Opinion: God’s not dead at Vanderbilt

How Vandy’s inclusive atmosphere and the wide selection of faith-based organizations on campus foster student faith.


Emily Gonçalves

The OUCRL at Diverse 'Dores Day 2019 (Photo by Emily Gonçalves)

Taylor McDonald

Last Sunday, I missed mass for the first time since I’ve been at Vandy because my roommate and I both overslept her alarm. A year ago, if you were to tell me I’d decide to wake up at 9 a.m. every Sunday to attend mass of my own free will, I would have laughed at you obnoxiously. Growing up, my grandparents had to drag me to go to church. I never really had the ability to choose if religion was for me. And in college, I didn’t think I’d decide to give it a fair shot.

For most college kids, the consensus is all too similar. A common belief today is that when you enter college, you lose whatever faith you once had growing up. It’s not hard to consider such an idea when, in fact, the percentage of college students who no longer identify as religious has tripled in the last 30 years. So the idea still remains, does college diminish one’s faith? I couldn’t agree less. The religious life at Vanderbilt is all-encompassing. Upon coming here, I was surprised by just how many people are open about their religious practices through faith-based organizations, like Vandy Karma, Hillel, Cru, the Vanderbilt Interfaith Council and the Muslim Students Association.

The multitude of organizations like these makes it possible for students to express their spirituality at Vandy. Being on a campus with rich religious diversity creates an inclusive environment in which students feel accepted and comfortable to express and maintain their beliefs. This also introduces new faiths to all students, allowing them to decide what beliefs they truly align with and maybe even change their perspective.

In my experience, it was my roommate who opened my eyes to the possibility of exploring my religion in college. It all started with a simple question, “Are you religious?” And from there, we both realized our common Christian background and how daunting it seemed to continue religious life alone. So, we decided to attend mass services together. I believe it’s this sense of camaraderie– being a part of a support system that holds each other accountable–that is the driving force behind religious exploration and continuation in college.

One student who found strength in her religious community is Saleh, a first-year member of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), who didn’t feel comfortable sharing her last name. Saleh was originally afraid that the transition from Palestine to an American university would shake her faith. Although she did deviate from her normal routine, joining the Muslim Students Association has helped her find support among other like-minded students who understand her religious and cultural background. But even in moments when she is not surrounded by the students she shares this connection with– like walking across the dorm in makeshift hijab for Wudu– she has only experienced benign curiosity. 

Another first-year, Malak Elmessiry, has had similar experiences here at Vandy. Before college, she was never in a comfortable environment at school or with friends to express her religious identity. She expected this to continue at Vanderbilt, but the exact opposite happened. “Vandy offers a plethora of routes by which I can both strengthen my own beliefs and explore new ones,” she said. “It is such an improvement from my high school situation.” 

Through MSA and the Vanderbilt Interfaith Council (VIC), she and many other students have been able to both explore and strengthen their faiths. The sentiments expressed by Malak are shared by many other Vandy students regardless of religion.

AB Rhodes, a sophomore, has found a meaningful way to worship through spoken word poetry, in Vandy’s Voices of Praise. Her Christian faith had always been the most important part of her identity and it was something she wanted to protect upon coming to Vandy. In her first few weeks here, she was linked with a discipleship mentor, who offers scripture-based guidance, through the inter-denominational campus ministry, Cru. Her mentor, “took me under their wing and helped me go through being an adult while also being a Christian.” For AB and many other students, having a community to grow with keeps them on a spiritual track.

There are a lot of students who can balance religion and a social life in college, contrary to common belief. Many students create a balanced schedule to coordinate both aspects, like arranging hanging out with friends around their prayers. Still, there are students who lose touch with their faiths due to heavy extracurriculars, a heightened workload, or a realization of their personal beliefs. However, getting plugged into the many organizations that reach out to the general student body on campus is very useful in helping students decide how to practice their faiths for themselves. For instance, Vanderbilt Hillel provides both Reform and Conservative Shabbat services for the community. The Rohr Chabad House also offers Shabbat services for students. Another organization that makes religion more accessible to students is Vandy Karma, an association of Hindu students that provides transportation to temple every month.

I don’t believe I’d be writing this article now if it weren’t for the plethora of religious life organizations and safe places on campus that promote religious vitality here. These mechanisms make Vanderbilt a unique private university, one in which there is an open dialogue for religion, and diversity is celebrated in all its shapes, tones and various expressions.