For families with high school seniors, autumn means navigating the turbulent waters of the college application process. A year ago, our daughter was in the midst of this process, and along with many other formative lessons, it forced her to rehearse how she would present her religious identity to the world. It turns out that the “Common Application” used by most colleges asks for the applicant’s “religious preference” (though some colleges make a point of insisting that they screen out and do not consider that religion information). My daughter wrote, “Interfaith: Jewish and Christian.” Goodness only knows what college admissions officers made of this bold declaration. Presumably, the colleges that do look at this information are seeking some kind of religious diversity on campus. To paraphrase Martin Buber, I hope they embrace the “other.”
While surfing around trying to figure out why colleges ask for religious identity, I came across an interesting post from a college applicant from an interfaith family on College Confidential, the online site populated by stressed-out college applicants and their parents. This applicant wrote, “I have a Jewish name, but I’m Christian. If I put Christian & the admissions people know my name is Jewish, will it look like I’m lying?” Her conundrum resonates with me: many interfaith children face the fact that society assigns them a different religious identity from the one they chose (or the one their parents chose for them). And please note that these identity challenges occur whether our parents choose one religion, two religions, or no religions for us.
Meanwhile, my husband took on the task of filling out the financial aid forms, and was surprised to learn that those forms also ask for the student’s religion. I can only imagine that this information helps colleges match students with scholarships reserved for students of a particular faith. That idea set me off on an extended reverie in which I somehow become a wealthy philanthropist, and dedicate myself to funding projects to help interfaith families. Perhaps I would set up college scholarships for students who claim the interfaith religious label, and ask the applicants to write an essay on one of these topics:
1. What do you see as the benefits of being an interfaith child?
2. How has your education in more than one religion contributed to your ideas about religion, faith and spirituality?
3. How do you plan to use your interfaith knowledge and background to make the world a better place?
Come to think of it, I have no scholarships to offer at this time, but if any interfaith high school or college student wants to answer one of these questions in an essay, submit it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will consider running it as a guest blogpost. And who knows, it might come in handy on college or graduate school applications.