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Losing My Religion

The Chapel, towering over the center of campus as a beacon for churchgoers and tourists alike, serves as the center of religious life for many students. But for freshmen just released from the comforts of home, the Chapel's bells are not always so welcoming and religious services are not always accommodated by college life.

Students first arriving on campus have a variety of decisions to make, including how they choose to integrate religion into their lives. Pulled in all directions by time constraints, a new social atmosphere or a desire to be different, students all make that choice differently.

"The biggest challenge for most students is time," said the Rev. Will Willimon, dean of the Chapel. "For a freshman, you walk into Duke and you are confronted with this. You have to make choices, and sometimes religious life loses out."

While attempting to make the transition easier, some religious groups can actually complicate things for students. Students often receive invitations from countless campus religious groups, each of which aggressively recruits new members, said the Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple of the Episcopal Center.

"It's almost like a 'religious rush,'" she said. "Freshmen are so overwhelmed by organizations. There's an inundation of invitations [from religious groups]."

Religious leaders on campus also cite freedom from parental watch as a reason why religious life becomes secondary to other activities.

"There are several transitions," said Fr. Joe Vetter of the Newman Catholic Student Center. "One of them is that [students] probably got some subtle expectation from a parent when they were at home, and now it takes more personal initiative."

Muslim students explained they are in a particularly tough situation because so few of their peers participate in their traditions, which rely on support from others. In particular, practices such as fasting and praying five times each day may require peer support that is not necessarily available to freshmen immediately.

"To be a Muslim is a very outward thing. Often, when you are away from family, it is a lot harder to do [things like fast] because not a lot of other people around you are doing it," said Omar Chaudhary, co-president of the Muslim Student Association. "It's a bigger struggle here."

In addition to the absence of parents' watchful eyes, the college atmosphere does little to foster students' spiritual development, religious leaders said.

"The environment of many families encourages participation [in religious activities], but the environment of the dorms do not," Vetter said. "The social pressure is somewhat reversed."

Students agree that they face a variety of new social pressures when they arrive at Duke. Leksa Chmielewski, a freshman who is active in the Catholic student center, said many of her peers are tempted by liberation from parental watch.

"There are lots of challenges to the morals we've always held. As soon as we get to college, with the new freedom we have, it's really easy to compromise," she said.

Religious leaders are hard-pressed to develop unique approaches to religious life for students of all backgrounds. Vetter explained that the Catholic center makes services readily accessible by having Mass on East and West Campuses twice each Sunday.

"Having mass at nine at night is an unusual time for church, but not an unusual time on campus," he said.

In addition to religious services, groups offer a variety of programming to make the transition easier for students.

"One of the key things we do is give them a broad spectrum of entry," said Jonathan Gerstl, the new director of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life. "We do social programs, religious programs and educational programs. We really just try to find comfort zone levels for people."

Groups make a conscious attempt to reach students without interfering with other aspects of their college experience.

For example, freshmen can use their Marketplace meal plan to have dinner at the Freeman Center, allowing them to be active in Jewish life without prohibiting participation in other standard freshman activities.

Willimon said some students embrace negative religious stereotypes to be different.

"There is a kind of counter-culture resistance for some students," he said.

"They think, 'I want to look at the world differently than we do in 95 percent of my classes.' They don't mind doing something different because there's a kind of edge to it."

However, campus religious leaders said they see no patterns of participation during students' four years at college. Some students dive head first into religious life when they arrive. "Others roam away, and around junior year they have a 'coming home' experience," Willimon said.

And so, somewhere between Alpha Omega small group sessions, Lunch and Learns, Friday night Shabbat dinners, Friday evening prayers, bagel brunches and trips to the beach, a religious community can flourish despite students' over-committed schedules. And for many, that is exactly what makes religious life on campus exciting and special.

"We work where people are extremely busy," Willimon said. "I kind of like that because it means when people are there, they are really there."

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