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God and Grades

By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Published Oct 1, 2007 9:00 AM

Brandon Kuiper arrived at UCLA with a strong Christian faith and an inquisitive scientific mind. He didn't believe in evolution, but he was intent on studying neuroscience. Something was bound to give, but the biggest spiritual crisis in Kuiper's 20 years came not from South Campus but from studying the philosophy of Voltaire and Hobbes and Kant and Freud.

"I was reading that stuff and I thought, 'This makes so much sense.' I had to stop and evaluate why I am a Christian and what I believe," he recalls. "I remember thinking, 'What if I've been wrong all along?' "

Kuiper, now the student chaplain for the Christian fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega, is not the first Bruin — and he certainly won't be the last — to question everything he believed. For many students, that's just part of college.

But, unlike most places in the nation, religion and science are not locked in mortal combat. At least at UCLA, the search for truth often leads to a middle path where student seekers find a way to live and learn comfortably from both textbooks and holy books.

College Search

There's certainly no shortage of seekers. A study by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) found that three-fourths of freshmen are "searching for meaning/purpose in life" and that half are either "seeking" or "doubting" their spiritual understanding of the world. Forty percent said it was very important they follow a set of religious teachings.

"It is the nature of the beast of people that age. It's just part of being a college student," says Alexander Astin, co-leader of the "Spirituality in Higher Education" study and an emeritus professor of higher education. "College students are on a developmental adventure."

For many students, there is a decline in ritualized religion, in attending services, in studying scriptures. This, Astin says, can be attributed to leaving the parents' nest, to being around a more diverse peer group and, no surprise, to "social liberation," a.k.a. partying. But that doesn't translate to a significant decline in faith, Astin says.

"That really got me set in my faith," Kuiper says of his philosophy course. "I've never been a stronger Christian."

The implications of this national survey of 112,000 entering freshmen in 2004 — a follow-up analysis of the same students as juniors this past spring will be published this fall — are, well, eternal, not to mention political, social and medical. Students with high levels of religious engagement are politically conservative three times as often as liberal, and they exhibit moderately better physical health.

Spirit Squads

Though there are more than two dozen Christian groups on campus, more than any other faith, UCLA has something for everybody. The prevalence and diversity of religion is most apparent at the start of each quarter, when scores of spiritual groups hawk literature and recruit from tables along Bruin Walk.

When the outreach coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance entered this gauntlet last fall, he found non-religion a tough sell — even though there is a Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists that has existed since 2002 and currently has 15 members. After two hours, he packed up and left, having spoken with only six students, none of whom were interested.

This is L.A., where congregations from more than 100 different religious groups worship. Sure, there have been instances of religious tension. Last year, for example, someone tagged swastikas on a bathroom stall in Kerckhoff Hall; there also was the flare-up when the student group L.O.G.I.C. — Liberty, Objectivity, Greed, Individualism, Capitalism — held a forum to display the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. But UCLA generally is a place where young adults learn to appreciate diverse worldviews and where they strive for understanding.

Rupa Lalchandani arrived at UCLA having spent the previous decade attending Bal Vihar, she says, "which is like Sunday School for Hindus." During her first two quarters, though, the only education she received was on campus. "There was a religious void in my life."

So she began seeking. She found the Hindu Students Council, for which she currently helps plan weekly discussions. She also started attending church each Sunday with a close friend. And she began hanging out at Hillel with Jewish friends. Next year, she says, she wants to visit a monastery.

"Religion centers me. College life is so fast. It is always one thing after another, especially in Los Angeles ... I wanted time to think about what I was doing with my life," the fourth-year psychobiology student says. "Everyone is on a spiritual quest, whether or not we realize it. It's a lifelong process."

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."

Another surprise, albeit more pleasant, Shifa said, is that while on campus he has not felt like a member of a minority religion. When he took History 4, the popular history of religions course (see sidebar, page 23), Professor Scott Bartchy, a Christian, would always follow the Prophet Muhammad's name with "and peace be upon him."

In the Jewish history courses Professor David N. Myers teaches, he's found that Muslim students are not only respectful of Jewish history, but eager to learn from it. "They are interested in learning about the history of Muslim-Jewish relations and about the ways that Jewish history might offer lessons for how Muslims can exist as minorities in Western society."

In fact, Muslims have some of the highest rates of spiritual quest. That's why on any given Friday a few dozen Muslim students can be seen doing the afternoon prayer in Kerckhoff's Grand Salon or Ackerman's Viewpoint conference room.

Jewish students, on the other hand, "are the most secular religious group," says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA. "They are outstanding; they are champions in religious disbelief."

But don't tell that to Marco Gonzalez, an international development studies and political science student. Gonzalez, who is Jewish, emigrated six years ago from Mexico with little understanding of Jewish culture or tradition. So he added a weekly class to his course load. Only, it wasn't offered through the university, but at the Chabad House on Gayley Avenue.

On a Wednesday night, Gonzalez enters the upstairs classroom at Chabad and pulls out his textbook, Jewish Essentials: A Spiritual Guide to Jewish Life & Living.

"In the last couple of classes, we learned about the paramount importance of the Torah," Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, the Chabad campus co-director, says. "The Torah was received at Mt. Sinai, and the next holiday we celebrate, Shavuot, reminds us of that. That is very nice, but we have to make it practical and real ... We have to learn ways to make it real in our daily lives."

Tonight Gonzalez and three other students learn about the mezuzah (a sacred parchment hung on door posts to make holy the room inside) and tefillin (the boxes containing passages of the Torah and the leather straps Orthodox Jews use for prayer).

On college-ruled paper, Gonzalez takes detailed notes. "I want to be able to pass on these traditions to my children," he says. "I want to know what I'm talking about, so that when they have questions I don't have to say, 'Ask a rabbi.' "

Gonzalez departs about 9:30 and heads straight to Powell to finish studying for a midterm the next day on international relations of the Middle East. But he doesn't mind staying up late and getting up early if it means not missing the time at Chabad.

"I would rather go to Chabad and learn it and enjoy it there, and just put in some extra time into my classes," Gonzalez says. "I've been taking the class at Chabad, and it's almost like having another class for school. But it's a more important subject. It is the subject of our lives."

The God Curriculum

"The prediction made by some intellectuals at the end of the Second World War that by the year 2000 religion will have withered and only be a matter of personal interest to some folks &emdash; like some folks are Dodger fans and others are Orthodox Jews &emdash; that hypothesis has been thoroughly falsified," claims Scott Bartchy, UCLA history professor and director of the College of Letters & Science's interdepartmental Center for the Study of Religion. "The role of religion is enormous in current events."

Bartchy preaches what he practices. He teaches an introduction to world religions, History 4, that is one of the university's more popular undergraduate courses. Some students take History 4 to fulfill a GE, others because it fits their schedule and most because they're fascinated with religious beliefs different than their own.

For some, History 4 lays a foundation for the focus of their undergraduate studies, which is where the Center for the Study of Religion comes in. Created in 1995, the center is a clearinghouse for professors writing on religion and provides curricula for students earning an interdepartmental degree in religious studies. Departments involved include Anthropology, Asian Languages & Cultures, Classics, English, History, Near Eastern Languages & Cultures, Philosophy, Political Science, and World Arts and Cultures.

Of the 15 students who graduated in June 2007 with degrees in the study of religion, four earned Latin or departmental honors; two were summa cum laude. A handful of grads have entered religious ministry or continued studying in the field, while others have gone on to medical school or law school, or gotten involved with NGOs or international business.

Whatever field these grads enter, Bartchy says, "If they don't understand what is going on religiously, there are many aspects of human behavior &emdash; politically, socially, culturally &emdash; that they won't understand. Both for good and bad, that which we identify as religious is a primary motivator of why people are doing what they are doing."

Data and the Divine

The first Spirituality in Higher Education Study in 2003, conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), found strong levels of spirituality and the search for meaning among college students across the country. Some of HERI's topline findings are noted below. The study is due to be updated shortly.

Almost 80 percent of American college students believe in God.

About half of those who believe say God is "love" or the creator.

About half, or 49 percent, of believers say God is a protector.

About 23 percent of students say they are "seeking" spirituality.

About 25 percent say they are "conflicted" or "doubting" their spirituality.

Political conservatives outnumber liberals by three to one among students who are highly religiously engaged.

Spirituality and religiosity are associated with moderately better physical health.

— B.A.G.