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“Since the mid-1990s we’ve had a resurgence of interest, more students staying with their religious heritage,’’ says the Rev. Ed Kacerguis, Rensselaer’s coordinator of religious affairs and one of two Catholic chaplains. “And I’d argue it’s a contradiction in terms: our students are bright, articulate, intellectual, and innovators, but socially they tend to be very conservative. Our kids were very quiet. Now they are more open about worship, more comfortable exploring it. They’re a little more public.’’
In fact, the people who gather as Catholics, Baptists, or Hindus are as active as those who gather as chess players or computer game enthusiasts.
Recently, for example, the Newman Catholic Fellowship had an overflow crowd for its forum on the ethics of cloning. More than 150 students attended a Mardi Gras party preceding Ash Wednesday services an eye-opener for Asian Catholics who had never before donned masks or had beads tossed at them. African-American students joined members of local churches in the Rensselaer Union for a Gospel Expo celebrated in prayer, music, and poetry. Christian groups convened the first-ever Praise Night. Rensselaer Hillel’s calendar included Passover seders and an evening of matzoh ball-making. The Muslim Students Association held a community basketball event.
Regular gatherings on campus abound. The Rensselaer Christian Association holds prayer meetings three times a week at 5 p.m. For the Korean Christians, it’s 8 p.m. Wednesdays. On Sunday afternoons, the Protestant chaplain holds informal discussions on the Bible.
“The Sunday meetings are a breath of fresh air,’’ says Jenny Burton, a lifelong Congregationalist who is a fourth-year architecture student. “RPI is obviously really intense. I get stressed. The discussion is a real grounding thing. It reminds me that there is more to life than my work.”
Periodically, the Robison Pool closes to the community so Muslim women can swim without breaking religious rules requiring them to cover their bodies. At noon each Friday, 100 or more Muslim students and local residents, wearing everything from the loose-fitting traditional garb to jeans, stream into the basement of the Alumni Sports & Recreation Center for Jumuah services, signifying Sabbath. And five times every day Muslims find space to pray though privacy is not always possible.
“While I’m praying people have whole conversations with me. They say ‘Rami, why aren’t you talking?’” laughs Rami Santrisi ’06, former president of the Muslim organization.
Surge in Spiritualism
“It used to be that your religious beliefs were private except for Mass on Sunday mornings,” says Rick Hartt ’70, director of the Union. “Now we try to create an environment where they can feel comfortable exploring their faith. I’ve really seen interest grow in the last five years. These students see the larger picture.”
During the 1960s and 1970s many young Americans had traded in their parents’ practices for political activism or study of Eastern philosophies, says Thomas Beaudoin, assistant professor of Christian theology at Santa Clara University. For the next few decades, he says, talk of God was largely absent from the intellectual discourse.
“In the 1950s you were required to participate in chapel worship and religious education on campus, and then after that there wasn’t any requirement and it gradually fell away,” says the Rev. Beth Illingsworth, Rensselaer’s Protestant chaplain. “I’m a Presbyterian. I went to Lafayette College, a Presbyterian college, but you wouldn’t have known it in the 1980s. We had a traditional worship service and nobody came.”
By the 21st century the dormant spiritual life in higher education was waking up. A two-year study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities reported that Evangelical groups, which had built their base slowly, blossomed. For example, from 1995 to 2000, the study found, Campus Crusade for Christ doubled to 39,000 members.
Just as significant, the report found there is a renewed interest at non-denominational schools. In 1998, 800 people attended a conference Wellesley College held on religious diversity. By then, religious studies courses proliferated, along with multi-faith chapels recognizing the increasingly diverse student bodies. (The Rensselaer Newman Foundation opened its Chapel + Cultural Center in 1968 to provide worship space for Catholics. Today, students of all faiths use the C+CC for quiet reflection and cultural programs.)
“There is also a growing trend of students who say ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’” says the Rev. Wayne Clark, a Methodist minister and president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. “At our national conference our conversation confirmed that, yes, there is an increase in spirituality across the board. It is a concept colleges need to address.”
Observers see a number of reasons for the revival. Among them is the late 20th-century emphasis on self-discovery. Students are often aware of the ways in which family patterns and problems have had an impact on their lives. And their parents might be the very people who shook things up in the 1960s and 1970s.
“This is a generation that is very used to dealing with psychology and looking inward,” says the Rev. Illingsworth. “What you end up with are a great many people who are interested in spiritual questions. They approach Christianity in a very different way.” What’s more, they are less apt to reject their parents’ advice.
Professor Beaudoin, who studies the interplay between secular and religious life, says that baby boomers are generally friendlier and less authoritarian toward their children than their own parents were. “I see it all over the country. Parents have tremendous access to their children,” says Beaudoin. “There’s the technology cell phones and e-mail bring them constantly together. And, college is so expensive. When parents pay $40,000 a year for college they have bought access.”
Students interviewed for this article consistently referred to their mothers and fathers as close friends they are in frequent touch with. They say they were not anxious to abandon the rituals they practiced at home.
“I guess I just expect a Muslim community wherever I go,” says Muhammad Ihsan Mohd Nasir ’06, an information technology major who is, like a growing number of Muslims on campus, American. He was born in Illinois and raised both in the U.S. and in Malaysia.
When he came to Rensselaer, Nasir said he simply took for granted that there would be a Muslim presence. While the number of Muslims has not risen substantially, they are more likely than in the past to be undergraduates and more integrated into campus life than Muslim students of even a decade ago. Nasir, who is active in the Muslim Student Association, said the school environment has always been welcoming. At the same time, the campus provides an environment in which the students feel free to question one another in their spiritual lives. It is not unusual, he said, to hear, “what’s that on your head?”
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