While today’s USF students come from a diverse range of faiths, they share a desire to not only strengthen their religious ties, but also to put their faiths into practice. For many, this means connecting their religions with USF’s focus on social justice, while others are more private in their approach to religion. Regardless of how they live out their faiths, USF students are finding their own ways of deepening their spirituality.
Kelli Hoertz attends student Mass every Sunday night. Johanna Gruen organizes religious dinners yet refrains from eating much on campus so she can keep kosher. John Ensign, a master’s theology student, spends most Saturdays in class after working a full week as a psychologist. Evan Pack takes advantage of the quiet morning hours to pray and read the Bible. Sumerra Khan uses a campus bathroom sink for a ritual foot washing before praying.
The college years are considered a time for young people to find different sides of themselves, and the assumption is that faith is generally not among those discoveries. Yet Hoertz, Gruen, Ensign, Pack, and Khan tell a different story. Students across the country are increasingly saying that faith and religion are important to them, even if that means they live out their spirituality in nontraditional ways.
As a Jesuit, Catholic university, the University of San Francisco has long attracted religiously faithful students. The difference today is that students come from a range of faith backgrounds and are eager to learn about faiths other than their own. A large portion of undergraduates still identify themselves as Catholic—about 43 percent, according to the fall 2007 student census—but that’s a decrease from 20 years ago when about 54 percent of undergraduates considered themselves Catholic.
While USF students’ faiths may differ, their desire to maintain—and enhance—their spirituality is consistent. The university, say students, nurtures that desire. Regardless of their religion, today’s students want to put their beliefs into action, and they want to discuss religion and spirituality, whether among friends or in the classroom.
“You can talk about it and absolutely no one is going to judge you for it,” says Hoertz, a senior who is Catholic. “Religion isn’t a taboo subject.”
According to several recent studies, that openness is precisely what today’s college students are seeking. A 2004 survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute polled more than 112,000 freshmen before their entry into college. This national sampling showed that 67 percent consider it essential or very important that their undergraduate experience develops their personal values. At USF, the figure is 80 percent.
The poll also found that 48 percent of incoming freshmen nationwide consider it essential or very important that colleges encourage their personal spirituality. At USF, 58 percent felt that way.
Campus religious leaders have observed this trend as well, saying students’ faiths seem to be deepening. Their spirituality may also be shifting away from a more individualistic approach seen in recent years.
“I’m now finding students not asking what can I get out of this (faith), but what can I give to this,” says John Savard, S.J., associate director of liturgy in USF’s University Ministry.
As further evidence of the growing religious interest on campus, Fr. Savard points to this year’s 25 percent increase in attendance at the weekly student Mass.
Hoertz is among those who attend the 9 p.m. Sunday student Mass. Like most students, she slips into Xavier Chapel just in time for the service; but unlike most, she takes a seat in the front, ready to help as a Eucharistic minister.
That leadership role is but one of the ways Hoertz lives out her faith. Raised Catholic, Hoertz sought out University Ministry shortly after arriving at USF from Placentia. She knew she wanted to help with student Mass, but University Ministry also put her in touch with Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory where she has been tutoring for more than three years. She credits University Ministry with giving her the initial guidance she needed to find faith-related opportunities; now she seeks them out on her own. In addition to her tutoring, she began interning at a preschool this year.
That’s a lot of extracurricular activities for a full-time student, but Hoertz, 21, views it all as an essential part of her spirituality and, by extension, her life.
“Being a Catholic, you’re taught to help others and that’s what I’m called to do in a sense,” she says.
That focus has also found its way into Hoertz’s studies. A psychology major, she wants to become a counselor, perhaps working with children at a nonprofit organization. It’s a career choice she’s not sure she would have made without the influence of Catholicism and of USF.