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Believe it or Not: Religion and Spirituality at Vassar

A couple of weeks ago, a prospective student of the Class of 2014 sent me an e-mail as the contact for the Vassar Catholic Community (VCC). Some of his questions included: “What is it like being a religious student and the leader of a religious group at Vassar? Do you see Vassar as a place of atheism and soulless hedonism, to be blunt? Or are people irreligious but still effectively moral? Is there a spirit of service on campus, or are Vassar kids generally disinclined to interact with or help the Poughkeepsie community?”

In my e-mail response and the weeks following, I began to reflect on the last four years and what it has meant to be a “person of faith” at a renowned secular institution of higher education. For me, being a religious student has been a major part of my college experience although I didn’t expect it to be. I had come to Vassar as a practicing Catholic, more because my culture and family required it. I had some conscious investment in my faith, but it was largely shaped by the fact that it was what I grew up with. College gave me the freedom to decide whether my faith was a priority.

Becoming an active student of faith-through the VCC, the Inter-Religious Council and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life-has probably been one of the most rewarding decisions I have made. It is in these communities where I found the most joy and the most frustration, where I questioned but sometimes couldn’t find the answers, and where relationships were built on the shared understandings of something greater than ourselves that move us to be compassionate, to love and to respect every life.

Not to say that my undergraduate journey of spiritual and self-discovery has not been without a fair share of anger and frustration. It has been difficult being a student of faith, let alone a leader in the VCC for the past three years. There is a wide range of cultures and traditions among Catholic students, and not all share the same perspectives on the Church. Given the history and recent events in the Catholic Church, combined with the lack of a common language with which to talk about religion in general, students of faith here face enormous challenges in the attempt to integrate their faith with their college experience. Adding to this are the instances of negativity, disrespect and insensitivity that I have unfortunately observed on many occasions by the College community towards religious groups.

Despite this however, Vassar is a school that attracts intellectuals, thinkers and activists who think outside, above and beyond the box. Where there are students who are adamantly agnostic or atheist, there are students who truly want to live out the cornerstones of their tradition. The religious and spiritual communities are important, thriving and passionate parts of student life, and together, they contribute to a spirit that exists in the greater college community-one that yearns to celebrate, serve and protect the human experience. It is perhaps this spirit, this joy, this struggle, that I will miss, yet also take with me as I leave this place and go beyond the stone walls of Vassar College.

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