat,” he said. There are “too many other things on their minds.”

Although he said he thinks people do judge others who identify as religious, and some sects of religious people more harshly than others, he added he hasn’t seen examples of that kind of discrimination on this campus.

According to Assistant Dean of Students David Baldwin, an Interfaith Specialist, Imam Mynuddin Syed, can be reached by phone, starting this semester. Before that, there was no person for Muslim students to contact as a resource.

He added, “I think that some religions fare better than others. I mean, Catholicism, of course, is more mainstream, so they don’t think about different things.”

Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sean Huddleston said that a Muslim student requested a room for praying, and by the end of this semester, he hopes the Interfaith Prayer Room in O’Connor Hall will be ready and available for students.

“At a very basic level, we now have an interfaith space. That will be a space that people can schedule to use, because one of the worst things that can happen is if you’re in the middle of prayer or reflection, and someone walks in the room on you. So we want to make sure there is some assurances that people will have that private time to be able to pray or reflect.”

He added that a committee will be working on making that space one in which information can also be found about various religions for people who are interested in learning and finding answers to questions they may have as well.

Huddleston said interfaith religion education and tolerance efforts are the second piece of the five-year strategic plan for diversity and inclusion excellence.

“The challenge in general” for students who are religious on a college campus, he said, “is that oftentimes, religion and faith are somewhat indoctrinated. I mean, they’re something that we are born into – an expectation of a belief system.

“So when students come to college in particular, there becomes a whole other identity development that occurs, so as students are beginning to develop their identity … there are times when it can become a clash with things that have already been indoctrinated beliefs that they’ve known their entire life.”

He said this can often create clashes between students and their families as well.

Kaitlyn Faria, a freshman, said she’d like to see a class on world religions to increase awareness and education.

Sophomore Jessica Szum said it might be beneficial to have a club that “explains different religions,” which she thought might be a helpful forum for students to ask questions, “if they’re curious.”

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