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Portraits of faith: Students connect with their faiths in new ways while attending the University of Oregon

College students have been growing less traditionally religious for decades. But some religious students at the University of Oregon are finding their faith growing in ways they didn’t anticipate.

Young people are substantially less likely than their predecessors to say that religion plays an important part in their lives, pray and regularly attend a place of worship, according to a study published in 2015 by researchers at San Diego State University. The study analyzed results from four national surveys of 11.2 million people ages 13 to 18 between the years 1966 to 2014.

Each year, more young people at colleges and universities say they do not affiliate with any religion. In 2005, one in six college students marked “none” when asked their religious preference compared to one in four in 2014, according to a separate survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

Despite the downward trend, many students at UO say the religious communities they find on campus revitalize their faith and allow them to grow through their religion. These students revel in a diversity of religious interpretations, more opportunities for leadership among their religious peers and a culture of thinking critically about their faith and its role in society.

Mohammed Zaidan

Mohammed Zaidan, junior, stands in the Contemplation Room just outside the Multicultural Center in the EMU. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

As a kid, Mohammed Zaidan, a junior at UO, was passionate about his Islamic faith. He is a first generation American, and growing up he had questions about where his family came from and who he was. He used Islam to help him answer those questions. His mother is from Jordan and his father is from Kuwait, but he has lived in Portland and then in Oregon City his whole life.

Zaidan’s relationship to his faith evolved as he grew older and was exposed to new ideas about his religion and new people. Now he is more engaged in his faith and his community than ever — but there was a period before adolescence when he was put off by the way some of the people at his mosque practiced Islam.

“I saw people practicing in a way that I didn’t agree with, and my place of worship at the time back in Portland wasn’t one of my favorite places,” Zaidan said. “At a young age I felt comfortable at one point, but as I grew up I started to feel like their approach was a bit too hard. It started to seem like it was passing moderate and entering conservative.”

Zaidan felt discouraged by the more rigid rules some people at his mosque told him to abide by. He felt especially conflicted by the ones dictating when and how men and women could interact. When people at the mosque recommended that he shouldn’t watch certain American TV shows and movies, it seemed like they didn’t want him to integrate into a society that he had been a part of his whole life.

As soon as Zaidan arrived at UO, he started attending a local mosque. Those questions about his cultural identity and his place in the community that sparked his initial engagement with Islam stayed with him through his teens. But during his first term, he did not want his social life on campus to be defined by Islam. At first he chose not to get involved in the Muslim Student Association.

A friend Zaidan made at his mosque, who was a member of the MSA, ultimately convinced him to join the organization during winter term of his freshman year. Zaidan says since joining the group, he has become more passionate and involved in his religion than ever. Now he’s vice president of the MSA and he sees his religious engagement on campus as crucial to learning about himself, his community and the Muslim world as a whole.

“I have to say that there has been a shift since being here,” Zaidan said. “I saw that people did want to broaden their view. They wanted to educate people about how they saw the religion, and because of that I’ve seen people both within our group and outside of it want to learn and get more involved.”

Students in other faith-based organizations on campus have also seen a greater emphasis on openness and understanding than they experienced in their religious communities growing up.

Taysha Damian

Taysha Damian poses in front of the catholic campus ministry. (Adam Eberhardt/Daily Emerald)

Junior Taysha Damian grew up going to her family’s Catholic Church in Springfield, Oregon, every Sunday as she says many Mexican-American families there do. Her community was closely woven together by religion. She says it allowed everyone to know each other and support one and other.

“Growing up in a Latino community, faith was a huge thing,” Damian said. “It was everything. It’s part of who you are and part of your community.”

But Damian says she felt like there was a pressure in that community to hide ups and downs in the strength of her faith. At UO, she is a peer minister at the St. Thomas More Newman Center. Her work at the Newman Center has shown her that fluctuations in the strength of faith are common among Catholic students. She works hard to show her peers that everyone has moments of doubt in their faith and that there’s nothing wrong with it.

“I tell this to anyone in their faith that those moments are the time to reflect and talk openly with someone about it,” Damian said. “Because I’ve been there before where I say, ‘You know, I’m not feeling this today or I haven’t been feeling it for a week or a month,’ and a lot of the time it just comes down to someone else being able to tell you to persevere and keep going.”

Some religious students at UO grew up in communities that were not bound together by common religion like Damian’s.

Alana Green

Alana Green, senior, stands outside the Oregon Hillel located off 11th Avenue and Hilyard Street. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Senior Alana Green says that it was often difficult to be excited about her Judaism growing up in Orange County, California, where there simply weren’t many Jewish people in her community. She added that many people in Reform Jewish communities like hers across America gradually become less engaged in the faith after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah because of the relaxed nature of their practices.

“I went to a Jewish summer camp called Camp Kramer when I was a kid and I really loved being involved in Judaism through camp,” Green said. “That’s where I found my Judaism.” As a kid at camp, Green bonded with other Jewish people from all over California because the atmosphere was more intimate than what she had previously experienced at her synagogue.

The camp embraced a philosophy of religion that, as Green says, “allowed kids to interpret Judaism in a way that worked for them,” while instilling a strong sense of community in campers.

Green is now the Student Board President of Oregon Hillel and has been a camp counselor at Union of Reform Judaism Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, for the last three years. She says that without the connections she made early at Hillel, she would not have had the opportunity to be a counselor. Since coming to UO and working as a camp counselor, Green has started to consider pursuing a career in Jewish youth groups. The positive experiences she had in that religious community gives her a feeling of connectedness, even in other spaces.

Each of the students in this article told the Emerald that they strive to keep their faith-based groups accessible to all students no matter their religion or lack thereof.

Rishika Krishna

UO student Rishika Krishna took a leadership role in UO’s Students of the Indian Subcontinent and hopes to share her culture and religion with others on campus. (Adam Eberhardt/Emerald)

Senior Rishika Krishna, who moved to Idaho with her family from India when she was seven, grew up practicing Hinduism and is now president of UO’s Students of the Indian Subcontinent. She says that due to the current divisive social and political climate, students in her group feel an added responsibility to welcome people of other faiths. They use campus visibility to show that learning about cultures through events and celebration is rewarding.

“It’s been scary sometimes reading articles about people getting discriminated against in places like London,” Krishna said. “You can’t just not think about the implications of those events and how the opportunity is there for someone to do that to someone like me or my family or my friends or my community. The only thing I can do is keep sharing my culture with others and hope that people will see the reality of who we are.”

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Max Egener

Max Egener

Max Egener is an Arts & Culture writer for the Daily Emerald. He covers documentaries, food and science and is currently pursuing a master's degree in journalism.