As incoming freshmen flock from a cappella rush to sports practices to frat parties, some new students find comfort and community during the transition to college through Yale’s religious groups.
In a survey conducted by the News and distributed to the class of 2020, freshmen were asked about their religious beliefs. Nearly 1,000 students of faiths ranging from Catholicism to Buddhism to agnosticism responded. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they were “not very religious,” and 34 percent said they were “not religious at all,” while just under 38 percent of students ranged from “very” to “somewhat” religious. For those seeking spiritual communities and education, Yale’s religious resources offer support early on.
“In many ways, [religious communities] provide a sense of the familiar for students [who] immediately connect with the faith communities that they were raised in,” University Chaplain Sharon Kugler said. “When you start college, you are disoriented even though you’re being oriented. Everybody, I think, maybe has a bravado that gets broken down a little when you realize there’s so much you don’t know. Religious communities can serve the role of providing a sense of the familiar and a sense of welcome.”
The transition to college can prove challenging not only academically, but also socially, said Zeshan Gondal ’19, a peer liaison for the University’s Chaplain’s Office. As students arrive at Yale, they may experience a “pressurized” environment in which they are exposed to alcohol and party culture for the first time, he said, adding that during the time of transition, religious life can offer something to fall back on.
During the first days of the semester, the Chaplain’s Office and individual communities provide a wide range of events to interested freshmen. Students can request a peer liaison through the Chaplain’s Office prior to their arrival on campus, while the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life has a “Slifka Sibs” program that provides freshmen mentorship within the Jewish community. Traditional religious gatherings, such as Shabbat dinners or Jummahs specially catered to freshmen, introduce them to upperclassman peers. The Chaplain’s Office has Global Grounds on Friday and Saturday nights to provide a “social outlet” for students, according to Assistant Chaplain for Special Programs Maytal Saltiel. Students interviewed who helped coordinate such events emphasized the importance of these gatherings to facilitating friendships that persist throughout Yale careers.
“It’s probably the most helpful thing, having friends of similar faith,” said Rashid Akbari ’20, a freshman who based part of his decision to attend Yale on experiences — some as simple as a personal tour — with the Muslim Students Association over Bulldog Days. “It makes you be able to stick to your roots more, and be more comfortable in this environment with so many diverse people and so many different people. It’s nice to find strength in people of a similar faith.”
The Chaplain’s Office caters both to those who come from established religious communities, and “seekers” who may not identify with a specific faith but are interested in exploring, said Omer Bajwa, the director of Muslim life. Especially for freshmen, the Chaplain’s Office works as part of the overall Yale College team — including freshman counselors and residential college deans — to facilitate students’ transition into college life, Bajwa said.
Noora Reffat ’19, a student in the MSA, added that it is easier to have a critical dialogue about one’s religion on a college campus because peers are the ones answering questions rather than senior leaders in traditional religious spaces. Asking a question causes a “ripple effect,” allowing students to engage with and further understand their religious traditions upon arriving at the University, she added.
“I love when people come with questions,” Kugler said. “It’s the perfect way to be at this point in a person’s life, is full of questions. The difficult thing for those of us in religious leadership roles is to prepare them for when there aren’t always straight answers, there’s a lot of gray. People attach certainty to religion, and that’s when we get in trouble.”
At Slifka, Leah Cohen, the executive director and senior Jewish chaplain, emphasized the importance of providing a space for students to grow religiously during their college experience. The pluralistic nature of Slifka, where people from a variety of Jewish groups come together for Shabbat dinners after individual worship on Friday evenings, is especially important to facilitating dialogues across differences, she said. This kind of setup is unique at universities, she said, adding that Yale is “intentionally pluralistic.”
While a growing number of individuals identify with no religion, or seek out communities such as Humanism — which explores questions similar to those posed by traditional faith, though in a more secular context — many of those individuals come to Yale still looking for larger meaning, Kugler said. Indeed, nearly 20 percent of respondents to the News’ survey answered “agnostic” when asked about their religious identity, making agnosticism the most popular response, ahead of Catholicism and atheism.
“Yale has an extraordinary plethora of options in every sense: academically, culturally, student groups wise, you name it,” Bajwa said. “In the same way, a part of a successful and meaningful liberal arts education is engaging broadly with the varieties of human experience, and part of that is exploring different religious communities. A substantive liberal arts education is integral to have a sense of religious literacy.”
Members of Yale’s religious ministries represent more than 25 different traditions.