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‘Something for everyone’: How students at Miami navigate their faith through college

<p>A man walks his dog in front of St. Mary church on High Street</p>

A man walks his dog in front of St. Mary church on High Street

When Olivia Waits settled into her dorm during her first year at Miami University, she was met with the fear and anxiety that many students struggle with when adjusting to the college transition.

She worried about making friends, fitting in and finding a community. To help combat the overwhelming chaos in her life, she leaned on one of the very few constants in her life: her faith.

Now, Waits can be found every Sunday sitting about seven pews back from the altar at Faith Lutheran Church.

For Waits, now a junior kinesiology major, her relationship with her religion began at a young age. She grew up in Georgetown, a small town near Cincinnati, so her entire family would clamber into the chapel on Sundays to be in each other’s presence. When the service was over, they knew they would all see each other again next week.

“Going to church on Sunday was a nice grounding moment,” Waits said. “It was a piece of home. It was a good reset for the next week.”

When Waits got to Miami, she wanted to find a similar environment to practice her religion while meeting people with the same beliefs.

Her pastor recommended Faith Lutheran Church, and she decided to attend a service. Now, she is the leader of its campus ministry program, hoping to help others looking for a similar community.

The same was true for Aissetou Diombera, a junior finance major who grew up in the African Muslim faith. She didn’t realize how important her faith was to her until she celebrated her first Ramadan away from home. Although she was sad about celebrating the Islamic holiday without family and friends, she met new people at Miami who quickly helped fill that gap.

Diombera grew up spending most of her weekends at the mosque her family worshiped at and has been an active member of Young Muslims Cincinnati Sisters throughout college. There, she works with young girls to help them grow and foster their faith. 

The community aspect of Islam prompted Diombera to get involved with the Muslim Students' Association at Miami.

“A lot of people see religion and see Islam as really strict and you can’t do anything that you really want, but when you look at it through a different lens … you can have a different meaning with religion,” Diombera said.

Finding a different meaning of religion was something that Maya Mehlman, a senior media and communication major, discovered when she came to Miami.

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Mehlman grew up practicing conservative Judaism, a form of the religion her parents still practice today. However, during her second semester at Miami, her sorority sister took her to a dinner hosted by Chabad, an organization that promotes orthodox Judaism. After attending her first dinner, she saw it as an opportunity to engage with students who took a different approach to the religion she grew up in, but her parents were concerned when she joined.

“They are happy now that I want to practice my Judaism and are seeking out opportunities and ways to do that, rather than dragging me to the synagogue on the weekends or Hebrew school,” Mehlman said.

Mehlman, who is now the president of Chabad, said going to Hebrew School on Sunday and Wednesday felt like something she had to do, rather than wanted to do, but college changed that.

“College does give you a great opportunity to explore other religions or just explore other variations of your faith,” Mehlman said.

For others, college is an opportunity to strengthen your faith. Anna Pritchard, a junior organizational leadership major, runs the evangelization team at the Catholic Newman Center, a campus ministry organization.

While Pritchard is passionate about her beliefs today, that hasn’t always been the case. Pritchard grew up in the Catholic faith, and when she was young, her parents got divorced – an action that is traditionally looked down upon within the religion. After her parents split, Pritchard began to question her faith. However, instead of falling out of her beliefs, it strengthened them.

“I thought the Church was kind of just all about rules until I learned that it’s more about what the Church offers, not so much what it takes away,” Pritchard said.

In Pritchard’s current role with the Newman Center, she organizes events to get students involved with the Catholic faith.

While some struggle with their faith, others have always known where they stand with their beliefs, and college is an opportunity to strengthen that. Andrew Stigler, a senior emerging technology in business and design major, grew up non-denominational Christian and participated in youth groups as an extracurricular activity outside of school. Because Stigler went to public school, youth group was an opportunity where he could engage with his faith.

He began participating in Young Life, a global Christian organization where leaders go to area schools to help foster faith, when he was in middle school. He participated in the program throughout high school, and when he came to Miami, he had no doubt about becoming a leader.

“[I] wanted to give back to an organization that gave so much to me,” Stigler said.

Stigler is a leader at Lakota East middle schools in West Chester where he holds weekly Bible studies and hosts events where the students play games, sing songs and end with Christian discussions. Stigler engages with his faith outside of Young Life, too, by living with people who share his same beliefs.

With many faith-based student organizations at Miami, there are many opportunities both on and off campus to connect with religious beliefs or discover a new one.

“There's some great organizations on campus, but they're just not always the fit for everybody,” Waits said. “And so it's nice that there is something for everybody.”