In an effort to increase visibility and accessibility to religious accommodations, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), the Office of Religion and Spiritual Life (ORSL), and students from the Interfaith Council have worked to create a more comprehensive multifaith calendar. The multifaith calendar serves as a resource for faculty, student group leaders, and other members of the campus community when scheduling important dates.
University Jewish Chaplain and Director of the ORSL Rabbi David Teva expressed his hope that the multifaith calendar will encourage faculty to be more aware of the needs of students of faith and will foster greater dialogue about equity and inclusion within the classroom.
“Students often feel that they need to choose between observing their specific faith tradition and going to class,” Teva wrote in an email to The Argus. “With the calendar, we hope that students will be proactive in contacting faculty members prior to a holiday. We also hope that faculty will be supportive of students’ observance of religious and spiritual practices.”
Discussions to improve religious accommodations began with a WSA resolution introduced and unanimously passed in December 2018 aimed at amending the religious life calendar to ensure that faculty are more mindful about the diverse needs of students of faith on campus. Emma Austin ’19 and Roseanne Ng ’19 sponsored the resolution.
“Wesleyan did previously have a multi-faith calendar, but it was very bare-boned and very difficult to navigate to, even if you were intentionally looking for it,” Ng wrote in a recent email to The Argus. “In terms of the aims and role of the current calendar, we understand that it’s not a cure-all by any means, but we felt that it was an important step in raising awareness and making it easier for students to obtain accommodations if needed.”
Ng further explained that the inspiration to create a more comprehensive resource came from the Williams College Religious Holiday Calendar.
“We felt that the Williams calendar was a great model because it includes several things, such as a lengthy preface stating that it is college policy to accommodate students who wish to participate in religious observances without any adverse or prejudicial effects,” Ng wrote. “We felt it was important to ensure these were elements of the new Wesleyan calendar.”
WSA President Justin Ratkovic ’20 noted that the multifaith calendar currently serves as a necessary resource, but emphasized that it is just that: a resource. Currently, there are few to no syllabi requirements that faculty are required to follow.
“One of the major issues is that there are very few requirements regarding what professors must include in their syllabus,” Ratkovic wrote in an email to The Argus. “The Academic Affairs Committee Chair has been working with the Educational Policy Committee and Faculty Governance to make religious accommodations and the calendar more of a requirement for faculty.”
Reflecting on the current status of religious accommodations, Ori Cantwell ’22, a student leader on the Interfaith Council, spoke to the challenges that arise when faculty are not proactive in providing accommodations for students of faith.
“I study in the religion department, and they’re always considerate of religious students’ needs, but that’s the religion department,” Cantwell wrote in an email to The Argus. “I know that Intro Biology had an exam on Rosh Hashanah this year, though. Even when professors are flexible about letting religious students take an exam before or after a holiday, it’s still difficult for the student, and so it would be best if exams just weren’t scheduled on holidays.”
Melisa Olgun ’20, another student leader on the Interfaith Council, echoed a similar sentiment, noting that students of faith are often forced to make a choice between observing a religious holy day and completing exams.
“It really does vary by department,” Olgun said. “I’ve noticed that in my larger STEM classes, there has been little consideration for the religious needs of students. Often, professors have a zero tolerance policy, where if a student cannot attend an exam—with the exception of extreme illness—they will not be offered accommodations. As such, students are less likely to open discussions about their religious needs and sacrifice their religious activities for exams.”
These steps towards improving the state of religious accommodations have also sparked greater dialogue surrounding the challenges students of faith face within the broader Wesleyan climate.
“Wesleyan has a lot of work to do. There are multiple layers of problems that students of faith experience on campus, and it’s really difficult to dissect it all,” Olgun said. “Part of an ideal solution is unpacking the general ‘judginess’ that students of faith feel by other students on campus, which generally translates to the way that faith events are perceived on campus. I really think that students who aren’t particularly religious don’t think that one can be both religious and liberal/‘Wes,’ which is far from the truth.”
Cantwell also commented on the stigma that surrounds religious practice and how it contributes to a campus climate that disregards the needs and concerns of students of faith.
“I wish more students were more comfortable with religion on campus,” Cantwell said. “I think I’m definitely in a Wesleyan Jewish Community bubble a lot of the time, and I think part of that is because I’ve encountered secular students who think it’s weird that I’m so committed to my religious community.”
As many students have referenced the campus climate as difficult to navigate as students of faith, Teva expressed a desire for the campus community to demonstrate a more concerted effort toward understanding the diversity of student needs. Teva also encouraged students to reach out the chaplains at ORSL if they have questions or concerns.
“Wesleyan is religiously and spiritually a very diverse place,” Teva said. “We tried to explain the details of many religious holiday practices (like fasting) so faculty and coaches would be more understanding and sympathetic to what is for many students on this campus at the core of their identities.”
Moving forward, Olgun expressed a hope for open dialogue to continue addressing how to further ensure University policies reflect the commitment to equity and inclusion.
“I think having a more open conversation with students about religious accommodations would be a good first step,” Olgun said. “Putting a statement either in the syllabus or some part of the course description would be a great step in showing solidarity towards students of faith. I also think that a conversation regarding the fact that students–even within the same faith tradition–observe differently is equally as important because it would not pressure students to act one way or another. This way, students can feel heard with their religious accommodations.”
Serena Chow can be reached at email@example.com.