In a generation moving away from religion, some Spartans use college years to strengthen faith
MSU student Mikole Levran discusses the benefits of being part of the MSU Hillel community.
A population of 36,747 undergraduates, filled with individual ideas and philosophies, is enough to make anyone’s head spin.
But this confusion can be magnified for students who come to college with a list of religious virtues, set firmly in place after roughly 18 years of practice.
From being morally torn on a Friday night to dealing with others’ perceptions of their faith, religious students at MSU have a host of challenges.
To begin with, they’re more alone than they once were.
According to Pew Research Center, religious non-affiliation is growing quickly among young adults, and the 18 to 29-year-old age group has the highest percentage of unaffiliated people with 32 percent.
From left, marketing senior Sam Surrell, horticulture and urban planning junior Michelle Leppek, and hospitality business senior Rachel Barta sing songs of worship on Tuesday, Jan 22, 2013, at St. John Church and Student Center, 327 M.A.C Ave. This is the group's first time performing in front of the churchgoers. Justin Wan/The State News
Although challenges present themselves to devoutly religious students in a sea of red Solo cups and college humor, some students use their faith to make sense of it all — while others redefine their religion altogether.
“When I first made this decision, it was hard to tell people because it’s not very common,” said Derik Peterman, a physics senior who plans to attend seminary and become a priest after college.
“I could probably get a job in science making pretty good money, but I’m doing this instead (and) I think that has a big impact on people.”
For students similar to Peterman, whose faith has been calling him since he was 10, religion defines their future.
But even for them — the fiercely and passionately religious students — the pressures of college come with the occasional falter from faith.
Finding their niche
To handle the pressures on religious students at a college campus their first year, some students cling to their faith to cope while other students choose to leave religion behind.
When Peterman first got to MSU, his faith was tested.
“That was actually one of the moments I struggled the most,” he said. “I was on my own and could make my own decisions, so for awhile I chose not to go to church.”
Peterman, who has since reconciled with his faith, said the newfound independence and the distractions freshmen are greeted with was a large factor that made him falter.
These factors affect people of all faiths, said Sam Appel, program associate for the MSU Hillel Jewish Student Center.
Similar to Peterman, Appel struggled to keep his faith intact after arriving at college.
He said since middle school, he always made an effort to “keep kosher” by following a set of strict dietary restrictions that accompany Judaism. But these values went astray when he moved into his residence hall freshman year.
Appel said finding the Hillel and the support group of students with similar values to his own helped him find his faith again.
“Being in a new environment can change any of your habits,” Appel said.
“(For students), it’s about figuring out what being religious means to them.”
Religious studies professor Malcolm Magee said the key for many students who want to remain religious during their college years is finding the support system they need so they can keep their faith a priority.
This was the strategy for Sarah Garman, who now is a student leader for Canterbury MSU, an Episcopalian student organization.
But to Garman’s disappointment, the numbers of fellow students in her organization are dwindling. She said roughly 10 students regularly come to meetings.
“My religion is really important to me, and I try to go to church every week,” Garman said, adding at times, it is not easy.
“There’s so much homework and everything … It’s hard to balance all of that.”
Jeffrey Chan, the campus ministry intern for University Baptist Church, 4608 S. Hagadorn Road, said he has noticed a shrinking congregation of student populations — blatant proof of Pew’s findings.
“Sometimes they might come (to church) to hear a nice message,” Chan said.
“But they don’t want something that will change how they live their life currently.”
The definition of faith
On a campus such as MSU, which was rated on Princeton’s list of the nation’s top party schools until 2011, students are surrounded by temptations.
Peterman said the real challenge of being a good Catholic in his college years was prioritizing his life and trying not to lose his core religious values in the shuffle.
“Maintaining that lifestyle of prayer, that lifestyle of keeping my eyes and my heart fixed on what is good with so many distractions here (is the challenge),” Peterman said.
“Not just with sex and stuff like that and partying. Just the things in daily life — just being stressed and … putting other things in a higher place and higher priority than God.”
Although many students might sleep through mass on Sundays, they’re creating their own definition of what faith means to them on their own time, said Alex Waldman, Jewish Student Union president.
Rather than students losing their faith as Pew suggests, Waldman said current students are redefining the definition of faithful.
“In general, religion has turned into something that’s different — it’s not what it used to be,” Waldman said.
“People make religion into what they want. Whether that be cultural or doing certain religious things, everyone has their own cultural agenda.”
Magee said the current group of students he sees are “difficult to define as far as traditional religious terms go.”
For many college students, modern day faith is about making the definition fit both their changing world views and busy schedules.
“Everyone has something they hold near and dear to their heart, and we have to accommodate those things,” Waldman said.
Although Rev. Mark Inglot hasn’t seen a major change in the student population of his congregation at St. John Church and Student Center, 327 M.A.C Ave., in the 25 years he’s been a priest there, he says he is surprised at how many students he meets that don’t call themselves Catholic.
“The four years that you’re here from (age) 18 to 22, you grow more exponentially than you do at any point in your life,” Rev. Inglot said.
“Students today are seekers and searchers — they are searching and seeking, and hopefully they find something of value.”