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With religious groups almost universally concerned about dwindling membership among their youth, some students at CU are finding that studying abroad with an eye toward religion can be the best way to get the most out of their travels.
Although the university’s Office of International Education does not keep track of the number of students who study abroad for religious reasons, informal conversations with students on campus show that the trend may be gaining popularity as students grapple with an increasingly complicated world.
Lindsey Weaver, a senior political science major and study abroad adviser, said learning about Buddhism while studying in India and Tibet during spring 2006 made her question the United States’ consumer-driven culture.
“I practiced certain rituals while I was in Tibet, and I agree with the philosophical ideas of Buddhism,” Weaver said. “It’s a philosophy that you can apply to life.”
Weaver said she set up a simple altar and consciously tried to simplify her life since returning to the United States.
“It’s really hard when you’re dropped back into our consumer culture,” Weaver said. “And I’m a product of that culture.”
When Weaver walked into Old Navy on 28th Street soon after returning, she said she could “literally smell the smell of capitalism.”
Despite having had to readjust to life in the United States, Weaver said much of what she experienced in her travels stayed with her.
“I still respect the Dalai Lama, almost to the point of religious reverence. I’m probably not a very good pseudo-Buddhist, but a lot of it has remained with me. We take a lot of our choices here for granted,” she said.
Rachel Boxer, a senior news-editorial major, and Alisha Black-Mallon, a senior English major, chose to study abroad in part to gain a greater understanding of the relationship between the United States and the Middle East.
Boxer, who is Jewish, traveled to Israel during the spring of 2006 and said she noticed a dichotomy between living in the United States and in Israel given the current political climate.
“There’s so much we don’t feel here,” Boxer said. “Nuclear threats, war, they really feel it when they leave their homes. The United States has this wall up and tries to say ‘we’re going to do this, but not feel it.’ We don’t realize the consequences. They’re trying to protect us from the consequences when we should be feeling them,” Boxer said.
Boxer said she was surprised to see that many Israelis were more relaxed about their faith than Jews in the United States.
“I thought I would become more religious going there, but I’ve actually become less. (Israelis) have a feeling that being Israeli is enough,” she said.
However, Boxer did say that in the United States, “there’s not much motivation to help other people” because of the lack of religious faith.
“In the United States, money is the only motivator, and religion kind of counteracts that,” Boxer said. “You wonder what else the U.S. could do for its own people.”
Black-Mallon spent the spring of 2004 studying in Egypt and stayed there for the rest of the year.
She wanted to learn Arabic and “to find the truth of what it’s really like to be Muslim” after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was interested in just jumping in,” she said.
“Each individual in the U.S. has an effect on other countries, especially (countries in) the Middle East, that we need to be aware of,” she said.
Black-Mallon said she was attracted to the connection between “ideology and language” that exists in Islam and decided to convert while living in Egypt.
“Who God is, is infiltrated into everyday life. ‘Thanks be to God’ is the standard greeting, no matter what is going on in your life,” Black-Mallon said.
While in Egypt, Black-Mallon said she gained an understanding of “the whole spectrum of Islam that (she) wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”
She said she has also become more aware of the “hate and ignorance” in the United States.
“My faith has caused issues with people being anti-Muslim that I wouldn’t have been as sensitive to before,” she said.
And although Black-Mallon said “social justice would have been (her) focus in life no matter what,” now she would like to “focus on bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims” while engaging in international aid and development work.
Although Black-Mallon said she was not sure whether students who study abroad for religious reasons necessarily have a more profound experience, she did say that focusing on religion requires some courage.
“When you put everything out there,” she said, “you’re definitely more likely to have some sort of transforming experience.”