Coming to SJU from a small women’s college in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was in for a bit of a culture shock. There are a lot of things that I genuinely appreciate about our Jesuit identity at SJU—I think it can foster a genuine and lifelong commitment to service that students take with them even after they have graduated. I think this culture is reflected especially in our student organizations here. From affinity groups to activity-specific clubs, each organization makes an effort to participate in some form of public service. The fact that these outreach programs are often completely non-religious is, for me, even more indicative of the fact that our university-wide commitment to serving others is a mindset and a mission, not merely something we do because we feel like we “have to” follow a specific doctrine. And as a non-religious person, the call to use the time we are given to make an impact is something that I can genuinely appreciate about religion.
Even though I do believe that there are always advantages to being exposed to a different way of thinking, there are times when being a non-religious student on this campus can feel isolating—especially when it comes to academics. I feel it when I’m in class and my professor takes a quick survey of the religions each of us grew up with, and 90% of my classmates say that they were raised Catholic. I felt it during registration when I realized that to get a degree from this university, I’ll be required to take a class on the teachings of a religion that I don’t necessarily agree with, and some of which I may even find socially harmful. I start wondering if I should mentally separate SJU—the way I personally define it, between my friends and my extracurriculars and my program of study—from its affiliation with a religion that I do not identify with.
For a lot of people, my agnosticism also raises the question of “why SJU?” Why choose to come to a school whose identity is so closely tied to something that I don’t choose to incorporate into my own life? It is a valid question, and one that I have asked myself more than once. I come back to the question of whether I should distinguish “my” SJU from stereotypes that are sometimes associated with this university—and I don’t think I have to. When I see the efforts that SJU is making to become more diverse and more inclusive, I am genuinely proud to be a part of this university, especially now.
The core philosophies of a Jesuit education, outlined in SJU’s mission statement to educate students who will go on to “make ethical decisions and…pursue social justice” is something that I hope anyone and everyone can identify with. The service-oriented mindset that this university fosters in its students is something that does not have to be inextricably tied to its Jesuit identity (in other words, you don’t need to be religious to engage in public service), but there is something to be said for a philosophy that inspires people to actively seek out opportunities to serve. Even as a non-religious student here, I can more than respect the core philosophies of the Jesuit teachings.