Interfaith experience: Catholic universities accommodate students of various religious backgrounds
In today’s diverse world, most Catholic colleges and universities are home to several religious denominations, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, all manner of Christianity, and other faith-based and non-faith traditions. Just as they are working to accommodate Muslim students, Catholic universities must work to engage and communicate with these students as well.
Leah Karchmer, a sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago, is one of the Vincentian school’s active Jewish students. As a board member of the Jewish student group Hillel, she meets regularly with other students for monthly Shabbat dinners and celebrations of the High Holy Days.
Even though she chose to attend DePaul for its generous scholarship program, Karchmer said she’s been pleased with how respectful the school is toward religions in general. As an interfaith scholar for her university, she’s enjoyed engaging in dialogue with students from other backgrounds. The exposure to other belief systems, including Catholicism, has been eye-opening.
“I realize so much more what we have in common as religious people, rather than focusing on the fact that we’re different religions,” she says.
Tanushree Mondkar, a senior at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, will graduate this June with her bachelor’s degree in political science. A practicing Hindu, she helped reboot her school’s Hindu student council in January 2010 and later served as its president. For the past three years she’s been involved in Santa Clara’s Interfaith Council.
She sees the Catholic presence on campus daily, especially when passing by the university’s mission church. Rather than feeling isolated Mondkar likes that her school places such a large emphasis on spirituality. Growing up, Mondkar always celebrated the Hindu holidays and traditions with her family. Now, she likes being able to share her faith with other students.
“This is what we do,” she says. “That should be shared because most people grow up with it and it’s an important aspect of their personal life, and in the public sense, a part of who they are.”
But what about those students who don’t believe in God or have faith in any religion at all? According to a recent study released from the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, about one third of people between the ages of 18 and 30 no longer identify with any religion. At DePaul, those students are represented by the 100-member DePaul Alliance for Free Thought (DAFT), a student organization for atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and humanists. DePaul senior Heather Stebbins, an atheist, has been involved with DAFT for the past two years. She says the group is a safe space for discussions related to science, education, social issues, and social justice through the secular lens. The group also performs charitable projects and acts as a positive advocate for atheist and secular students on campus.
While at DePaul, Stebbens says she’s learned that Catholicism is not just about ritual and tradition but that it can also include community service and volunteerism. She also enjoys being able to have discussions with students of all faith backgrounds.
“For me personally, I feel like it’s been a very positive experience, getting together with people who believe different things,” Stebbens says. “At the end of the day, it always comes back to how can we take our respective ideas and beliefs and make that positive and do something positive in the world.”
This article is a web-only feature that accompanies "Inter-religious Ed: Muslim students on Catholic campuses " which appeared in the February 2013  issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 2, pages 12-17).