SAN FRANCISCO – Coming home for the holidays can mean high stress for college students, who often discover that their families won’t accept the new identities they’ve forged at school.
New majors, different career choices, body piercings, boyfriends; the list of particulars some parents object to can seem endless.
But perhaps the most difficult family conflicts involve faith. And with religious activity growing in university communities, more college students than ever are finding trouble at home.
“It’s a little daunting, explaining things to your parents that you’re not like them anymore,” said Frank Primus, a 23-year-old biology researcher at Stanford University who was raised Baptist but converted to Islam just before entering college.
Faced with Christmas on Monday and Tuesday evening’s end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Primus decided to compromise this year, giving his family Christmas presents and asking for Eid al-Fitr gifts in return.
“I’m at a new stage. I don’t think there’s a problem with respecting other people’s religions, especially my family’s.”
Still, there’s no getting around the separate services for the two religions. Attending the Christmas morning services remains a tradition for his parents, and Primus goes alone to the Eid sermon and feast.
Maintaining that kind of a separation from her family’s beliefs is a tough task for Rachel Suzuki, a University of California, Davis student.
“I know that I’m going to be making decisions that are totally not going to make them happy, and in a way dishonor them. That’s the hardest thing, is not having the blessing,” she said. “I feel like I’m choosing between God and my family.”
Now in her senior year, Suzuki says she found God the summer before starting college, and she’s thinking of working as a missionary after graduation. Her decision has bewildered her nonreligious family, and her father is trying to discourage her career plans.
“It’s like, why on earth would you go and be an evangelical weirdo?” she said.
But Suzuki and Primus are part of growing religious movements, and many of these students, who either strengthen their faith or change religions altogether, feel alienated in their childhood homes.
“Students are accessing some kind of deep personal dimension of meaning in their life,” said Scotty McLennan, university chaplain at Tufts University. “We’ve just about doubled our traditional religious movement over the last 15 years at Tufts. The Catholic mass packs the chapel on Sunday nights.”
Students seem to be turning toward a more lasting commitment to religion, said Conrad Cherry, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. “They’re often looking for a kind of spirituality that appeals to them and their generation.”
InterVarsity, a nationwide evangelical campus organization, has 32,000 student members, according to figures for the 1999-2000 academic year. More than 1,500 were new converts to Christianity.
Many are so dedicated to their faith that they want to devote their lives to missionary work. About 20,000 young adults considering missionary careers are expected at a conference this week at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said InterVarsity spokesman Phil Evans.
Janice McWilliams, a staff member at UC Davis Intervarsity, said dealing with parents who are upset with their children’s fervent interest in religion is a huge part of her job. The prospect of a son or daughter choosing missionary work as a career can be disappointing to parents who have different ambitions for their children.
The initial stages of conversion are a trying time for all involved, and accepting the differences must go both ways, said Makin McDaid Abdulkhaliq, a Stanford graduate student who converted to Islam and took on Muslim names.
“I think when people first convert, they take things very rigidly, and then as they get older, they learn to take all aspects of their life into what they’re doing,” he said. “I think some people don’t do it very diplomatically. I’ve kind of learned from my mistakes.”
Xav Serrato, 19, was raised Roman Catholic and converted to Judaism over the summer. At college at the University of California, Berkeley, many of his friends are Jewish and volunteer as counselors at a Jewish camp. He decided to go with them.
It’s important for him to make sure his family understands that he no longer follows their religion.
“It’s their holiday, but I respect my family,” Serrato said, “as long as they know it’s not my holiday that I’m celebrating with them.”