Exploring religion’s role on Tech’s campus

The Rohr Chabad House, located on 10th Street, is one of many spaces on campus for students to practice religion. // Photo by Alex Dubé Student Publications

Like many characteristics of Tech, religion on campus is extremely diverse.

Students can find ways to get involved with religious groups in a variety of locations from the campus ministries sandwiched between fraternity houses on East Campus to the Rohr Chabad House on 10th Street and weekly meetings of religious organizations in rooms scattered around campus.

The Technique recently reached out to several religious groups and individuals on campus to discover more about organizations themselves, students involved and the purpose of religion at a technology-focused institute.

Kat Shambaugh, fifth-year CM, spoke on behalf of Tech’s Chabad Jewish Student Group.

“Our Chabad is run by Rabbi Shlomo and Shifra Sharfstein and a board of student leaders, and we have events every day of the week, from lunch and learns to BBQs to full Shabbat dinners,” Shambaugh said. “We host parties for every Jewish holiday with fun activities, philanthropy opportunities and tons of good food. We pride ourselves on being a welcoming community for every Jewish student, no matter the background.”

Pradyumna Suresha, ECE graduate student, described Hindu YUVA (Youth for Unity, Virtues, and Action) and its activities on campus.

“Hindu YUVA holds weekly meetings, where we have yoga, team-building games, discussions, workshops and presentations. Apart from this, we have free weekly online Sanskrit classes and the bi-weekly discussion activity known as Samvad,” Suresha said.

“We host speakers on campus to give talks on a wide variety of topics related to Hinduism. In the past we have had talks on topics such as Yogic Neuroscience, Concept of God in Hinduism and Hinduism’s road to modernity. We also celebrate festivals on campus including Ganesha Chaturthi, Navaratri and Diwali.”

Kristen Thomas, fifth-year ME, shared details about Tech’s Christian sorority.

“Alpha Delta Chi differs from other religious organizations on campus because we are a very close-knit group of women who work to glorify God in all that we do whether it be spiritually, scholastically or socially,” Thomas said.

Students at Tech join religious organizations for a variety of reasons. For some, it is a continuation of traditions at home.

“My faith has always been an important part of my life, so I knew I would continue going to mass on Sundays throughout college,” said Cameron Hinton, fourth-year CHBE.

“The Catholic Center is by far the most convenient location to attend mass since it’s right here on campus and eliminates the need to travel to other churches off campus.”

For others, joining a religious organization is a chance to explore their identity and ancestry.

“I wanted to embrace my Hindu identity on GT campus and be part of a community that promotes and practices Hindu lifestyle without judgement. Hence, I got involved with GT Hindu YUVA,” Suresha said.

Shambaugh expressed a similar motivation.

“I was looking for a community and a way to learn more about my background and ancestry, and I was drawn to the Friday night Shabbat dinners at Chabad. Those dinners are so loud and joyful (and delicious) that I felt immediately like I had found a beautiful family,” Shambaugh said.

Some Tech students start with no plan of joining a religious organization but end up doing so through connections with other members.

“Coming into college, I had no intention of pursuing anything relating to a Christian ministry,” said Kori Alejandro, fifth-year EE who is a senior leader at Tech’s Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF).

“Someone reached out and through community, I found I got involved slowly. CCF seemed like a safe and loving community, and that’s what did it for me.”

Thomas has a comparable story about joining Alpha Delta Chi.

“I never considered rushing in college, but during my sophomore year, I learned about Alpha Delta Chi and decided to check it out. At recruitment, I had great conversations with sisters who shared the same values as me. They really just seemed like a big family that was very welcoming, which was why I decided to become a pledge,” Thomas said.

“Now as an active, I serve as the New Member Educator where I strive to create the same welcoming environment for potential new members.”

Many students believe that religion has provided them with values to make decisions throughout their college experience and find meaning in their lives.

“Religion has played an important role throughout my college experience by providing me with a strong foundation to base my morals off of and help guide my life decisions,” Hinton said.

Suresha echoed a similar idea.

“College days are the years when you grow as a human being. For many (including me), it is the first time you are mostly away from your hometown and family. Religion helps you lead an ethical life and instills a sense of gratitude in you,” Suresha said. “College life and your peer group also provides a unique opportunity to reconcile religion and rationality. Further, many of the religious practices which have been part of your life from childhood when continued to be practiced during college [can help] maintain a balanced state of mind during the stressful college days.”

Many students, like Suresha, also say that religion has provided them with a respite from their hectic lives.

“During my experience, religion has been a way to fulfill my soul and take a step back to look at the bigger picture,” Shambaugh said. “It’s easy at Tech to get caught up in the next test or project, but having a religious community helps me not only destress but apply all of the skills I am learning to life as a whole.”

Like students’ varying opinions on the roles of religion in their personal lives, students’ ideas differ on the role of religion on Tech’s campus.

“I think the importance of having a Christian sorority is being an example of Christ to our campus,” said Lexi McGill, second-year IE who is also involved with Alpha Delta Chi. “It’s important for us to help others on their faith journey, and as a Christian sorority, we’re able to connect with a lot of students on campus. We can also be a strong Christian community for whoever is seeking one on campus.”

Shambaugh explains the role of religious groups in a different manner.

“I think it’s important for students to have a work-life balance here at Tech and to have a community to feel supported by. Religious organizations can serve as both of these things,” Shambaugh said.

“Being able to explore your identity while taking part in activities that aren’t just studying for exams is a great way of empowering students to focus on their mental and spiritual health, and religious organizations help students find friends who can enrich their lives.”Hinton offers another purpose.

“I believe the role of religious organizations on Tech’s campus include offering a space for students to continue practicing their religion while also providing communities for students to support each other and meet other students who can help each other grow their faith,” Hinton said.

Suresha adds an additional view on the matter.

“First and foremost, religious organizations should provide a platform for students to practice and experience their religion on campus without judgement from others,” Suresha said. “Further, they should bridge gaps between various other religious organizations that are on campus, collaborate and have dialogue with them.”

Dr. John Cressler, an ECE professor who teaches IAC 2002, “Science, Engineering, and Religion: An Interfaith Dialogue,” agrees with the importance of communicating across religions and even other complex topics.

“We live in a diverse world … It is my view that the educational experience Georgia Tech offers its students can/should/must ensure religious and cultural literacy, as well as offer unique opportunities for students to engage in meaningful dialogue across the boundaries of science, engineering and religion/spirituality, particularly within the context of interfaith diversity. The latter is often viewed, incorrectly I believe, as a private matter,” Cressler said.

Cressler sees value in discussing religious traditions, especially in the context of a technology-focused university.

“Many students are raised within some given cultural and religious/spiritual/secular tradition that their family has embraced and reared them in. Those traditions are part of what makes them who they are.

As students mature, enter college, and begin to delve deeply into the subject matter of their chosen fields of study, the intellectual traditions they encounter can often put them at odds with their backgrounds,” Cressler said.

“If that background is religious or spiritual, this educational journey can induce tension, sometimes extreme, with the values they hold dear, the things they believe to be true, or at least once did. Tension can and often does result, and sadly, in my experience, students rarely, if ever, are given the opportunity to engage these ‘matters of the heart’ in meaningful ways.”

Religious organizations, as explored above, and Cressler’s class offer opportunities for discussion.

“Questions inevitably abound (I refer to these as ‘BIG Questions’), and I find that students yearn to talk about them in a safe and non-threatening environment with their peers, where they feel free to share openly their fears and struggles and doubts, and be respectfully heard for who they are, where they are coming from, what they struggle with,” Cressler said.

In Cressler’s class, students select the topics of discussion which often include the existence of extraterrestrial life, CRISPR and genetic engineering, the impact of social media, artificial intelligence and many others.

The overall goal of the course, however, is a lesson to Tech’s diverse campus.

“IAC 2002 is arguably the most diverse class on campus, in terms of race, gender, orientation, major, year, cultural background and religion/spiritual/secular tradition,” Cressler said.

“Class is about sharing deeply and listening intently, never about debate … We learn to respect and cherish the views of others that may differ wildly from our own.”