Originally published Nov. 30, 2011

This fall, Grand Valley State University Housing and Residence Life put freshmen Lisa DeBone and Alyssa Osterhoff together in a four-person suite in the Neimeyer Living Center.

DeBone is Christian, Osterhoff is atheist, and although Niemeyer Living Director Leena Karsan said she has never dealt with nor heard of religious conflict in the Honors dorm, Osterhoff and DeBone spend a good deal of time at odds on matters of faith.

“Arguments can get heated, but never enough for us to really be pissed off at each other,” DeBone said. “Neither of us expect the other one to change anything.”

Osterhoff agreed and added that the debates are civil. “I don’t think we personally attack one another with the intent of making the other feel bad,” she said.

Although DeBone and Osterhoff said their arguments do not diminish their strong friendship, another roommate, freshman Katie Mehrer, said the debates cause a lot of tension.

“For the most part we get along, but I think religion is the biggest problem we have in our room,” Mehrer said. “In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if people have different religious views, I just think that people should respect the beliefs of others.”

Bart Merkle, dean of students at GVSU, said he encourages students to work through religious differences and learn how to cooperate with people of different backgrounds. Still, he said, students are not expected to surrender their personal beliefs for the sake of coexistence.

“The challenge for the university is how to try to help students be able to resolve those conflicts in a way that they can be comfortable with,” Merkle said. “That inevitably sometimes results in some compromises that people have to make.”

He said exposure to diverse lifestyles and development of tolerance can broaden a student’s educational experience, and not all compromises are negative ones.

“I’m not sure that it is educationally in the best interest of students to insulate themselves,” he said. “I think that a good education often challenges us to learn and to be outside of our comfort zones. I worry sometimes that students shy away from anything that challenges them or presents them with a different way of viewing the world from what they’ve experienced. I think that’s an important aspect of one’s education.”

For Osterhoff and DeBone, their religious differences have not caused long-term animosity, and both say their quarrels are short-lived. However, other on-campus residents say they have endured longer bouts of religious tension and even transferred dorms because of religious conflict.

Zachary Blumstein, a freshman who identifies as Jewish, switched dorms a month into this fall semester after being called a “dirty Jew” and hearing other prejudicial remarks from neighbors.

“My neighbors didn’t like that I talked about the Jewish stuff that I did at home,” Blumstein said. He recalled one argument with his former roommate in which he was told Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Blumstein said an ignorance of Jewish culture, food and faith caused insurmountable misunderstandings between him, his Christian roommate and his floor-mates.

Andy Beachnau, director of Housing and Health Services at GVSU, said the administration does not currently consider religious identity when pairing roommates and has no intention of doing so in the future. And as for all of the religious tension students like Osterhoff, DeBone, Mehrer and Blumstein experience, Merkle said it’s relatively normal.

“Because GVSU is such a large institution, the administration cannot hope to alleviate all tension,” Merkle said. “Anytime you have a housing system, particularly with first-year students who are living together, you’re inevitably going to have some conflicts relative to different ways of living, different beliefs, attitudes, a whole variety of things. In a university community, there’s always going to be some tensions there.”

During the 2010-2011 school year, there was just one bias incident reported regarding religion. The 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years each also had one reported bias incident related to faith.

Victims of bias of any kind can report the incident online at www.gvsu.edu/inclusion/?action=home.bias_incidents.

 

Original publication: http://www.lanthorn.com/article/2011/11/in_good_faith

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