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Students speak out about religious acceptance on Westminster’s campus

Students from Westminster College host the “Empowering Global-minded Peacemakers” interfaith leadership and social justice seminar on March 30. Director of the GPS Office, Jan Saeed said, every year, the office receives students who feel marginalized due to their religious affiliation but that Westminster’s campus culture is moving to becoming more accepting of religious identities. (Photo by Emily Van Alstyne)

As a liberal arts campus in Utah, Westminster College is a gathering place of predominantly non-religious student in a state where more than half of its population are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), according to the Admissions Office.

Westminster students who are religious,however, said they have had a different experience on campus including having to combat challenges like attitudes of other students on campus, lack of religious facilities, types of food offered and academic respites during religious holidays.

Campus Culture

Westminster sophomore, Shaylie Johnson, said although the option of attending a LDS university, like Brigham Young University, was popular in her community growing up, she chose to come to Westminster because of its small environment and personal relationships with professors.

Johnson said her first year at Westminster was the hardest because she was raised her whole life believing in and discussing only her religion. However, she said Westminster’s classroom conversations were eye-opening for her because they emphasized inclusivity.

But the conversation regarding inclusivity excludes her, Johnson said.

“Sometimes I feel like it’s a game of ‘who’s going to bash my religion this week?,’” she said. “You know, most of my classes end up being like, ‘Oh Mormons, they don’t get it.’”

Johnson said she usually remains quiet when these types of comments are made.

“I probably go at least once a month or every couple weeks where I hear something about Mormons in at least one of my classes, and it’s usually not positive,” Johnson said.

Westminster chemistry major, Jillian Leis said she has never been on the receiving end of judgemental interactions as a Roman Catholic at Westminster. Neither has sophomore Kyra Teply, another Catholic student.

Yet both Leis and Teply said they felt “weird” saying out loud they were religious, because people on campus would immediately assume they were LDS.

“When I was first on campus, I was embarrassed because I felt like I would get judged for being religious, and also, if I was religious, people might think I was Mormon,” Teply said.

Teply said sometimes it felt as though she was overcompensating for being religious.

“I would have to be like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not Mormon, I’m Catholic,’” Teply said.

Mormon and Catholic students aren’t the only ones who said they face judgement from Westminster campus culture.

Ghanem Alatteili, a senior international and Muslim student, said practicing Muslims are required to pray five times a day. But when his father visited from Jordan, he told his dad not to pray, in fear of judgement.

“I told him, ‘Dad you can’t pray here, you’re going to be a problem,’ but he did it anyway,” Alatteili said.

Resources for Religious Students

Westminster’s Office for Global Peace and Spirituality (GPS) aims to provide gatherings and support for students of all religions as well as students who do not identify as religious, said Director Jan Saeed.

Students from Westminster College as well as Snow College, Utah Valley University and Utah State attend the “Empowering Global-minded Peacemakers” interfaith leadership and social justice seminar hosted by the Office for Global Peace and Spirituality (GPS) on March 30. Director of the GPS Office, Jan Saeed said the office offer support and resources for students of all faith backgrounds, to provide a more inclusive and diverse college campus. (Photo by Emily Van Alstyne)

Saeed said resources from the GPS Office are available for students “of all faiths [including] people who claim to be spiritual but not religious, humanists, agnostic, atheists.”

Saeed said the main goal of the GPS Office is for students to recognize that “we are all here on this blue and white marble floating through the universe, and if we can’t learn to get along, we’re really denying our faith in whatever it is we do believe in.”

She said the more time she has spent at Westminster, the more she has realized that all students feel comfortable having these kinds of conversations.

Senior chemistry major Hannah Peacock, said she is grateful for the facilities on and near campus, including the GPS Office and the Latter-day Saint Student Association (LDSSA) Institute.

The LDSSA Institute serves as a gathering place for students not only to hangout but also to be helped when they feel like they are facing religious discrimination, Peacock said.

“We have a pretty good support group [at the Institute],” Peacock said.

Peacock also attended a faith talk offered by the GPS Office, which she said was informative.

“They had a Muslim girl talk about her experience, which was really cool because I have not had any interaction with anyone of that faith,” Peacock said.

Leis and Teply both attend Catholic mass at the St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Newman Center at the University of Utah. Newman Centers are Catholic campus ministries found all over the world at non-Catholic universities. They attend mass with other Westminster students because there is no Catholic church associated with Westminster’s campus.

Most religious experiences Leis and Teply have had on campus they said came from student-run gatherings, like bible study groups.

Teply said the only way she has heard of Catholic services offered in the Salt Lake Valley was through other students.

“I found a bible group study through Jilly Leis, and we meet at Shaw on Mondays at 8 p.m.,” Teply said.

Dietary Options

Students of various religious backgrounds have certain dietary and food requirements that are a part of their faith. However, as a secular school, Westminster does not always offer specific accommodations for such dietary preferences or special events.

In the Muslim faith, Ramadan is a month-long fast in which participants do not eat from dawn until sunset, Ghanem Alattelli said.

“[Muslims] are supposed to eat only at night during Ramadan,” but the Shaw Student Center isn’t open late enough to provide for that, according to Alattelli.

Westminster alumni, Merritt Ruthrauff, said that Bon Appétit also doesn’t provide adequate dietary options for Jewish students who observe kosher.

Eating kosher means following a diet specifically described by Jewish law, said Ruthrauff, who is Jewish.

“I think the hardest thing for Jews at Westminster was eating kosher, I know a few people that struggled to eat healthy and keep kosher,” Ruthrauff said.

Academic Respites

Many religious students at Westminster said they shared a common desire, that faculty and administration would make accommodations so there was room to celebrate one’s religion alongside schoolwork, rather than losing points for not being in class.

For Roman Catholic student Kyra Teply, celebrating Holy Week, the last week of Lent leading into Easter and one of the most important times of the year for Catholics, was nearly impossible.

“Managing school between Easter and finals was difficult because things were due,” she said.

Furthermore, Teply said she has never been able to attend an Ash Wednesday mass either, because classes have always been held on that day.

She said every year, the St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center at the University of Utah sends priests to Westminster to distribute ashes because many students are unable to make it to mass, she said.

Alatelli said Muslim traditions and celebrations are also not accommodated on campus.

“At the end of Ramadan, there is a three-day celebration, Eid,” Alattelli said. “Eid is like Christmas […] friends, family, everyone celebrates it.”

But the college does not offer students time off to celebrate Eid, Alatteli said.

Diversity, Acceptance and Inclusion

LDS student, Shaylie Johnson, said she wished the conversation regarding inclusivity allowed room for beliefs that don’t coincide with the general views of the campus.

The Latter Day Saint Student Association Institute associated with Westminster College on April 24. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not the only religious students on campus who said they feel “weird” sharing their religious beliefs on campus. (photo by Emily Van Alstyne)

Johnson said she feels the conversation regarding inclusivity only goes so far, and excludes the LDS faith.

“You know, it kind of feels like the culture here, like: ‘we want to be so accepting, but when it doesn’t coincide with what the school’s talking about, we don’t accept it,’” Johnson said.

Knowing that inclusivity is important to Westminster, Johnson said she specifically wishes students would keep an open mind when discussing controversial ideas in the LDS faith.

“Keep [the conversation] open so that those [LDS] members who are in the class, but don’t say anything, don’t feel so defeated,” she said.

Hannah Peacock said she agrees with Johnson’s perspective of inclusivity on campus.

“There’s always talk about tolerance, but as a conservative person, I always feel like my views aren’t represented or even heard,” she said.

Peacock was recently married in the LDS Church, and said she received backlash from other students her age.

“But it’s more of their problem, not mine,” Peacock said

Director of the Global Peace and Spirituality Office, Jan Saeed said, “It’s not just one religion that is feeling they are not allowed to have a voice.”

Every year, the GPS Office receives students who feel marginalized due to their religious affiliation, some of whom have recently faced anti-semitism, Saeed said.

“This has been a real challenge, being this liberal arts school trying to be very inclusive, almost to the extent where you can talk about anything — but not religion,” said Jan Saeed.

Saeed said it’s been a long time coming, but Westminster’s campus culture is, in fact, improving in incorporating religious acceptance and unity into their dialogue.

“There’s this sense that every other kind of diversity is okay, but it has only been in the last two years, I feel like, that Westminster’s campus feels more open to having a [religious] conversation,” Saeed said.

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Emily Van Alstyne
Emily Rose Van Alstyne is a senior at Westminster College. She is an intern at KUTV Channel2 News and enjoys dancing, running through wheat grass and drinking merlot in her free time.

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