Students explore religious conversion in college

Robyn Berardi

The college experience is often one of self-discovery and establishing one’s adult perspective. For some, this means examining the beliefs they were taught by their family and questioning their own convictions.  This includes the questioning of one’s religious faith.

According to a 2015 study done by the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of American adults have a religious identity different than the one they were raised in. 

This is true for Amanda Lipscomb, a senior teaching English as a second language major, who grew up in a Southern Baptist family.

“My last name, Lipscomb, is actually a Southern Baptist university in Tennessee,” Lipscomb said. “I went to a Baptist Christian school in first grade and then I went to public school right after, so in a sense, I lived within Christianity for a period of my life, but I would say that ended when I was in fourth grade, at least going to church.”

Lipscomb said from an early age she felt out of place in her religion and never felt a deep connection to it.

“I never felt like a part of something when I was a kid,” she said. “My mom would take me (to school) and I’d always feel awkward going to my Christian school because it’s like ‘Can I not talk about Britney Spears and stuff like that?’”

Lipscomb credits these feelings she had as a child, as well as traveling and taking religion classes in college, as big influences in her decision to convert to Islam.

According to a study on Americans changing faith done by the Barna Group, one of the most common reasons people moved away from Christianity included “gaining new knowledge or education.”

During her freshman year of college, Lipscomb took an Introduction to World Religions class to see if she felt any connection to religion after not feeling any as a child.

For the final paper in the class, Lipscomb recalls being required to visit a worship center that they had not previously been too. She decided to visit a mosque because she had Muslim friends.

“We went to the women’s section upstairs and I remember sitting down and watching them pray,” Lipscomb said. “When you watch Muslims pray, it’s probably the most beautiful, peaceful thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life. It was the most comforting thing I have ever felt in my entire life and that stuck with me.”

Brad Jagger, an instructor of religious studies, believes classes like these may play a role in college students converting religions. College may provide students the opportunity to explore new religions without any influence of their family or community, Jagger said.

“I think it’s just a time for people to explore and figure out what they believe,” Jagger said.

Upon returning from traveling in Europe in 2017 and being exposed to other religions including Islam, Lipscomb still felt like “something was missing in her life” and decided to learn more about Islam.

On June 14, 2018, Lipscomb officially converted to Islam. This official conversion included giving a testimony of faith, or a Shahada, in both English and Arabic in front of a group of people at a mosque.

“I did not wake up and be like ‘Wow. I’m going to be a Muslim today,’” Lipscomb said. “I deeply thought about this and I thought about Christianity. That would have been an easy fallback because I already know Christianity, but I just couldn’t connect. There’s a lot in Christianity that I don’t really agree with. Islam has all of my questions answered.”

Not everyone in Lipscomb’s life agreed with her decision to convert to Islam. She said she has family members who do not want to see her anymore after learning about her conversion.

However, she credits her mother’s unconditional love and her grandmother’s acceptance as being impactful parts of her journey.

“Me being a Muslim has brought me closer to my family,” she said. “Like I love my mom and that’s unconditional love. She asks questions because she wants to understand. How beautiful is that? I’m so lucky.”

Throughout the converting process, Lipscomb made it a priority to stay true to herself.

“Your religion shouldn’t change who you are at your core,” she said. “I am not a different person because I am a Muslim. I have a direction now and there is a purpose in my life. This is me at my purest self because I’m happy.”

For senior English major and LGBT studies minor Ollie Swasey, religion did not play a role in her life growing up.

“My mom was very adamant that she didn’t want to make us believe anything,” Swasey said. “She didn’t want to impress any beliefs upon us.”

While occasionally attending church with friends in high school, Swasey never felt any connection to the services.

During the spring semester of her freshman year, Swasey attended a Shabbat dinner at Hillel after her mom suggested looking at Hillel for volunteer opportunities.

“I loved the service and I loved the sense of community that I felt when I was there even though I didn’t know anybody,” Swasey said.

This feeling of community encouraged Swasey to keep returning to Hillel for services and events.

The summer before starting her junior year, Swasey decided that she wanted to convert to Judaism to gain “more meaning” in life. Her formal conversion began last April.

This conversion process includes frequently meeting with Rabbi Josh Brown at Temple Israel in Akron, studying passages of the Torah and working on assignments to further her Jewish education.

“There’s been challenging aspects to it, but I’m very fortunate that I have not alienated my friends or family through converting,” she said. “My parents and my sister are really supportive and my friends have been really supportive and I have had the space to practice and not everyone gets that.”

Rabbi Michael Ross, the senior Jewish educator of Kent State Hillel, said there are many reasons someone might convert to Judaism, including not relating to the religion they grew up in, because they are marrying someone who is Jewish or because they are unable to explore conversion until their non- Jewish parents have died.

The Barna Group study on Americans changing faith also found that the median age of people at the time they changed their faith was 22.

Swasey’s conversion process will be final around early March and will include her being presented to a Beit din, a panel of three Jewish individuals, with at least one being a rabbi, who will ask her questions about the conversion process. The process will conclude with being dunked into the mikvah, a bath used for ritual immersion in Judaism.

“At the end, they sit before three rabbis: the one they’ve been studying with and two others,” Ross said. “They go through a Beit din, a law court, and the rabbis simply ask them questions about their spiritual journey. ‘How did you get here? Tell us about your story.’”

Ross’ advice for college students exploring new religions or considering conversion is to be a “spiritual resident” and not a “spiritual tourist.”

He explains spiritual tourism as experiences such as a week-long Buddhist retreat or celebrating a Hindu feast.

“The deeper wisdom is not just to find new spiritual practices, but really to say ultimately, how can you be nourished in your soul and how can your nourishment come from not just from your own reflections, but from a group that you’re spending time with?” Ross said. “I do think, therefore, my encouragement is to find that community that will allow you to thrive.”

For those who are considering a religious conversion, Lipscomb acknowledges that there can be challenges, but believes this is just a natural part of the process.

“It’s going to be hard. Nothing in life is easy. Just listen to yourself and know what you’re getting into. I just think everything is self-love at the end of the day. Happiness is contentment. If you can be content with yourself at the end of the day that’s your happiness.”

Robyn Berardi is a diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected]