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Does Involvement in Christian Student Organizations Serve to Expose or Insulate Indian American Students From the Wider Student Peer Culture? Critical Conversations #27

November 16, 2021 Justin Samuel Costin Thampikutty

JCC Connexions, Vol. 7, No. 4, November 2021

In "Conflict and Community: Outcomes of South Asian Indian American Students’ Involvement Within Christian Student
Organizations" (Journal of College & Character, vol. 22, no. 4, November 2021), Costin Thampikutty, Rutgers University, and
Justin Samuel, The University of Texas at Austin, explored how the experiences of 15 Indian American college
students involved in Christian Student Organizations (CSOs) affected their cocurricular experience and identity development. 

Costin and Justin are this quarter's JCC Connexions Focus Authors, and they recently responded to questions posed by Jon Dalton, JCC co-editor about their research:

1. Does involvement in Christian student organizations serve to expose or insulate Indian American students from the wider student peer culture on campus?

JUSTIN: I believe involvement in South Asian-based Christian student organizations provides Indian American students a platform from which they can understand their identities better, have affinity spaces to share common struggles and celebrations, and build coalitions to amplify causes important to their community.

COSTIN: It really does depend on the racial makeup of the organization because for some of our participants, they were part of monoethnic Christian groups as Justin stated, and these organizations served as spaces where students could enjoy both racial and religious community in addition to their other campus activities. In retrospect, it seems that the multicultural Christian student organizations had more challenges with insulation. I sense a research project bubbling!

2. Did you find that parents of Indian American students were generally supportive of their student’s involvement in Christian student organizations? What were some of their concerns?

JUSTIN: Yes. For many Indian American parents—many of whom arrived as immigrants—having strong-knit communities were vital to the strength and resilience of the individuals. In a similar way, organization involvement gives parents solace to know their students are in similar communities.

COSTIN: As Justin pointed out, there is a certain solace in knowing that their children are practicing their faith in college, especially for those parents who may have had similar groups in India or the United States. However, parents do raise concerns regarding how much time and priority their students are giving to Christian student organizations compared to their academic coursework. I think we’ve all seen instances in which students treat campus activities like full time jobs and Christian student organizations can be equally demanding.

3. Can you briefly describe the religious diversity that is represented in the Indian American college student population?

JUSTIN: Indian Americans—and South Asian American overall—come from a variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds (Fenton, 1995). This includes those who come from Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and other religious communities.

COSTIN: We hope readers find that even within these individual religious groups, there are various denominations and sects, so when we write about intrafaith diversity, there is a variety of rich experiences still left to explore, amplify, and appreciate.

4. How did involvement in Christian student organizations affect participants’ interpersonal relationships and social supports?

COSTIN: Based on the study, we found that some Indian Christians may not feel “Indian” enough sometimes to join an Indian Student Association due to their religious identity because Indian and broader South Asian American student groups may hold their keystone events around other religious observances including Diwali, Garba, etc. This isn’t to say that Indian cultural groups are purposely exclusionary, just that they might not always be the most comfortable community for Indian Christian students. Therefore, Christian student organization involvement was a high priority for our participants because they served as spaces where ethnic identity and faith could smoothly intertwine.

5. Do Christian student organizations serve as vehicles for an increased sense of belonging on campus for Indian American students?

JUSTIN: Yes. Beyond just a group with a shared identity, student organizations serve as affinity spaces where Indian American students can make friends, support each other academically, network for future career opportunities, and even find romantic partners. In some cases, graduates of the institution and alumni of these organizations continue to give back to current students in meaningful advisory and financial ways. Over the years, this thread has helped Indian American students experience a sense of belonging to their respective campuses.

COSTIN: And it’s not only Christian Indian American students either! I can’t overstate the importance of exploring Dr. Samuel’s study on South Asian American students’ sense of belonging and the intersections between culture and faith (Samuel, 2019).

6. Some campus religious groups are heavily involved in proselytization. Was this a problem experienced by the Indian American students you studied?

COSTIN: Great question! In terms of proselytization, the biggest issue our Christian participants faced was separating themselves from their peers’ direct and indirect experiences with extremist Christian campus preachers and mainstream hate groups. Using one of the parachurch organizations, we recruited participants from, as an example, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and their campus chapters have their own code of ethics regarding Christian witness that I think seems antithetical to the unethical and aggressive behavior we might observe from an extremist preacher or group. Still, our participants struggled to figure out how to express their faith and communicate across these preconceived notions while establishing their theological detachment from Christian extremism. At the same time however, not all our students understood where the preconceived notions came from or felt the need to detach, which presents its own set of problems. In future work, my goal is to investigate how evangelical students of color understand and address social justice issues in conjunction with their theological beliefs and racial identities. Earlier this year, NASPA held its “Mobilizing Conservative Christian Students in Racial Justice Discourse and Action” live briefing, so there’s definitely some great momentum in this area. Stay tuned!

 References

Fenton, J. (1995). South Asian religions in the Americas: An annotated bibliography of immigrant religious traditions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

Samuel, J. T. (2019). Faith and chai: Exploring sense of belonging and intersections of cultural and spiritual identities in South Asian American college students [Doctoral dissertation], UT Electronic Theses and Dissertations. https:// repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/76770