Faith in College
By Julia Faherty | February 22, 2017
Georgia Tech student organizations explore a wide range of aspects of college life, including those devoted to elements of faith — both secular and religious.
OrgSync lists more than 30 active groups for students to join that cover all major religions and other aspects of spirituality. Students from a few of those organizations recently shared more about their activities and the role the groups play in their lives as college students.
The founding of this organization was based on a larger national group called Sathya Sai Baba Organization, which was started in India by a spiritual guru who preached five human values of truth, right conduct, peace, love, and nonviolence. He taught that true religion is love and inspired humans to live with a sense of “unity in diversity.”
The Georgia Tech group of Sathya Sai Baba modified the name to SAI, an acronym for the goals of the organization: spirituality, awareness, and interfaith.
“I became involved freshman year when the organization consisted of three students meeting in an apartment,” said Hemanth Koralla, a third-year computer engineering major and the group’s former president. “Since then, it has become an official student organization and has grown substantially.”
Students at a SYA@GT event
Koralla believes that keeping his faith has been more difficult in college due to unique challenges. As a child, he found life to be simpler with fewer worries and struggles.
“Every round of exams and career fairs leaves me questioning my purpose,” he said. “Many of the things I thought my friends and I would never do ended up happening. The stress and changes involved with college make me question my faith. Despite this, I have learned from my mistakes and have realized the value of my faith and the SYA@GT organization.”
Koralla finds his faith useful for his experiences in college. “It provides a relief from the stress that college puts on my shoulders,” he said. At weekly meetings, members discuss their problems and research ways to handle them spiritually.
“My favorite thing about SYA@GT is the people,” Koralla said. “Each person contributes a unique and open-minded perspective that helps the entire organization grow.”
The Wesley Foundation at Georgia Tech is a ministry of the United Methodist Church. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of Georgia Tech are welcome to participate in all of their programs regardless of religious affiliation, or even lack thereof.
Alexis Wilkinson, a second-year chemical and biomolecular engineering major and the group’s fundraising chair, got involved her freshman year. “I met Wesley representatives at FASET and attended a worship service after my first week of class,” she said. “It was such a great experience that I just kept coming back.”
Students from the Wesley Foundation prepare for the annual Mini 500
Wilkinson has found that keeping her faith in college was different from previous years, but not necessarily more difficult.
“Having worship services and Bible study as part of my routine has kept me grounded, and having the Wesley foundation has kept me accountable,” she said. For Wilkinson, faith is the most important thing in her life. By putting it first, she finds that other things fall into place, including classes, clubs, and friendships. She credits her faith for helping her keep perspective in a competitive environment.
She recommends that even busy students try joining a faith-based organization. In her experience, prioritizing her faith and relationship with God has resulted in better time management.
“Somehow, when you are putting God first, He makes the time work out,” she said.
The Latter-Day Saint Student Association (LDSSA) is a community of Mormon students on campus. Fourth-year mechanical engineering major Akarsh Vinod, who serves as the group's president, got involved during the second semester of his freshman year. He wanted to reach out to religious minorities on campus and welcome incoming Mormon students to Tech. While college has been a time of growth for Vinod's faith, he noted that students grow in a variety of ways throughout college.
“I did not have the same level of faith before college,” Vinod said. “College is a time for students to explore ideas and beliefs different from their own. If you focus on spiritual growth, it can be much easier to increase one’s faith. If you choose not to invest in spiritual growth, then there are enough other responsibilities that you can take on during college to grow in other ways.”
Faith has been an important component to Vinod’s time at Tech. He finds balance by staying organized and scheduling time for his faith. “If you want to build yourself into someone beyond your major and your career, then you must leave space in your schedule,” he said.
For him, faith has helped him handle the stresses of college life. He’s found that others who choose to learn more about their personal faith and live accordingly tend to push themselves to be kind, polite, and respectful to those around them, regardless of projects, exams, and other academic stressors. “They can accept failure better and prioritize personal well-being,” he said.
Vinod enjoys being part of the LDSAA because of the supportive community it creates, as well as efforts from the church to provide students growth opportunities in college.
The goal of Chabad is to provide students on and off campus with a place to explore Jewish life, culture, and history through a Chasidic lens. The slogan, “Where every Jew is family,” reflects this goal.
Joseph Levy, a second-year industrial and systems engineering major and Chabad president, got involved through a Shabbat dinner held on his first Friday night at Tech. He found a welcoming environment, with great people and food, and decided that it was a group he wanted to join.
“Generally, people assume that keeping their faith in college is more difficult than the community they grew up in,” Levy said. “However, I found that with Jewish organizations on campus and all the opportunities they offer, it has actually been easier to keep my faith.”
Students from Chabad.
Maintaining faith in college is a decision students must make for themselves, he said. On campus, parents are no longer hovering to check in if their son or daughter is attending services or keeping religious traditions. Levy has found his faith choice to be beneficial to his college experience.
“Staying active in my faith allows me to take a break from the pressures of life at Tech and reflect on the direction I’m moving in,” he said.
For students who feel too overwhelmed to join a religious group, Levy said, “Joining a faith-based organization has never felt like signing up for a 4-credit hour class. Members care about each other, and coming to each event is a choice independent of whether you attended the preceding event or whether you will attend the following.”
Levy’s favorite thing about Chabad is how quickly it’s growing. In 2016, Chabad held the largest Shabbat dinner in Tech’s history, with more than 250 people in attendance.
“We are seeing people coming to our events and having a great time,” he said. “We love to see students and professors make our weekly events part of their routines.”
Amber Akbar, a third-year biology major, serves as president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA). She began attending events during her freshman year and has been involved in the organization since. Her first experience with the group was at the annual Welcome Back Dinner held at the beginning of the fall semester.
“I was struck by how many people there were, most of whom were Muslim,” she said. “I loved the huge community feeling I got from the event.”
She has found that it can be more difficult to maintain your faith in college due to the influences of school, friends, work, extracurricular activities, and the demands of preparing for a future career. Regardless, she believes that her faith has been an important part of her college experience.
Students from MSA tailgate together.
“Sometimes you hit a point where you’re not doing well, and that may be the time you decide to turn to your faith,” she said. “This is the point where you hold on tightly to your beliefs and, after the storm has passed, you realize how much it helped. You might leave that low point in your life closer to your faith than before, and it carries you through life.”
Akbar has made time for her faith by incorporating it into her daily life. She lets her thoughts and actions be driven by her beliefs and surrounds herself with friends who keep her focused on her faith. She attends Friday prayer sermons and MSA halaqas. For students interested in becoming more active in faith, she recommends joining an organization on campus and getting to know other students who are part of that organization.
“Everyone has highs and lows in how active they are in their faith, but personally, everything falls into place when I have a sound connection with God,” she said.
Students aren’t the only ones involved in faith-based organizations at Tech. In the fall, the Veritas Forum at Georgia Tech hosted a roundtable discussion with five professors of five different faiths. The panel included Craig Tovey, Paul Verhaeghen, Todd Michney, Krishnendu Roy, and J. Brandon Dixon.
The Veritas Forum
The panel explored the basic tenets and misconceptions of their belief systems while sharing their personal faith journeys and the ways their beliefs impact their daily lives.
Some of the data points shared from the Pew Research Center during the presentation include:
- 95 percent of people have religious or spiritual world views.
- 33 percent of scientists believe in a personal God.
- 18 percent of scientists believe in a higher power.
- 48 percent of scientists have a religious affiliation.
Caroline Burnette, a graduate student in City and Regional Planning, is a member of the Veritas Forum and helped organize the event.
“It was interesting to learn more about other faiths and cultures that I was unfamiliar with,” she said.
The Veritas Forum will host a similar event this semester. The goal of these discussions is to provide a forum for those who want to integrate faith with academics. Burnette encourages any students curious about faith to attend.
“At Tech, students often question their personal religious beliefs due to the scientific nature of the institution,” she said. “These events help students explore faith-related questions and understand how faith can align with their career choices and academic decisions.”
For more on Veritas Forum, visit the group’s Facebook page. The next Veritas Forum event will be an interactive evening of music called Life: In and Out of Tempo, on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom.