Is There Room for Religion At School?

For students around the country, going away to college represents our first real taste of freedom. We can party every night, avoid eating vegetables, and keep a messy room. Many of us also discover that living away from home makes it easier to alter our religious beliefs and customs.

Raised in a Christian household, I was accustomed to attending service every week. That changed when I went off to Northwestern. At first, I didn't know which church to pick, so I didn't attend any of them. As the weeks went by, I got bogged down in schoolwork. I began hanging out late with friends on Saturday nights. Pretty soon, Sunday morning became a time to sleep, not worship. The excuses piled up, and it just became easier to skip church.

Ben Huh, a junior, followed a similar route. He too went to church - until he arrived here. "When you're in college, you want to be independent and prove yourself," he says. "That means abandoning your reliance on religion, your reliance on parents. You want to think on your own."

Whether students ultimately grow closer or further from their faith, it seems that the college years often become a turning point. "Especially at this time in our lives, students really question religion and evaluate how they've chosen to deal with religion. People are going out in the real world soon, so in a sense it becomes all about you," says Rachel Milton, a senior who's covered religion for the journalism school's news service and was president of Hillel Cultural Life, a campus organization for Jewish students.

It took 2-1/2 years for Ben's belief to grow again. While in Florida for an internship in January, his girlfriend ended their five-month relationship. "I felt so alone, so vulnerable, and so out of control of my life. So I turned toward God," he told me. Now, back on campus, he's joined a Christian group, made more Christian friends, and set aside quiet time every morning. "I feel happier and more content," he says. "There's peace in my life."

Some students who weren't exposed to religion at home make the decision in college to become pious. Connie Pankratz's parents didn't encourage her to explore religion, and she was discouraged in high school by the "un-Christian" ways of many of her Christian friends. For her first two years at Northwestern, her life seemed to breeze by. But her junior year she became tormented by memories of a troubled childhood.

"I became really depressed. I didn't have any energy. I was suicidal and couldn't sleep," she says. She got a call from an Mormon friend who started talking about God. "He said a couple things that just turned on a light bulb for me, and I felt something so amazing." That night she became convinced of God's existence, and "all of a sudden everything was OK." She was baptized into the Mormon religion two months later. Now she attends church and scripture-study classes every week.

Even with a strong devotion to God, many students feel tempted in a campus setting. "It is a challenge to keep the covenant - the commands - when you're surrounded by frat parties, swearing, and a lot of people engaging in sexual activity and a high consumption of alcohol and other mind-altering drugs. Those were all things I used to do," Connie says.

Staying religious can be even more difficult for international students. Many arrive on campus with a desire to meld into American culture. That often means straying from their beliefs, says senior Aman Haque, a Muslim from Karachi, Pakistan.

For Ben, the hardest part of his transformation was letting his non-Christian friends know what had happened. "It's kind of tough to pray in front of your friends," he says, "but once you start it and the surprise is over, it gets easier."

As for me, I'm disappointed that I've missed out on some "higher" learning during the last four years, but that's been my choice. I still strongly believe in God and feel that He's working in my life. I would like to attend a church. I plan to do so when I settle into a new city after graduation in June. I'll just have to make sure I don't find any new excuses.

* Boaz Herzog,a senior majoring in journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is an intern for the Chicago Tribune's Web edition.

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