Religion at GW, through the eyes of the devout

Between internships, classes and friends, some GW students are balancing one more commitment – faith. While the following four students are not representative of all religion on campus, their stories can shed light about religion at GW.

By the numbers

In 2008, 1,000 GW students took part in a national study conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles, which found that 74 percent of the GW students interviewed identified themselves as religious.

Religion at GW

Photos and Audio: What their religion means to them
Photos and Audio: What their religion means to them

This is the first article in a series about religion at GW, seen through the eyes of the religious. The series will follow four students of four different faiths in an effort to look into their life on campus and how religion plays a role in their GW experience.

The composition of faiths generally reflects America’s religious breakdown – but with a few differences. Nearly 16 percent of the students who responded at GW said they were Jewish, compared to 1.7 percent of Americans who did the same for a Pew Forum survey. Other surveys indicate the University’s Jewish population is much larger. Hillel reports on its Web site that one in three students at GW is Jewish.

The survey found Roman Catholics to comprise the largest group on campus, with 23 percent of students identifying as Catholic. All other forms of Christianity, including Protestants, Mormons and other sects, make up about 24 percent of students.

Other religions on campus include Islam, with which 2.6 percent of students are affiliated; Hinduism with 3.3 percent; and Buddhism with 0.9 percent.

Finding comfort between “an individual and a higher power”

“I always believe that God is by me and watching. Regardless of what my day is like, I know I can always go to God,” says junior Habiba Belguedj.

Belguedj and her family lived in Algeria, an Islamic society, before moving to Maryland when she entered primary school. In Algeria, religion was woven into personal, political and social lives. But Belguedj says she was one of the only Muslim girls in her school when she arrived in America.

“My friends in middle school weren’t that mature in knowing about my religion, which sometimes made me hesitate to tell them about it,” she said. “I still face challenges today but all this experience has taught me how to be able to integrate without letting go of my faith and if anything, with all that I’ve been exposed to, my mind has been opened.”

Growing older deepened Belguedj’s connection with her religion. She recently started praying five times a day – an Islamic mandate called Salah – because she feels it connects her more with Allah. The University offers an Islamic prayer room in the Marvin Center, but Belguedj says she prefers to pray in the privacy of her room, because prayer is between “an individual and a higher power.”

The college social scene is not always conducive to the tenants of Islam. Belguedj does not drink alcohol, but said she still goes out to clubs and bars with friends. Sometimes men try and buy her a drink, which Belguedj says leads to her having to share some her convictions with a near stranger.

She says she is lucky to have a roommate in Philip Amsterdam Hall who “respects Islam and doesn’t blast music or anything like that during prayer times.”

Belguedi keeps halal – Islamic dietary laws – but chooses to not wear a hijab. She said she has Muslim friends who do wear the hijab and is impressed by their commitment.

“I believe that the hijab is a personal choice. I don’t wear it, and that’s my personal decision,” she said. “I respect the women who do wear it, but it doesn’t make me less of a Muslim that I don’t.”

“A model for what my religion teaches”

Julie DeMareo chose GW because she wanted a change from her tiny, all-Catholic high school.

“I thought GW would really challenge me, make me learn new things outside the classroom and meet new people. Everyone I met during the tour was so interesting and seemed to be ambitious yet engaged in the community,” DeMareo said.

As a house proctor, DeMareo says she tries to demonstrate her Catholicism when interacting with residents. She is inspired by her faith but makes sure she never “pushes” her religion on others.

“I’m not openly talking about my faith with my residents,” she said. “I’m not using my faith to show them the way but I’m using my values and experiences to. I’m motivated by my faith to help them and I try to use my knowledge of Christian love to help my residents.”

DeMareo believes that God is everywhere, which helps her focus during her busy college days – praying when she is late to class or before an exam.

“I think that the most important thing for Catholics is the trinity, and it can be confusing sometimes. But it essentially means that God is everywhere and is everything,” she said. “It’s something I have had to develop an understanding of. I have developed a personal relationship with God while learning how to be part of a community and a church at the same time.”

On the road to Orthodoxy

Freshman Ravjot Bhasin adjusted to college life easily, even though he says the majority of students misunderstand his religion.

“The first time they see you they think ‘oh he’s a Muslim, he wears a turban,’ which is a really common misconception because 99 percent of people that wear a turban in America are actually Sikh,” he said. “I have to explain that I’m a Sikh and I wear it because of my religion.”

Bhasin said he is a more modern Sikh in his daily life but after college wants to become an Orthodox Sikh. For him, praying is “like a sense of bliss.”

“Before tests, when I can’t sleep or after a difficult day. I just pray and I feel better,” he said. “I’ve done these things my whole life and I still do them in college. It always works for me.”

At school, Bhasin has been able to find a community that always pushed him to stay true to his religious ideas.

“Even though there is a lot more work to be done in college and it’s harder to keep up with religion, the strong Sikh community here always has your back and will always help you out. Someone is always ready to come to Nationals with me,” Bhasin said, referencing the Sikh Gurdawa temple in D.C.

Sometimes, he said, he will go to class wearing only a bandana instead of the full turban and his friends and roommates with shove him back to his room, reminding him of the turban’s importance.

Bhasin said he misses being able to pray with his family, where there is a prayer room they dedicated to the Holy Scriptures and religion.

Attending Sikh Sunday school every week taught him a lot about the religion, but he said his grandmother, who he lived with growing up, was the one who helped him memorize the Holy Scriptures, a milestone for a Sikh youth.

Sikhs like Bhasin believe in holy tenets called the five Ks. In English, they are – Kesh: which is uncut hair, kanga: which is a wooden comb kept in the hair under the turban, kara: an iron bracelet which serves as a reminder for Sikhs to follow the morals of not stealing, kachera: cotton briefs which stand for control over lust and kirpan: a small dagger to protect others.

“I usually wear the bracelet, but I never put it on after security check at the airport. I don’t think I’m going to wear all those items until I’m Orthodox. I don’t feel it’s necessary yet,” Bhasin said.

Wearing a turban is a valued part of his religion, Bhasin said, but the cultural and social implications of his choice can be difficult.

“Around 9/11 it got really hard. I remember my uncle was in the city and had to take his turban off in the car,” he said. “When we would go out people would yell vulgar things like ‘Osama’s nephew’ at me.”

Stages of acceptance

Senior Ariel Scheer came to GW after attending a Jewish day school since 8th grade.

“Every Friday we would have a family dinner for Shabbat and on Saturday mornings I knew I wasn’t going to watch cartoons. Instead, we would all go to synagogue together,” she said, adding her religion had been part of her life since she was a child. “I remember going home from my first siddur play and singing little prayers to my parents.”

For high school, Scheer transferred to a public school where she said she learned how to maintain her beliefs and practices in a secular atmosphere.

In 2006, Scheer spent a year in Israel and took part in a three-month army training simulation.

Israeli-born youths spend 18-months to three years in the army. For foreign-born Jewish students, Israel offers simulations of the army tour called Marva. The tour is run by the Israel Defense Forces and the students live the army lifestyle, getting up in the morning to a commander yelling at them to move faster, make their beds and spending the day training.

Spending three months getting yelled at in fatigues was enough for Scheer, but she did return to GW more aware of her faith. After one trip she tried to abstain from touching men, like many Orthodox Jews do.

“It’s so hard. You never realize how much you touch even your guys friends, even things as simple as a high-five,” Scheer said. Back at GW, it was hard to explain to some of her friends her choice but still felt it was an important tenet of her discovering her religious self.

For Scheer, it was about modesty and preparing herself for the moment that she witnessed when she was younger at Orthodox weddings.

“You see, in Orthodox weddings, the bride and groom touch each other for the first time, and it must be just electrifying,” she said.

And while Scheer eventually gave up on that particular aspect of Tzniut – the Jewish belief in modesty – she went through stages of her Jewish development. For a period of time, she wore only skirts past her knees and always covered her shoulders.

Now, Scheer still tries to live out the ideal of modesty, but often in jeans. She lives with another Jewish students who keeps kosher but says it’s hard to eat out at GW because of the prevalence of non-kosher meat at restaurants. She cooks a lot at home or eats vegetarian out and will attend Shabbat dinner at Hillel on Fridays, a service she looks forward to all week, as it is the only time she sees many of her Jewish friends.

Check back next Monday as The Hatchet looks into different places students go to worship and how the four students found a place to be religious at GW.

Special Feature: What their religion means to them

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