O n camp us, we must speak with politi cal correctness. Can’t offend anyone, right? It is the same mantra of being sensitive to the various cultures on campus. My problem is this: If it is important to be sensitive to different cultures on campus, why do I, as a religious Jewish student, feel marginalized in my college experience?
When I go to an event advertising food, do I think, like others in my cohort, “Oh, pizza! Yum?” The answer is no. My first thought is, “Is it worthwhile going to this event when I cannot eat anything here because I keep kosher?” I know I am not the only one who feels this way.
People who are vegetarian, are allergic to certain foods or have other dietary restrictions feel the same way as I do. This may seem small, but when you are constantly unable to eat food at events, socializing becomes uncomfortable when people start inquiring as to why you are not eating; explaining that I cannot eat the food served because it is not kosher tends to elicit the inquiry as to why there is no kosher food provided at the event.
If this was just a food problem, I would probably stay quiet. Yet the structural marginalization continues, which is why I speak up. Penn’s policy on religious and secular holidays is to give students the possibility of making up missed work, to not have exams or assigned work on the more observed and well-known holidays and, for less well known and observed holidays, to let professors know at the beginning of the semester that we have to take off for the other less known holidays as well. Some professors are great about letting me miss classes for the second day of Passover and some professors ask if I am making up holidays to get out of class. Some of my professors are great at remembering to postpone due dates, and other professors forgot about the clause of not assigning work to be due on the holidays. I should not have to defend my need of missing class due to my religious observance.
My point of contention with this process is the process itself. Asking for time off from class when I am spending nearly $50,000 a year in order to get an education is marginalizing. Why am I at a disadvantage in my education for missing classes due to my religious observance? There are other students, who, in fear of missing class time, sacrifice their holiday celebration for going to class. I should not be placed in the position of choosing between my religious practices and my education, nor should others.
Yet hope is not lost. It is possible to create small changes at Penn that will make more students feel more accepted. At events, when food is offered, present a kosher, vegetarian and/or gluten-free option for students with food restrictions. Similarly, in order to prevent students from needing to explain why they need to take time off from class to celebrate a religious holiday, the administration should not only send out a reminder email about policies on religious holidays, but should also offer a seminar for professors to both learn about the different religious holidays and to be sensitive to students who ask to be excused from class due to religious observance. Lastly, for the holidays on which students, such as myself, will be missing class, professors could record their lecture and offer that lecture to students who missed class.
With the next wave of holidays approaching, I ask for professors and students alike to display cultural sensitivity toward those celebrating religious holidays and for recognition that being politically correct means being sensitive to dietary restrictions and religious practices.
Shana Frenkel is a master’s student in the School of Social Policy & Practice from Silver Spring, Md. Her email address is email@example.com.