School changes everything—the way we work, sleep and socialize. It can also change your relationship with religion. Ania Bessonov writes about the students whose faith was challenged when they came to Ryerson
The first week of the fall semester in 2017, Anna Choina found her spot in the back of a classroom at Eric Palin Hall, ready for her next class. She had taken two courses in this same room in previous years, so locating it was no problem. A young professor walked in and projected a syllabus on the screen titled “The philosophy of love and sex.” Choina was finally in the right place. Coming from a religious background, she had been wanting to take this course since her first year to learn more about how other people viewed it. With her gruelling nursing schedule easing up by fourth year, she was relieved she had managed to fit it in.
When the class began, the professor opened with the standardized syllabus outline and followed into a discussion.
“What is sex?” the professor asked. Hands shot up.
“It’s an act of pleasure,” says one student.
“It mostly doesn’t mean anything,” says another.
The room was filled with secular opinions and as more people talked about their idea of sex, Choina felt increasingly singled out. It’s not that her more conservative perspective of sex was attacked, but the overwhelming nature of the contributions and absence of traditional ideas made her feel out of place. She was worried that something so personal to her—her religion—would be judged if she brought an opposing opinion. Choina felt there was no room for her religious views of sex. Leaving that lecture, she had already decided to drop the course.
Attending a post-secondary institution has become part of the path young adults take in their academic and professional development. It is now culturally seen as necessary for establishing a successful career and gaining financial stability. Being so ingrained in our societal values, universities are filled with students from a wide variety of backgrounds, especially universities in Toronto. Ryerson University prides itself on being a school that is home to students from numerous countries and races. The university is also home to many students who were raised in religious homes and practices. Many of these students intend to keep these upbringings as they go through school. But how difficult is it to maintain one’s religious habits and practices while attending a post-secondary institution?
Although Ryerson has made strides to respect observant students by providing academic accommodation for religious practices and celebrations, the school is still experiencing some shortcomings in offering religious education and space. Before 2017, Ryerson did not have any courses in religious studies. Now, the school only offers introduction to religious studies, introduction to world religions and introduction to Hinduism and Buddhism. Other schools such as the University of Toronto (U of T) and Wilfrid Laurier University offer degrees in religious studies. In 2018, U of T was ranked 8th out of 100 in the world for theology, divinity and religious studies on the QS World University Rankings by Subject, with Harvard University coming in first.
In addition to being behind with offering religious education, Ryerson does not currently offer a place on campus for a Muslim chaplaincy to operate. In August 2016, the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) announced it would turn the Used Book Room in the Student Campus Centre into a Wellness Centre set to be opened in September 2016, which was later decided to be home to a Muslim chaplaincy. Due to three major construction delays, the Wellness Centre didn’t officially open until Feb. 6, 2018, which forced the Muslim chaplaincy to operate elsewhere. They have been running their services out of a space in the First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto on Bond Street. There are currently other chaplaincies operating out of the Wellness Centre’s office. Hillel Ryerson, a Jewish student group, created their own space just off campus for their members to meet.
There have been some cases of discriminatory behaviour on campus in the past. In 2015, some RSU election posters were defaced with Islamophobic messages. During an RSU Semi-Annual General Meeting in 2017, some students organized a walkout during a motion to pass a Holocaust education week. The number of reported discrimination cases based on religion at Ryerson went from 14 in 2009-2010 to six in 2011-2012. But no update has been published since these dates.
DURING THAT TIME, SHE ALSO CONTINUED TO BREAK RULES IN HER RELIGION,
SMOKING WAY TOO MUCH WEED, AS SHE SAYS AND HAVING SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE.
Choina was born into a Catholic home in 1996 and at the age of one was baptized, which is the official mark of an individual’s Catholic identity. Her parents immigrated to Canada from Poland in the early 1990s and have attended a Polish-Catholic church since. Choina followed suit.
Like many youth who grow up practicing a particular religion, they often experience a test period of time where their beliefs lose importance in their lives. For Choina, this came in Grade 12 when she became seriously involved with her first boyfriend. Unlike Choina, her boyfriend didn’t have any religious values. He was certain he didn’t want to get married or have kids, two milestones that were important to both herself and her religion. “I knew I wanted to have kids but then I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t have to get married,’” Choina says. She found herself making exceptions to be with him that were important to her and her religion. Choina and her boyfriend stayed together for two years. Within those two years, she graduated high school and started her nursing degree at Ryerson. During that time, she also continued to break rules in her religion, like smoking way too much weed, as she says and having sex before marriage. She was still attending church on Sundays but wasn’t invested in her faith. “Just because I was physically present didn’t mean I was there.”
In 2016, Choina returned to her religious foundation. In addition to breaking up with her boyfriend, she joined Ryerson Catholics in her third year, once her heavy nursing schedule eased up. She was introduced to the club during the first week of the fall semester. They invited her to the Ryerson Catholics meeting house at St. Mike’s Cathedral Basilica for a barbecue. Not before long, she was a committed member attending their events and leading a faith study. Since then, Choina says she hasn’t come into many situations that compromised her religious views, until that particular philosophy class.
The biggest obstacle for Choina was the feeling that her religious views on love and sex would not be respected in a class that seemed to be filled with people whose views did not align with hers. “For some people, it’s a meaningful experience and an act of making love rather than just viewing sex as fucking, and for it to be done after marriage,” says Choina. “I felt the other students in the class would just trash that opinion, or at least that’s the vibe I got.” Choina remembers the students who participated throughout the discussion were very passionate about their standpoints on sex and says it seemed they wouldn’t want to hear anything otherwise. As someone who experienced both ends of the spectrum of a religious lifestyle, Choina was looking forward to the discussions of sex. “I have nothing against people who want to hook up. I’ve been there in another part of my life and I get it,” she says. Choina didn’t contribute to the discussion in the class before she dropped it. “It was just the way when people were participating and just talking about their views about it, I felt like there was no room for discussion for religion. You don’t have to agree with everyone’s opinions, but I believe discussing different views never hurts.”
But not all religious barriers come up in the classroom. For some students, many things they do outside of the lecture halls is what seems to set up hurdles. Marketing major Gurdeep Singh is a Sikh, born and raised in Brampton, Ont. He was born into his religion and though his discipline has fluctuated, he is currently in a place where he practices Sikhism diligently. Yet, when it comes to business networking nights, Singh often runs into dilemmas.
In his second year at Ryerson in February 2014, Singh attended the DECA Idea Challenge, a weekend case competition for business students, taking place in downtown Toronto. At the end of the night, all the participants, judges and industry professionals engage in a networking night. But for Singh, the networking night isn’t always as anticipated. Traditionally, business networking events are held over drinks and in bar settings. As a religious Sikh man, Singh says his religion forbids being in areas around alcohol, let alone consuming it. He’s often put in a dilemma: stay in his room and abide by his religious regulations or go downstairs and partake in an event that will contribute to building his career.
Aside from networking nights, Singh says sometimes what is expected of business students to be successful in today’s standards compromises his ability to stay on top of his religious practices as well. This includes extracurriculars and good marks, and an overall well-rounded resumé. “The biggest issue that I was facing at that time was being involved in too many things,” says Singh. He participated in religious and academic (business-specific) extracurriculars, played in sport intramurals, worked a part-time job and kept up with a full-time class load. Instead of being home at 6 p.m., Singh was ending his day closer to midnight, which meant missing out on the opportunity to do his prayers. “You’re working long hours and trying to finish school work and any time you get to sleep, you sleep.” Because of this, he feels the stability of his life as a whole is shaken. “I feel a strain on my personal life. I don’t feel like I’m performing as good at work, I feel like a different person with my friends and I get frustrated really fast.”
“YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE WITH EVERYONE’S OPINIONS, BUT
I BELIEVE DISCUSSING DIFFERENT VIEWS NEVER HURTS.”
Ryerson philosophy and religion professor John Caruana says he has seen religion to be very beneficial for some students in maintaining a healthy academic and professional career. “I know quite a few students whose religious background serves as an important foundation for their success.” But he adds that for other students, it can be quite a distraction. “I’ve also met students who have struggled with their religious upbringing and find that it sometimes conflicts with certain questions or issues that they are working through at the moment.”
Sikhism has grounded Singh in his life. It provides not only a stable routine, but it allows him to stay true to himself and make a positive difference in his academic, professional and personal life. He joined the Ryerson Sikh Students Association in his first year and shortly after, the group, in partnership with other universities established the Sikh Youth Federation (SYF). The federation is an umbrella student association for Sikh students at Ryerson and eight other Ontario universities. For someone who grew up in a Sikh community, SYF has provided Singh with the same environment in university. However, despite the religious and social support Singh found in these groups, he was still experiencing certain aspects of his academic, and more specifically business life, as obstacles to following Sikhism how he felt was best.
For other students that Singh knows, their religion has been a source of distraction, which Caruana says is common. “I have one friend who wanted to keep his religion but his parents didn’t want him to because they were afraid he wasn’t going to get a job,” says Singh. “They told him to cut his hair and said he didn’t need to follow the religion, and this is the reason we started Sikhia.”
Sikhia is a conference created by SYF that hosts professionals from a variety of industries, including medicine and law. Participants who attend Sikhia get the opportunity to job shadow these individuals. They are also put through a resumé-writing bootcamp and mock interview practice. Singh says Sikhia also establishes a network for students to bear witness to people of the same religion who were able to overcome obstacles regarding their disciplines. “At the end, it was to show that just because of your skin colour or your religious views, you don’t need to bend your religion.”
“MANY PEOPLE THINK IT’S PERFECTLY FINE TO MAKE UNWARRANTED
GENERALIZATIONS ABOUT A PARTICULAR FAITH TRADITION THAT IS MANY CENTURIES OLD.”
As Caruana sees it, many problems surrounding religious tolerance arise through lack of education. “Religions are complex phenomena,” the philosophy professor says. “Yet, many people think it’s perfectly fine to make unwarranted generalizations about a particular faith tradition that is many centuries old (sometimes thousands of years old), remarkably diverse, and internally quite complex.”
Image arts student Gaby Shubat grew up in a Jewish home and attended a Jewish high school. Now in university, he says that if it wasn’t for Hillel, he wouldn’t have any Jewish friends at Ryerson. Because people tend to generalize their opinions of certain religions and cultures, Shubat finds comfort in being surrounded by a Jewish community. But beyond that, Shubat says that at Hillel, he learns about other cultures through multi-faith events the organization puts on in partnership with other religious groups on campus. “Toronto is a melting pot of so many different cultures and religions,” he says. “I think there should be more outlets for education, especially in a university. I know how much I benefit from it.”
In our increasingly secular society, people who practice religions are having a harder time in academic and professional environments. Outside of Sikhia, Singh still faces compromising situations and Choina ended up dropping the philosophy of love and sex class she was afraid there was no room for her religious perspective to be heard.
“It’s not just a problem at a place like Ryerson. It’s a problem in general,” says Caruana, referring to the lack of education that exists on the various religions that exist. But change will be slow and it begins with education. “We’re in the early stages of providing students with the tools for understanding the diversity of religious traditions and movements,” Caruana says, who is hopeful about the future of this issue. “I certainly think that the appetite and curiosity is there for such courses on the part of students. Educating students [and faculty] about the remarkable variety of religious practices in Toronto and beyond can only help to improve our understanding and relations with fellow students, colleagues, our friends, neighbours and people in general around the world. The vast majority of human beings identify with a particular religious orientation. So, we’re talking about a lot of people.”