Section: News

Some students take a leap of faith

Some students take a leap of faith

Though Kenyon is officially affiliated with the Episcopal church, a look at the religious organizations operating on campus shows that the college has branched out since 1824.

The Board of Spiritual and Religious Life (BSRL) recognizes six student organizations — BE: Christian Student Organization, the Cornerstones, Hillel, Newman Club, Canterbury and Quaker Worship Group — though Buddhist and Muslim societies have been active in the past. BSRL Administrative Assistant Hallie Logan said some unregistered groups may also be active.

Though Kenyon does not keep track of students’ religious associations, national trends suggest that religious affiliation is declining college campuses. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute’s 2015 American Freshman survey found that nearly 28 percent of college freshmen claim no religious affiliation, compared with 24.4 percent last year and 17.5 percent in 2004.

The Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL), founded in July, is the first office under Student Affairs to explicitly address the spiritual needs of students. OSRL director Marc Bragin said he has wanted to establish such a resource since becoming Kenyon’s Jewish chaplain in 2005.

“I think on any campus, expressing yourself religiously or spiritually is always going to be a challenge, because it’s not necessarily the cool or popular thing to do,” Bragin said.

Support from the OSRL includes advocacy in religious matters both at Kenyon and in broader higher education, maintenance of religious facilities and facilitation of interfaith dialogue. Financial support for transportation, celebrations and events will continue to be available to religious groups through the BSRL, now under the OSRL.

“It can be a challenge for students to express their spirituality on Kenyon’s campus,” Logan said. “I think that a lot of times … they feel reserved in expressing their own personal faith.”

Expressions of faith do not necessarily present social problems for Kenyon’s religious students, however.

“I’ve been so impressed since returning to Kenyon at how open students are about their religious affiliation and their interest in just exploring their own spirituality,” Vice President of Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 said. “I don’t think that’s the case at a lot of campuses.”

Lin Miao ’17 said that Kenyon’s religious openness has changed her perspective on faith.

“I’ve gotten more religious perspectives here than I would’ve gotten at home,” Miao said. “For me personally, talking to people about what they believe in a very open and respectful way is something I really enjoy about being at Kenyon.”

Not all transitions have been smooth. Qossay Alsattari ’16 said he participates in activities organized for Muslim students and the Quaker worship group. While Alsattari identifies as spiritual rather than religious, other students have told him it can be difficult to be Muslim in Gambier.

“Even four years ago … there were a lot of misconceptions about Islam, for instance,” Alsattari said. “Now it’s becoming more diverse, but there is [still] some homogeneity and you feel like a minority sometimes.”

Alsattari said he feels that greater diversity on campus has led to increased acceptance of different religious identities. However, misconceptions have not disappeared. Ghada Bakbouk ’19 said she is occasionally asked about her hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women.

“I have these strange questions like, ‘Do I have to wear the hijab,’ ‘What would happen if I don’t,’ ‘Why do I wear it in America, because I’m not in Syria anymore,’” Bakbouk said. “I don’t feel bad when people ask me these questions. It means they want to understand, not to discriminate.”

Residential Life has accommodated Muslim students’ religious practices by making arrangements for food delivery at sundown during fasts. However, one major component is missing — halal food, which follows Quranic dietary laws.

“Since I came here, I have been a vegetarian, and I’m not really used to this,” Bakbouk said. “But [the Middle Eastern Student Association is] having conversations with ResLife and AVI, and I hope it goes well.”

Some student organizations face logistical challenges. Newman Club President Robin Dunn ’16 said that, for Catholic students, getting to mass requires three rounds of Kenyon transportation every weekend.

For Hillel Student Manager Hannah Davidoff ’18, who does not consider herself religious, participation in Kenyon religious life is less about faith and more about community.

“I do Shabbat at home sometimes, so I thought it would be nice … to have something in college that would be familiar,” Davidoff said. “I would say that 50 percent of the people who show up aren’t even Jewish. … It’s all about what you want to get out of it.”

Davidoff said she encourages students who are curious to attend Hillel events, no matter their religious background.

“You’re going to college to have new experiences and meet new people,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to branch out in college.”


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