Weinberg junior Oona Ahn recalls trying out at least four churches in two quarters.

Raised agnostic, Ahn says she was looking for faith. Prior to exploring Christianity, Ahn looked into Buddhism.

Communication junior Naomi Kunstler also started exploring religion more at college. Religion was never pushed on her when she was growing up. When she came to Northwestern, however, some of her friends were active in Hillel. First, she started casually going to Shabbat. Eventually, she became more involved.

Many students stop practicing religion once they start college. But for others, like Ahn and Kunstler, they explore religion and become more invested in it.

“I think that it’s definitely increased my sense of community at Northwestern,” Kunstler says. “I met so many people and formed a lot of relationships at Hillel.”

According to the 2013 CIRP Freshman Survey at Northwestern, the largest religion represented on campus was Christianity, with 43 percent of students surveyed identifying as Christian. In addition, 12.9 percent identified as Jewish, 3.1 percent as Hindu, 1.4 percent as Buddhist, 1.2 percent as Muslim and 2.9 percent with some other religion. At 35.5 percent, the second largest group did not identify with any religion.

“I feel a vibe on Northwestern’s campus that’s very pre-professional,” Hillel Rabbi Aaron Potek says. “A lot of people approach college thinking, ‘How can I get a job?’ It does not induce exploration of religion. But students might ask, ‘Is there something outside of making a living?’”

As a religious studies major, Weinberg junior Laila Hayani believes it is important to explore different religions. Hayani, who is Muslim, continues to develop her religious beliefs in college through praying and attending the Muslim Cultural Students Association’s Friday prayer services.

Hayani also branches out by learning about other religions and participating in interfaith dialogue through the Northwestern University Interfaith Initiative.

“I always learn something new,” Hayani says. “When you talk to people in different religions, you can get a deeper understanding of the things they believe.”

SESP junior Alexandria Bobbitt also continues to develop her relationship with God both in her personal life and through a student religious group. Bobbitt is involved in House on the Rock, the African-American chapter of InterVarsity.

Bobbitt identifies as Christian, but not with a certain denomination. However, she loves the House on the Rock community and says her faith is the governing factor in her life.

“We’re able to come together and ignite each other, challenge each other and pray for each other,” Bobbitt says. “That spiritual component of it is so important and unites us so much more just because of our common hope.”

Hillel has become home for Weinberg junior Ariella Hoffman-Peterson. She was raised Jewish and is involved in Hillel. She also attends services and leads ZOOZ, a Jewish service-learning group.

“I love coming to services to connect with myself and connect with my friends,” Hoffman-Peterson says. “I really appreciate conversations about faith, how they struggle with that, how they embrace it. Sometimes it’s a hard conversation to have, but I use it as an avenue for deeper conversations.”

Some students may not have been raised in a religious environment but convert when they find a religious group on campus they connect with.

Ahn now attends the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at the Sheil Catholic Center, which is part of the process for people to learn about Catholicism and convert.

“It was a long journey of church shopping,” Ahn says. “It was here at Sheil I felt a sense of peace, although I could feel a sense of God working in all the churches.”

Like Ahn, Weinberg and Bienen sophomore Alex Ge was not religious before college.

“I have a different impression of Christianity than before,” Ge says. “I saw religion sometimes caused a lot of debates on Facebook. You just see people arguing all the time, some hypocrisy and stuff like that. I didn’t reject the possibility of God, but it was never a thing I thought about.”

But after his friends invited him to Access, a series of sermons at the Harvest Mission Community Church in Evanston, he became more involved.

“Religion made me happy,” Ge says. “It gave me a sense of purpose. Different people have different things they want to fulfill in life. Christianity is a way I can do that.”

According to the Northwestern Religious Life website, Northwestern has 37 recognized religious groups, including five affiliated campus religious centers.

However, some students do not have a group on campus for their religion. Weinberg freshman Asha Sawhney is Sikh. Although she practices her religion privately and often reads and reflects from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. There is currently no space or group for Sikhism on campus.

Sawhney was disappointed that the Wildcat Welcome Mosaic ENU did not mention Sikhism.

Sawhney wears a necklace with the “khanda” symbol, which incorporates two spiritual concepts: “deg tech fateh,” the duty of Sikhs to provide food and protection for the less fortunate and oppressed, and “miri-piri,” the belief that worldly and spiritual power are equal.
Photo by Alexis O’Connor

“I want people at Northwestern to know every college campus has Sikhs,” Sawhney says. “To not even be mentioned in the diversity ENU was hurtful to me because of the discrimination Sikhs have faced.”

Sawhney would like to possibly start a Sikh group, or at least see one form. According to University Chaplain Timothy Stevens, Northwestern offers various outlets to explore religion, and students have also formed groups when one for their religion did not exist.

“We have created an atmosphere where religious questions are allowed and taken up,” Stevens says. “Religious practice is encouraged. Hopefully it’s a place where we can come together and share faith, not with the purpose of converting each other, but with the purpose of understanding each other.”

According to Kevin Feeney, chaplain and director of the Sheil Catholic Center, students become involved in religious groups on campus in search of a community to help them understand their faith more.

“Religion has the potential to be a deepening initiative,” Feeney says. “It kind of broadens out their experience at Northwestern, that there’s something more that they want to develop .... It’s the sense of going to God together.”

Potek says that while religion may not be necessary to connect to God or find meaning in life, exploring religion can provide a sense of purpose.

“Northwestern isn’t that great at community,” Potek says. “People look for community because they want to belong. Religion is the best model for community .... If you’re looking for an excuse not to explore religion, you have plenty of excuses. What if we look for an excuse to explore? You’ll find a way in.”

After Kunstler had coffee with Potek, she started reading more about Judaism and going to Shabbat more. She also started having conversations with her Jewish father about their religion.

As for Ahn, she is scheduled to be baptized this Easter Vigil if she chooses to continue with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

“I started to see ways where God is working and interconnecting in everyone’s lives,” Ahn says. “Little coincidences make you see this is not just my journey .... It’s connected to a larger whole I’m part of. I’m trying to figure out where this is going.”

For Oona Ahn, praying with a rosary allows her to “become more aware of the presence of God.”
Photo by Natalie Escobar