Manal Hasan sat in her University of Wisconsin-Madison dorm room — feeling friendless, roommateless and absolutely alone. Coming from a town where all of her friends were white and Christian, college would be the first time Hasan would find people who shared her Muslim identity.
But since Hasan entered college during the pandemic, she said she felt utterly isolated.
Hasan reports she was later able to find her community after attending an intimate COVID-safe brunch at the Muslim Student Association religious organization. “I saw these people and realized that we all believe in the same things,” Hasan said. “The ability to practice who I am and be who I am … I wanted to come back every time.”
On a campus as large as UW-Madison, religious organizations provide safe havens to connect with those of similar identity, making a big campus feel more intimate. As reflected on by campus religious leaders, keeping students engaged during the pandemic was complicated. To preserve the essential communities formed within, UW-Madison’s religious organizations relentlessly worked to adjust as the pandemic evolved.
It becomes apparent that students grew a greater appreciation for religious outlets they priorly took for granted. Religious organizations are vital for connecting students with their culture and aligning students in communities of common identity. More so, during such uncertain and ever-changing times, it is clear that students need faith to cope with crises.
Muslim Student Association (MSA): Muslim Religious Life
As a current sophomore, Hasan serves as the Sisters Coordinator for the MSA, planning social events specifically for women.
The MSA offers spiritual, cultural and social interactions on campus, connecting Muslims, and creating a space for the free practice of Islam.
Most events at the start of the pandemic and during the 2020 to 2021 academic year were virtual, leading to a decrease in attendance. According to MSA leaders, it was difficult to organize virtual events that members were excited to attend. To maintain community, MSA leaders organized in-person, small group meals and praying sessions whenever possible.
The introduction of vaccines allowed Hasan and other MSA leaders to stage a more-typical kickoff event at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, yielding a record 150 Muslim students.
In reflection of her first year at UW-Madison, Hasan realized the MSA helped her find community in a year of virtual interaction, to the point where she now leads the group.
Badger Cru: Christian Religious Life
In similar regard, Dylan Henrickson — a UW-Madison junior serving as Master of Ceremonies of Badger Cru — feels drawn to the Christian community each week.
Cru is a nondenominational Christian group that offers spiritual guidance and connects students through prayer and on-campus programs, such as keynote speakers and a student-led gospel. Each Thursday, Cru draws approximately 250 to 300 students to gather on-campus at Upper House.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Cru switched to Zoom gatherings, a pattern that continued into the fall of 2020. Campus regulations prevented Cru from access to Upper House or any other campus building.
According to Henrickson, it was difficult for him and other members to maintain the Cru community virtually.
“In-person is just so much easier to be connected. You can actually see people face to face and be like ‘they are kind of on the same wavelength as me,’” said Henrickson. “Whereas when you are online you feel alone, and being alone in your faith can be a challenge.”
In the spring of 2021, the off-campus High Point Church offered their space to the Cru students, so Cru leaders coordinated carpooling as many students as possible to High Point each Thursday. Henrickson notes there were fewer attendees than at Upper House, but in his perspective, connections with peers were improved. The present 2021 to 22 school year has allowed for Cru’s return to Upper House, restoring attendance to its pre-pandemic range.
For Cru leaders like Henrickson, it has always been about maintaining the Christian community. Henrickson said, “growing in your faith stems a lot from your time, but also from learning from others… having the community around you is something you can really treasure and learn from.”
UW-Chabad: Jewish Religious Life
Rabbi Mendel Matusof — leader of the UW Chabad House — similarly longed for in-person religious life, solidifying his decision that he was not going to be any stricter than the law required during the pandemic.
Chabad is a Jewish center, designed to fulfill the needs of the Jewish community from education to prayer and mental health. In a normal year, Chabad holds in-person gatherings for the Jewish holidays and weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners, offering a form of community to hundreds of Jewish students each week.
According to Matusof, he found value in seeing everyone enjoying themselves and smiling at the dinner table. During the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Chabad offered meals-to-go for the Jewish holidays and weekly Shabbat dinners, but Matusof found celebrating separately to be unfulfilling.
Returning for the fall 2020 semester, Matusof installed a text message system. Interested students could register for Shabbat dinners in socially distanced groups of 25, in compliance with the Dane County limit.
Matusof believes the pandemic created a year where much less was happening, and many students became trapped in their pods. Chabad offered “a space to go out, a space to relax,” said Matusof.
Like other religious groups on campus, Matusof was dedicated to maintaining what he saw as essential communities during the pandemic.
“COVID is not something that should destroy our lives. Having a social life is also important, said Matusof. “It was coming from a good place to be extra strict but it has negative ramifications of not providing community.”
Religious organizations have always been part of students' identity on the UW-Madison campus. They connect students with like-minded peers and provide pockets of sanctuary. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was unique, complicating social interactions and conceptions of community.
As uncovered, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a greater appreciation for religious organizations. After an apocalyptic era of isolation and self-reflection, religious orgs that ease conceptions of belonging and invoke hope for the future are a vital necessity.
Em-J Krigsman is an Opinion Editor for The Daily Cardinal. She is a sophomore studying Political Science and Journalism. Do you agree with the importance of religious organizations? Send all comments to email@example.com.
Em-J is an Opinion Editor for The Daily Cardinal, and is also a member of the Editorial Board.