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Adapting to a new way of life is a challenge that most college freshmen face, but for a large number of Penn students, the experience is marked by religion, or lack thereof.

According to the United States Department of Education, about 9 percent of students attend parochial schools.

University Chaplain Charles Howard deals with students coming from such backgrounds on a regular basis, helping to ease a transition that may be more difficult for them because of their experiences in religious schools.

“I wouldn’t say anything blanket–like, like all people coming from religious schools have a harder time [adjusting to college],” Howard said, “but there might be starker differences.”

For College senior Mark Lester, one of the biggest differences between high school and college has to do with class size — a relatively minuscule 87 at the non–denominational evangelical school he attended.

Lester believes the religious component of his high-school education helped foster a sense of family within the student body.

“There was definitely a sense of everybody being on the same ground,” he said.

College sophomore Ali Kriegsman, who attended Reform Jewish elementary and high schools, had a similar experience.

“I really do feel that being at a religious school is more conducive to deeper relationships, especially if you’re at a religious school for an extended period of time,” she said.

Lili Valentine, a College sophomore, acknowledged that to students who didn’t go to religious schools, the appeal may be perplexing.

“It’s funny,” Valentine said, “because when I come here and say I went to an all–girls Catholic high school I sort of get, ‘Did you like it?’ or ‘How was that?’”

“But I couldn’t have loved it any more,” she continued. “I had the best experience there.”

Howard cited Orthodox Jewish schools as institutions where differences may be more pronounced than other parochial schools in terms of “dress expectations, social expectations” and “having classes that are permeated with one’s faith.”

College freshman Adriel Koschitzky, who attended an Orthodox Jewish school in New York, found it difficult to reconcile his religious beliefs with his duties as a student at first, specifically struggling to observe Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, by resting on Saturdays.

He had to learn to be flexible in his social and academic schedules to accommodate his observance of the Jewish holiday.

“Even while it gets very stressful when I’m taking a whole bunch of classes and I have a ton of work, I just will not do work on Saturday,” he said, adding that he will not attend the Spring Fling concert because of Shabbat.

According to Koschitzky, he has experienced that “for people who are religious and want to maintain a religious lifestyle, it’s very challenging.”

However, he said, his transition to college was painless, even aided by his religious background because he already knew people from his community when he arrived.

Valentine also described her adaptation to college as “pretty fluid.”

“I didn’t feel like there was a stark absence of religion in my life,” she said.

Maria Bellantoni, College junior and chairwoman of Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters, went to an all–girls Catholic school. She recalled being shocked by the liberal attitude toward sex prevalent at Penn when she first arrived.

“At our first hall meeting, my RA showed up with a bowl of condoms,” she wrote in an email. “I laughed to myself trying to imagine what the nuns at my high school would have said.”

Despite these differing attitudes, Bellantoni hopes that PRISM can help students maintain their faith at a secular school like Penn.

“I think we’ve helped students who have religious backgrounds and want to pursue that in college and explore that further,” she said.

PRISM does not actively reach out to high-school students to aid in their transition to college. However, this year PRISM held Faith Fest, an event organized to acquaint students with different on-campus religious groups.

Bellantoni also hopes to create a faith-based pre-orientation program in the future.

Richard Barnett, a high-school senior who will matriculate at Penn in the fall, currently attends Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, but isn’t worried about his upcoming transition to college.

“Actually I believe that if anything, my religious background will help me to adjust more smoothly,” he wrote in an email. “Going to a secular college may have an adverse effect on my religion, but definitely not the other way around.”

“The lack of religious figures and references at Penn will not be an issue for me,” he added. “I do not have to be force-fed my religion in order to still practice it.”

Howard acknowledged the challenges facing some incoming students, but also described the opportunity to become familiar with people of different religious backgrounds as one of the “joys of college.”

Kriegsman agreed that students can gain from having a more open dialogue on religion at Penn. She recalled the questions posed by her freshman hallmates about her observance of Jewish holidays, and found it to be an opportunity to teach others about the culture she had grown up in.

“It’s really enriching … to get to know how other people think and believe,” she said, adding that people in high school knew her more “holistically” than her classmates at Penn because of their knowledge of her “religious identity.”

Lester agreed that encountering diversity can serve to strengthen one’s faith, citing his experiences with the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir, where he was placed among a culturally diverse body of students all sharing the same faith.

“I think it’s just a growth in humility, learning and seeing other people’s backgrounds and realizing that God is actually a lot bigger than me,” he said.

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