Off to College? Let the Self-discovery Begin

Starting this week, many college campuses are welcoming masses of teenagers and newly-minted adults leaving home for the first time. With the fall semester officially starting soon, many young people have little time to adjust to their new settings and the added responsibilities of time management.

One of the most important aspects of college life is what students do outside of the classroom, particularly as it relates to self-discovery and personal growth. Different college campuses foster the gamut of cultural environments, which directly shape how students develop themselves.

For some parents, one of the biggest sources of concern is whether their children will maintain their religious upbringing in college. This is especially true among Hindu families, as more second- and third-generation young Hindus are enrolling at universities across the country. When I was a professor, numerous parents asked me to "protect" their children from bad influences (alcohol, dating) or to encourage them to carry on traditions they had learned at home. Unfortunately, that's not the reality of college life and I certainly wasn't going to prevent students from experiencing it on their own terms. But I do empathize with parents' concerns, even if they are misguided and perhaps overreacting, because I'm sure that's what my parents experienced almost two decades ago when they sent me off to college 1,200 miles away from home.

When I was growing up, I was more ritualistic than religious. I didn't understanding the meanings behind the Hindu prayers I recited on a daily basis and I didn't really care to know. I had stopped trying to explain my religion to my friends and sought to downplay my heritage. When I went to the University of Minnesota, which seemed like a world away from my suburban Philadelphia upbringing, I was forced to appreciate the fact that I was alone -- no family and no familiar surroundings -- for the first time in my life. In my dorm, I created a small altar of deities my dad had given me and repeated the prayers I had learned throughout my youth.

Though I still didn't really understand most of the prayers, they gave me a sense of home. Even though my parents were a three-hour flight away, the altar and the prayers made me feel close to them and provided comfort during my freshman year. That became one of the first steps of my self-discovery.

The second epiphany about my need to learn more about my religion came from the fact that on an almost daily basis, I ran into fellow students who would try to convert me to Christianity. One day, I was at the gym when a student offered to spot me on the bench. As I was adding more weight, he talked about joining him and his church friends for a football game. I said I'd be interested. He then said that I should join them for a prayer service afterwards since it was only natural that service would follow some hard tackling. When I declined his offer, he abruptly walked away, leaving about 180 pounds stuck on my chest. Was it something I said?

Beyond the daily annoyance of having students proselytizing to me, I knew that in order to better understand what it meant to be a Hindu, I had to actually start reading key parts of Hindu philosophy. I read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time at the age of 20 -- my third year in college -- and began to slowly but surely start asking questions about the meanings of the prayers I was reciting on a daily basis. I was finally starting to really know why I was a Hindu.

Perhaps the biggest catalyst of my understanding, however, was having three of my closest friends in college serve as my spiritual sounding boards. My friends Jontue, a Jehovah's Witness; Darrin, who was raised in a devout Christian household in Detroit; and DJ, a self-described spiritualist, were always up for conversations about religion and understanding its practice in daily life. Sometimes, we'd go from the club to an all-night diner and talk religion, getting into lively debates about reconciling the secular from the sacred. To this day, those three are among my best friends and continue to engage me in ways that broaden my application of Hinduism. Despite our religious differences, they have in many ways served as my gurus in introspection and the quest for greater truths.

I never dreamed when I began college that this would be my path for self-discovery and I couldn't have asked for a better outcome. Indeed, this generation of students from Hindu households will find their own paths, perhaps leading to similar discoveries of their faith and the fulfillment that comes with it. More importantly, they can use that self-discovery as inspiration for becoming agents of change. As the great 20th century Hindu saint Ramana Maharishi once said, "Wanting to reform the world without discovering one's true self is like trying to cover the world with wool to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes." Let the learning begin.