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Keeping the Faith
Rensselaer students reflect a national trend in the number participating in religious observances and organizations.
by Jane Gottlieb :: Photos by Mark McCarty
If you are Boris Dvinsky ’06 and it is Saturday morning you leave campus and walk down the hill to Beth Tephilah Synagogue and then lunch at Rabbi Morrison’s house. If you are Jenny Burton ’06 and it is late Sunday afternoon, you are at the Rensselaer Union taking part in a discussion on the New Testament. If you are Ferheen Shaikh ’06 and it is midday on Thursday, even if you are taking an exam, you duck out of class for five minutes to perform salah. “Ideally, you would be in a quiet place where you could set up your prayer rug and make sure it’s clean,” says Shaikh, a biology major. “But an empty classroom will do. With Islam the whole world is a mosque.”
These are students of faith at Rensselaer, for whom worship and study at a technological university are complementary pursuits. Reflecting a national trend, the Institute’s religious population is larger, more active, and more diverse than it was even a decade ago.
The students approach observance with the intensity they bring to the study of engineering or architecture. They build hours of worship, community service, and organizational work into their already busy academic and activities schedules as they explore the relationship between the subjects they study and their faith traditions.
“The world is telling you that science and faith don’t go together, that God couldn’t have done all of that,” says Kristen Clark ’09, a physics major from Michigan who heads outreach for the Rensselaer Newman Catholic Fellowship. “Part of what is great about RPI is that you can learn that these things go together. It’s a struggle. Science can’t explain everything.”
Five chaplains counsel students and work with about nine student-led religious organizations that are active at any time. The chaplains are not Rensselaer employees and, like the religion clubs they serve, receive no Institute funds. But they do include students in their ministries and maintain an office on campus, and pages on the Rensselaer Web site.
The groups and their eclectic programs tell the story of both tradition and change on campus.
Participation among Catholics and Protestants, for example, who have composed Rensselaer’s traditional student base for decades, is strong, and some students believe is growing. Interdenominational organizations are also active, among them the Rensselaer Christian Association, an affiliate of a national Evangelical network.
The Korean Christian Fellowship, Muslim Students Association, Hindu Students Association, and Indian Christian Fellowship speak to Rensselaer’s growing religious and ethnic diversity, involving students from the U.S. and abroad. In fact, at least 19 faiths are represented in the current freshman class.
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