Bible discussions at boozy get-togethers in frat houses, and Friday night FIFA tournaments that turn into earnest conversations about Allah. Being religious doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the college experience, students say. Here’s how they juggle belief and being a student.
When Daniëlle Olthof came to Tilburg University two years ago for a master’s in human recourse studies, she was a non-believer. But after the introduction week, she didn’t join Olof or Plato or Vidar—she joined the Christian student association Navigators. “I liked the people and the atmosphere. Everybody was very warm and welcoming,” she explains. “I had no intentions of becoming a Christian, but that wasn’t a problem. So I joined.”
Almost two years later, Olthof is still an active member. She found friends at Navigators, and she found faith along the way. “I started to learn more and more about Christianity, and I found it very enlightening. I didn’t think it would happen, but it did—I started to believe. Now, I consider myself a Christian.”
Not that different
N.S.T., the Tilburg chapter of Navigators, is in many ways a typical student association. It’s a tight-knit community of young adults who unwind together after class, have drinks at their regular bar every Wednesday night, and dance to overplayed pop songs on the weekends. But there is one thing that sets the students of N.S.T. apart from others: at the core of their university experience, there’s Jesus.
Many people assume that this means N.S.T. members cannot have a vibrant and fulfilling student life, Olthof says. “Because we’re a Christian student association, people often have a certain image of us. They think we’re boring, secluded or different. But when we talk to them, they quickly see that we’re not that different from them at all.”
Religion is a central aspect of the students’ life. Faith, for them, is not just about going to church on Sunday to hear the pastor speak. “It’s about having a personal relationship with God,” Olthof says. “Although it’s a personal exploration, it’s nice to have other students to share it with. We all try to help each other get closer to God.”
Rather than following the teachings of their elders, the students organize their own Bible study sessions and prayer meetings. And they’re not afraid to get a little creative. Recently, for example, they spent thirty-six hours praying non-stop in a camper van parked on campus. The camper’s interior walls were decorated with fairy lights and strings of hand-written cards with prayer requests made by other students and university staff. In their ‘pop up prayer bus’, Olthof and other N.S.T. members prayed day and night for good exam results, world peace and any other prayer request they received.
N.S.T. also organizes missionary activities. While some Christians go to Africa or South America to do missionary work, the Navigators go to frat houses. “We ring the door bell and ask whoever answers the door whether we can wash their dishes. Or we show up with a crate of beer and ask them to have a drink with us,” Olthof explains. “It’s not our goal to convert people, we just like to reach out to other students and tell them about our faith. And it’s also just a lot of fun.”
“We ring the door bell and ask students whether we can wash their dishes, or we show up with a crate of beer”
N.S.T. board member Lennard Tins particularly enjoys going to more traditional fraternity and sorority houses, where the most ardent skeptics can be found. “I think the most interesting conversations happen at Olof and Vidar houses, because the students there tend to be quite critical,” he says. “They’ll ask us critical questions, about sex before marriage for example. That’s fine, we’re open to talk about that.”
Brother- and sisterhood
Another faith-based student association on campus is the Muslim Student Association (MSA), founded by economics student Charif Chahid two years ago. There’s no alcohol at MSA, so don’t expect its members to show up on the doorstep of your frat house with a Heineken crate. Rather than embracing the culture of beer-drinking and hard partying, MSA focuses on another tradition that fraternities and sororities are famous for: forging lasting friendships and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. “That’s one of the most important aspects of our association,” Chahid says. “We have a bond that goes beyond nationality, race or gender.”
MSA is the first student association for Muslim students on campus. “I noticed that Muslim exchange students had difficulties connecting to other students,” Chahid explains. “Because they don’t feel comfortable going to typical student parties, they fill their weekends staying at home and watching Netflix. You can do that for a week or so, but not for the entire six months or three years that you’re studying here. That’s one of the main reasons why I decided to establish a Muslim student association—to help those students explore student life and the Dutch culture more.”
MSA now has around fifty members, from abroad and from the Netherlands. “We share knowledge, insights and struggles,” Chahid says. Aside from weekly lectures and regular religious events, there’s also time for fun. “We like to have movie nights, and we recently had a FIFA tournament, a high tea and a henna workshop.”
The social dimension of student life is important, Chahid says. “I see a lot of Muslim students who just go to university to get good grades, pass their exams and get a degree. Through MSA, I hope I can encourage them to use their student time to explore and develop themselves in other ways too. I believe that’s just as important as getting a diploma.”
Muslim students aren’t stereotyped as being ‘boring’ very often. But they, too, deal with prejudice. “Because Muslims are often in the news very negatively, many people have a negative image of Islam,” Chahid says. “We think it’s important to reach out to non-Muslim students, to start a dialogue. Everyone is welcome to ask us anything. We want MSA to be a place on campus where everyone can come with their questions.”
Tilburg University was once a religious institution. But now, it’s students themselves who are driving a re-engagement with religion on campus. They organize their own activities, social gatherings, prayer meetings and religious discussions. And they do so in their own student-like way.
Although Christian and Muslim students are happy to do their own thing, the university’s Catholic background can at times be quite convenient. “It’s nice that religion is not something strange or unfamiliar on campus,” Chahid says. The prayer room, for example, is a popular hangout spot for religious students. “Because Muslims pray several times a day, we’re there a lot. We get most of our new members from the prayer room. But more importantly, it’s a place where Muslim students can meet other Muslim students.”
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