God and Grades


By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Published Oct 1, 2007 9:00 AM

A Growing Congregation

Across the country, students are on that quest. Fifteen years ago at Harvard University, a group of graduate students started the Veritas Forum for others seeking meaning in the Christian tradition. The forum has spread to 80 campuses in six countries, including UCLA from 2001 to 2004, and, through a Christian lens, helps students wrestle with the mysteries of existence.

"Generally, seeking students, or Christian students, they find one another, and they live in a kind of para-academy where they are creating a culture within their own friendships — but one that does explore the big questions," Kelly Monroe Kullberg, one of the Harvard founders, says. "Questions like: What does it mean to be human? What are our origins? It seems like the Big Bang and DNA point to a creator who speaks things into existence; why is no one talking about that in the academy?"

Still, the Spirituality in Higher Education study claims that universities generally do little to support these journeys. Astin said that is because colleges, particularly public institutions, don't want to be perceived as promoting sectarianism.

"But from our perspective, that is a problem, because students feel they have to contend with these questions and they are not getting support doing it," Astin says. "And these are questions that certainly affect their studies and choice of career, so colleges would be wise to pay attention to that."

Bruins and Believers

UCLA does not have a dean of religious life and, until 1995, the College of Letters & Science lacked its interdepartmental Center for the Study of Religion. But Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs, says the faculty and administration are taught to recognize the role religious development plays in students' college experience.

"The important thing," she says, "is to be able to support and encourage exploration and outreach to that part of a student's experience, to encourage them to engage either with their religious traditions or engage with their church or synagogue or temple at home, to maintain those ties."

That was easy for Naqib Shifa. He grew up only 15 miles away in the San Fernando Valley, and when he arrived at UCLA in September 2005, his cousin, Reshad Noorzay '06, was already involved with the Muslim Students Association (MSA). Shifa joined and last year was managing editor of the Muslim student paper, Al-Talib.

"MSA has been my family away from my house in the Valley. Just being around that environment, being with other people who have the same focus you do, is something to treasure about college," says Shifa, who is majoring in geography and environmental studies. "Just talking with them, sitting with them, doing projects with them, I've learned a lot. It has definitely helped increase my faith and nurture my faith."

Shifa's faith could first be differentiated from his parents' when he was in 10th grade. "Since then I have been wholeheartedly devoted to living my life according to the Quran and being pious," he says.

While the Spirituality in Higher Education study found many students with high spiritual involvement and commitment just like Shifa, plenty of collegians aren't actively pursuing the greater mysteries of life. And that bothers Shifa.

"Little thought is given to this subject," he says. "While we are trying to pursue a degree in biology or microbiology, people are giving little thought to why we suffer in this world, why some people are oppressed, why we live 60, 70 years and just die. There has to be more to life than just that."