U.S. Religious Diversity and International Students

Article excerpt

BEFORE LEAVING FOR THE UNITED STATES, students from abroad already know they will be coming to a large and diverse nation. Even so, once here, they may find the great variety of elements in American culture, many of them reflected on college campuses, difficult to comprehend and deal with. And because one of the most sensitive aspects of culture is religious belief and practices (which often influences social and political values), introducing international students to the diversity of religious faiths in the United States is an important challenge for college administrators. It is a challenge they approach in many different ways.

The Religious Landscape in the United States

In 2008 the Pew Research Center issued a fascinating report on the U.S. religious landscape, detailing that religious affiliation in the United States is both very diverse and extremely fluid. If shifts within Protestantism are included, about 44 percent of adults have "either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether." Among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin. Immigrants are also disproportionately represented among several world religions in the United States, including Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The report describes the constant movement of the American religious scene, pointing out that immigration is adding even more diversity to the American religious mosaic: "Muslims, roughly two- thirds of whom are immigrants, account for roughly 0.6 percent of the U.S. adult population; and Hindus, more than eightin-ten of whom are foreign born, now account for approximately 0.4 percent of the population." Like the broader country around them, college communities also reflect religious heterogeneity, and the presence of international students- like immigrants in the general population- adds to the diversity of religions on campus and serves as a natural way to educate about various religious beliefs and practices in this country as around the world.

International Offices and Orientation Activities

"Increasingly international offices are under pressure to focus on high- impact areas where students need information quite quickly to make a successful adjustment and transition to campus life," says Ivor Emmanuel, director of the University of California-Berkeley's international office. He speaks from experience at the University of Illinois and Berkeley, both large campuses, the latter with hundreds of student organizations. Anita Gaines, director of the International Student and Scholar Services Office (ISSSO) at the University of Houston, makes a similar point: "We are one of the two most ethnically-diverse major research universities in the nation [the other is Rutgers], with international students from 132 countries. We focus on helping international students with their legal status. During orientation we cover topics to assist them with campus and city acclimation." In an institution like the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Elizabeth Matthews, director of the institutions's international center, points out that with 3,000 international students, one-on-one advising is usually on issues related to immigration.

The multiple pressing demands on international offices means that many work with other institutional units on matters involving religion. Orientation activities provide one frequent occasion for doing this. Houston's ISSSO organizes a well-attended Information Fair for new international students who have a chance to circulate and get information at booths representing some of the 40 international/ethnic organizations and more than 45 religious organizations on campus. Houston's International Office also actively participates in Diversity Week and International Education Week, with the assistance of campus organizations. …