In a period of life that involves important transitions, many GW freshmen turn to one or more of the many on-campus religious communities available to them in order to bond with peers and find direction in a new environment that can sometimes seem large and impersonal.
Faith takes a high priority among many students, prompting them to seek out religious groups early on in their first year, sometimes well before classes begin. Freshman Andrew Ratner, who frequents GW Hillel, is one such person.
“I found out (about) Hillel in general by members of my Jewish community back home,” he said. “I was interested in continuing my involvement in Judaism, and so when I visited GW in April, my dad and I went there to eat every day.”
Some students feel like a part of the community before they even arrive, using pre-existing relationships to help them find their niche.
“I had previously actually known some people from the (Muslim Students’ Association),” said freshman Ashraful Quader, who joined the MSA this semester.
Freshman Erin March began attending services at the Newman Catholic Student Center after arriving on campus in September, looking for a religious group to call her own.
“I found out about the Newman Catholic Center after seeing an ad in The Hatchet and after talking to my (community facilitator) about religion and area churches that students attend,” March said.
For many newcomers from small towns and rural communities, the city offers a wide variety of new ideas to explore. First-year students take advantage of this new, more open environment to discover what parts of their beliefs are most important to them.
“My old church had the reputation for being the strictest and most traditional in the entire diocese,” said March, who grew up in rural Clifton, Va. “Although the tradition helps make the mass more symbolic and meaningful … I’ve enjoyed the more casual style of worship at the Newman Center.”
Services on a college campus often allow for more relaxed worship, and sermons are aimed directly at students.
“The sermons are tailored to (the lives of college students), making the experience more meaningful for all of us,” said March. “By having direct examples of how the gospel can be applied to our own everyday life, college students are more likely to try to make an attempt to integrate learned concepts and ideas into the practice of their everyday lives.”
March took advantage of the independence that comes with the college experience to instill her lifelong faith with new energy.
“Religion has always been something that I value, and I felt that college was a time, more than ever, when I needed faith and a sense of direction in my life,” she said.
But some are drawn to a religious group as much for companionship and belonging, as for meaning and guidance.
“Everyone that I’ve met at Hillel so far has been extremely welcoming,” Ratner said. “There’s a great sense of community at Hillel, and you can tell as soon as you step inside.”
A religious experience tailored toward building community can be important, but some students think being part of a group that is able to talk about and confront community-specific issues is every bit as vital.
“Whenever I go up to pray at musullah on the fourth floor of the Marvin Center, there were always people who would talk about events (in the Muslim community),” said Quader.
Students like Quader can then take what they’ve learned in their own group and bring their concerns and values to the larger University community. By gaining a greater understanding of each other’s personal beliefs, religious people of all faiths, as well as non-religious students, are able to learn what traits they have in common.
“The people here are much more lively than they were back at home,” Quader said. “They want to reach out and increase awareness (of the Muslim faith) among non-practicing people as much as possible. The campus and mosque here really mesh.”
A similar spirit of openness pervades GW Hillel, the center of the Jewish student community on campus. Ratner attested to the organization’s ability to bring together groups that traditionally isolate themselves.
“The community at Hillel is a bit more tightly knit (than the one at home), because there is less separation within the different sects of Judaism here. There isn’t a specific crowd,” Ratner explained. “The Conservative Jews don’t exclusively hang with the Conservative Jews, and the same with the Reform and Orthodox Jews. I don’t make any distinctions, I just hang out with who I want to.”
“The welcoming attitude that everyone there has especially helped me adjust,” Ratner continued. “I go to Friday night services feeling like I belong. It’s a very nice atmosphere to come into.”
Even with ancient ideological differences, GW students from all walks of life use their sense of community to strengthen the University as a whole.