Academic and career success is great, but Wharton junior Ava Zhang firmly believes that her Christian faith is what makes her happier everyday.
“It doesn’t mean that there aren’t difficulties or hardships in my life,” she said, “but there’s a deep sense of peace and joy and hope.”
Though unlike other colonial peer institutions Penn was not founded as a seminary or a divinity school, the impact of religion on individual students’ lives is profound enough for the University community as a whole to take notice.
According to the Office of the Chaplain, one in three Penn students are active in a religious group on campus — that is, they participate in weekly worship service, scripture study, fellowship time, a prayer group or a religious singing group.
“Penn has never had an identity as a religious school (in its mission),” University Chaplain Chaz Howard wrote in an e-mail. “But … [t]oday we have nearly 40 campus groups of a religious nature and another 40 campus ministries and local congregations that we work closely with.”
Students from various religious backgrounds recognized that there is a spectrum of how religiously involved the typical Penn student is.
“I think Penn is a microcosm of the U.S.,” College junior and Hillel Education Chairwoman Dina Bleckman said.
She explained that the student body seemed to be divided up into three main sectors: those who are actively involved, those who are affiliated with a certain religion and those who are not involved in any way but do not feel a want or need to be so.
However, the more “vocal” and visible followers are more likely to be a part of a religious organization on campus, Bleckman clarified.
The percentage of actively religious students is “still pretty small” compared to those who simply identify with a religion, added Zhang, who is on the student leadership team of Penn Students for Christ.
But for those who do consider religion to be an important part of their lives, religion “really is their life,” College junior and Co-Chairwoman of the interfaith group PRISM Roxana Moussavian said.
As a Muslim, “[b]eing able to do my five-a-day prayers is very important to me,” Moussavian said.
However, with both academic and social lives to maintain, time constraints sometimes means compromises.
“Not being in a mosque 24 hours a day” means Moussavian usually only has time to do three of the five prayers in the Graduate Student Commons on Locust Walk where a space to pray is provided.
“It doesn’t necessarily have the appropriate stations or preparations for prayer, but it definitely helps get the job done,” she said.
Many students who are also active in religious organizations find themselves devoting additional time outside of personal spiritual practices to organizing and running gatherings and events.
College junior Alok Choksi, co-president of the Hindu Students Council/Young Jains of America, said although he grew up with his parents’ beliefs and became involved in community service because of his faith, planning religious events in college stepped up his involvement.
“Being on Hillel board is my biggest extracurricular activity, just doing logistical work,” Bleckman said, adding that when working with other people to whom Hillel involvement might be one of many activities or not an important priority at all, it can get “extremely time consuming.”
Apart from its effects on time management, religion can also influence the classes students choose, the friends they make and even the food they eat.
“Jains are pretty staunch vegetarians, as an expression of non-violence,” explained Choksi, who practices both Jainism and Hinduism. “I practice vegetarianism to support that ideology.”
Like many student who observe the Jewish Sabbath, Bleckman mentioned that she is not able to use electricity on Friday evenings.
“My faith definitely set my career choice,” Zhang said. “Being a Wharton junior this semester is a really crucial part of my college experience, going through OCR and trying to find the highest paid job — but God definitely changed my desire.”
Now, she is looking into careers that focus on relationship building and people interactions, without focusing on salary.
“It’s a really good opportunity to reach out to people and love people,” she explained.
Despite dedication to their individual religions, the students all embraced Penn’s “interfaith” approach.
“My religion gives me an appreciation for other religions,” Moussavian said. “I know how much my religion means to me, so it’s beautiful to be able to learn about other religions.”
Speaking about the joint vigil in response to the 2008 Mumbai bombings, Choksi agreed that religion has “definitely been a unifying factor throughout the University.”
“At Penn, we … strive to do more than just have each major world religious group present — but to also have them engage one another, learn from one another and grow and work together while — without compromising their own beliefs — making the world better for all of us,” Howard wrote.
However, Moussavian expressed a discontent at the “lack of interfaith” between the religious and nonreligious sectors of Penn, saying, “Secular Penn is not really engaged in interfaith dialogue.”
In addition, “[d]ifferences in allocating resources promotes a division between religious student life and other student life, a boundary that I feel is entirely unnecessary,” she said. “We don’t need to compartmentalize religion, and yet we do.”
She acknowledged steps the University has taken toward breaking this barrier, such as the creation of an Interfaith Fellow position and engagement of religious life in forums such as the University Council Committee on Open Expression, but said she hopes for more resources as the University continues to embrace religious life as “just another aspect” of student life.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.