In the latest addition of UCLA Magazine, which went online today and should be in the mail for alumni, I have a cover story about the intersection of spirituality and scholarship.
I’ve written here that religion gets passing grades on college campuses, even secular ones like my alma mater. In this article, I focused on four students—a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu and a Muslim—and told their stories through the findings of the largest national study of college student spirituality.
My favorite vignette was that of Marco Gonzalez, a Mexico Jew who arrived at UCLA with little understanding of his heritage. That led him to the Chabad House (I guess all their outreach on campus does attract some students).
Brandon Kuiper arrived at UCLA with a strong Christian faith and an inquisitive scientific mind. He didn’t believe in evolution, but he was intent on studying neuroscience. Something was bound to give, but the biggest spiritual crisis in Kuiper’s 20 years came not from South Campus but from studying the philosophy of Voltaire and Hobbes and Kant and Freud.
“I was reading that stuff and I thought, âThis makes so much sense.’ I had to stop and evaluate why I am a Christian and what I believe,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, âWhat if I’ve been wrong all along?’ “ (skip) There’s certainly no shortage of seekers. A study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) found that three-fourths of freshmen are “searching for meaning/purpose in life” and that half are either “seeking” or “doubting” their spiritual understanding of the world. Forty percent said it was very important they follow a set of religious teachings.
“It is the nature of the beast of people that age. It’s just part of being a college student,” says Alexander Astin, co-leader of the “Spirituality in Higher Education” study and an emeritus professor of higher education. “College students are on a developmental adventure.”
On a Wednesday night, Gonzalez enters the upstairs classroom at Chabad and pulls out his textbook, Jewish Essentials: A Spiritual Guide to Jewish Life & Living. “In the last couple of classes, we learned about the paramount importance of the Torah,” Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, the Chabad campus co-director, says. “The Torah was received at Mt. Sinai, and the next holiday we celebrate, Shavuot, reminds us of that. That is very nice, but we have to make it practical and real ... We have to learn ways to make it real in our daily lives.” Tonight Gonzalez and three other students learn about the mezuzah (a sacred parchment hung on door posts to make holy the room inside) and tefillin (the boxes containing passages of the Torah and the leather straps Orthodox Jews use for prayer). On college-ruled paper, Gonzalez takes detailed notes. “I want to be able to pass on these traditions to my children,” he says. “I want to know what I’m talking about, so that when they have questions I don’t have to say, âAsk a rabbi.’ “ Gonzalez departs about 9:30 and heads straight to Powell to finish studying for a midterm the next day on international relations of the Middle East. But he doesn’t mind staying up late and getting up early if it means not missing the time at Chabad. “I would rather go to Chabad and learn it and enjoy it there, and just put in some extra time into my classes,” Gonzalez says. “I’ve been taking the class at Chabad, and it’s almost like having another class for school. But it’s a more important subject. It is the subject of our lives.”The art for this story is amazing, and, to be honest, does a good job embarrassing my reporting. Let’s hope the Bruins football team doesn’t add insult tomorrow.