When Tina Besimanto came to college, her newfound freedom and independence ultimately led her to reevaluate her religious practices and decide to follow Orthodox Judaism for the first time in her life.
“I pay attention now to who I am and where I came from instead of blending in,” said Besimanto, a third-year history student, discussing why she began to follow orthodox practices almost a year ago.
As many students explore the academic world, they also spend time exploring their emotional and spiritual selves through participation in student religious groups and newfound religious practices, as Besimanto did.
Though Besimanto grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, she said she followed her parents beliefs because they wanted her to. Today, she follows her own religious beliefs.
“(Judaism) makes my life clear, and I now have a path to follow,” she said.
Besimanto described herself as “changed” since coming to UCLA, where she participates in Jewish student groups such as Hillel at UCLA and found a culture and group of individuals to encourage her personal religious growth.
“University ought to be a time when students learn to trust their own voice a little bit more,” said S. Scott Bartchy, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion. Each year Bartchy teaches a history of religions course in which students learn about several of the religions around the world.
Bartchy called religion the belief in an ultimate reality ““ something that we may be able to pick up with our senses, but goes beyond our senses ““ which causes human beings to want to connect to this power after recognizing life’s sufferings or wrongs.
Defining religion is difficult to do because religions are always changing and a definition must fit every religion on the planet, Bartchy said.
But some students find it easy to identify religion as their support system and guide through life.
“Religion is designed in a certain way so that the things we long for and desire for are met perfectly and are completely understood by someone,” said Eric Smith, a third-year chemical engineering student.
Smith, along with more than 100 other students, participates in Campus Crusade for Christ, a group which meets once a week to discuss the Bible and sing worship songs.
John Book, director of Campus Crusade for Christ, said he believes Christianity can give people a purpose for living and guidance in making decisions.
He said he believes Christianity can answer questions about life’s purpose and what happens after death.
“(Christianity) gives people peace, fulfillment and security,” he added.
Smith said he enjoys participating in Campus Crusade for Christ because it is a way to maintain his religious beliefs.
“At meetings I see other people that are going through the same problems I have, and I see them become encouraged,” Smith said. “It encouraged me that God will do the same (for me).”
Religious meetings, and the sense of community they can bring, are important to many students who choose to practice a religion.
Members of the University Catholic Center attend services and social events because they “are looking for a sense of community and looking to continue practices they had growing up in order to maintain their identity,” said Father Peter Abdella, director of the center.
Many students who attend services at the center are experiencing religion for the first time and are encouraged to ask questions and explore Catholicism, Abdella said.
Other students said participating in religious groups offers them a way to help the community and get to know other students.
Abdallah Jadallah, a first-year chemical engineering student, came from a high school where he knew no other Muslim students, he said.
Now an active member of the Muslim Students Association, Jadallah said his religious beliefs have grown, and he has found a “new Islamic perspective” through his participation in the Muslim Students Association.
Jadallah said he feels welcome within MSA and appreciates that older members are always available to tutor him or just check in to see how he is doing.
“We’re always helping each other out,” he said. “No matter how busy anybody is it’s worth it in the end because God will give you help when you need it.”
While group membership provides an outlet for students to share and expand their faith, many other UCLA students do not choose to practice a religion.
Jadallah said he feels pressure from his nonreligious friends, but still receives respect.
In accordance with Islamic rules, Jadallah does not drink and though he is sometimes pressured by friends to drink at parties, they generally accept his views.
“People are nice about it. … They don’t take it too hard,” he said.
Jonathan Penley, a third-year Middle Eastern and religious studies student, said he upholds his Orthodox Jewish practices and avoids outside pressure.
“I choose to be around people who make (Judaism) a part of their lives,” he said.
As students find ways to expand their religious beliefs, those who do choose to follow a religion maintain that it helps in achieving personal happiness.
“My religion helps me be calm and realize that if something is not good then I shouldn’t do it. Everything we do should be for a good reason,” Jadallah said.