Students, faculty engage in interfaith dialogue

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Balga

In the backdrop of a technical university, Tech is a campus rich in its world views thanks to its mix of cultures and religions from around the world. Many of the students here at Tech are able to engage with those of similar beliefs, religious or otherwise, thanks to the plethora of faith-based organizations. This creates an opportunity for interfaith dialogue  — an opportunity being used by students and staff from various walks of Tech life. These individuals’ efforts have led to the creation of panels, classes and surveys to help create an environment based on cooperation and understanding at Tech.

Many students have gotten actively involved in stimulating interfaith discussion on campus. “I would say that Georgia Tech is pretty comfortable with diversity,” said Sophia Rashid, a recent Tech graduate with a degree in International Affairs. “At the same time, I feel like we don’t necessarily engage that diversity because we sort of take it for granted. I think that we see each other a lot, but we don’t necessarily know each other.”

Earlier this year, Sophia, along with four other Tech students, attended the Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI), a program intended to equip students to work with diverse religious and non-religious identities on their own campuses. Those same five attendees came back to Tech and organized Better Together Day,  where about forty students and staff came to listen and speak on faith and belief. Sophia explained that she’d advise everyone to engage with those of other faiths.

“Don’t be afraid to share who you are, and to seek to connect with people on a deep level. It’s stunning how much people who are different can really strengthen each other and inspire each other and do good together,” Sophia said.

The ILI is an event organized by the Interfaith Youth Core, whose goal is, according to Sophia, to bring students together to “be visionary about how we can be more proactive about building relationships across the community and identifying things that matter to all of us that we can work together to have an impact on.”

One of those common points is the necessity of helping others. “It’s something that pervades all the faith backgrounds that we’ve looked into,” said Elizabeth Balga, one of Georgia Tech’s delegates to the ILI and director of MOVE, Tech’s volunteer organization. She explained that she finds this common point inspiring, since interfaith community service is something she’s very interested in bringing about. “That‘s what I would want to see, people having dialogue, and then acting on the dialogue and using it as a platform to do good for both our campus and Atlanta,” Elizabeth said.

These opportunities for discourse aren’t just being organized by the students, however. A new course, IAC 3803, will be offered in the spring that will treat the interaction of different worldviews. “I began to become aware of a desire on the part of students to have a venue where they can talk about the relationships between science and engineering and religion, particularly in the context of interfaith activities,” explained Dr. John Cressler, the electrical engineering professor organizing the course. Cressler came to the topic of interfaith dialogue during his research for his historical fiction novels, which are set in medieval Spain during a period of coexistence of Islamic, Jewish and Christian communities. The course will be small and heavily discussion based, with a large emphasis on ethical implications that advances in science and engineering bring to the world and how different world views might deal with those implications. Specific details are available on Cressler’s website. Cressler emphasized that the course will be structured around diversity and reflection and would not be a space for proselytizing. “The invitation for students is that they will get to know their worldview much better,” Cressler said. Cressler will personally handle applications that interested students can request by email.

Supporting this initiative is the IDEALS survey, which was launched this year and was sent out to all first year students. The survey intends to gather information about belief and attitude toward religion among the student body. The aim is to find out what might be done to improve the climate of interfaith dialogue. “It’s about creating safe spaces for it to happen, and part of it is knowing where our student body stands, which is what this survey let us know,” explained Dr. Gerome Stephens, Director for the Office of Leadership and Civic Engagement. Follow up surveys will come in the future to assess how attitudes change during one’s time at Tech.

With so much going on around campus, there’s a lot for students to get involved in. Those interested can contact Dean Stephanie Ray, who is the Director of Diversity Programs, or Sarah Perkins  of the Office of Leadership and Civic Management for more information.