Jorge Solis lived in an on-campus dorm his freshman year. The walls vibrated with popular music and the shouts and screams of rambunctious freshmen.
It wasn't what he wanted.
So last spring when the sophomore heard about the Newman Center — an on-campus, co-ed faith-based housing facility with 376 beds — he was interested. Solis applied and was hired as a residential assistant following five interviews with Troy's housing office and an arduous application process.
The residents of the Newman Center, Solis said, are seeking an alternative to the stereotypical college lifestyle. Even though Troy University, a public institution in Troy, Ala., is a fairly conservative campus to begin with, students living in the faith-based dorms — which allow members of all faiths, including Christian, Muslim and Hindu — want to avoid temptations, Solis said.
Instead of booming with party music, the Newman Center’s halls are tattooed with religious text and scripture. Auto-tuned and synthesized sounds by celebrities have been replaced with acoustic guitar strings from the residents.
Troy University is just one public school offering faith-based housing. Other schools have recently opened similar buildings, including Florida Institute of Technology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Purdue University in Indiana. Not all facilities are on campus, and some are not affiliated directly with the university at all, but students at each of these places have another option for housing — an option that offers a chance to avoid distractions, build a religious community and continue living a faith-based life.
But not everyone is welcoming the new trend in on-campus housing. In a letter sent to Troy University on Aug. 1, The Freedom From Religious Foundation claimed Troy's on-campus faith-based dorm was illegal because the public university was limiting their beds to Christian students only — something that has since been adjusted. But FFRF is still vowing a legal fight.
Demand from students
Coming back to his college dorm from class, Solis now sees something different.
When the junior steps through the double-door entrance of the Newman Center, rather than stepping over students smoking cigarettes or boozing on beers, he sees students sharing gospel, breaking down the Bible and discussing their day.
“You can feel a power — you can feel something moving them that you don’t see with many other college students," Solis said.
Student demand is the reason for faith-based housing popping up recently, said Matt Zerrusen, president of the Newman Student Housing Fund, which built the facilities at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Florida Institute of Technology and Troy University. He said he and his team surveyed students at different schools and asked them whether they'd like to see faith-based housing options.
It was an overwhelming "yes," he said.
“Students had a desire to live in a place that wasn’t necessarily a party residence hall," Zerrusen said. "It’s a place more traditional; it’s a place with moral values.”
A recent seven-year study by UCLA released in 2010 researched the extent to which students felt unsettled about their religion, disagreed with their family over religion, felt distant from God and questioned their religious beliefs — or "religious struggle," as the study called it. Religious struggle has increased over the years, but experiences and practices that promote spiritual development — like faith-based housing — are counteracting that struggle and giving students comfort, the study said.
And in spite of some students struggling spiritually, religious and spiritual interest is also ongoing for college students nationwide. About 80 percent of college students have a high interest in spirituality and 81 percent attend religious activities while in college, according to UCLA's study. Only 42 percent of surveyed students, though, say they are secure in their beliefs, meaning many students are on a "spiritual quest," according to the study, which surveyed 112,232 first-year students across 236 colleges and universities in the U.S.
Troy University found that its students attend religious activities at a rate higher than the national average, said Dr. John Dew, senior vice chancellor of student affairs at the university. Dew said Troy students like religious activities because they want to be “closer to what might be in line with their family traditions and background." The reason for that, he said, is higher religiosity in the South.
The Newman Center gives them that opportunity.
The faith-based housing facility, which opened in August, asks students to abide by a moral code — or "The Trojan Way," which asks students to "Be respectful; speak appropriately; dress properly for the occasion; behave as a responsible, kind person; adhere to applicable laws and policies" — something the students who apply to live there desire.
Solis wasn't surprised to learn more public schools are opening up faith-based housing.
“People everywhere and anywhere are neglecting their faith, and we want to ... fix that by allowing people to come together," Solis said.
But attorney Andrew Seidel of the FFRF said the existence of the dorms is a legal matter and the U.S. Constitution must be upheld.
“Our Constitution doesn’t care what people want. Period.”
Seidel said a majority of college students aren’t religious. He said the "Catholic church (is) trying to stop the bleeding by invading these schools with these unconstitutional dorms."
Representing the FFRF, which opposes Troy University's facility, Seidel said when he first learned of the case about Troy, the dorm housed only Christian students and was going to specifically hire three Catholic resident assistants and three Protestant resident assistants. Since Seidel wrote his letter to the school, those issues have disappeared, but there are still some concerns — like a chapel in the basement and religious text on the walls — that Seidel is still concerned about.
Not all faith-based residencies are on-campus. Off-campus facilities, like fraternity houses, are shielded from legal issues since the universities do not own the housing options.
The idea of community is a common thread in faith-based college housing.
Phi Kappa Theta at University of Nebraska-Lincoln disbanded in the 1920s. But in 2005, the fraternity returned to "bring back the idea of what a gentleman should be," which includes following Catholic values, said the fraternity’s president Matthew Keller. It's not required for brothers to be Catholic, Keller said, but they must respect the values and traditions of Catholicism.
And because the fraternity is an off-campus residency, and it is free from the legal issues on-campus faith-based housing developments, like Troy, might face.
Before their house — a 30-bed, 21,000-square-foot facility — opened this fall, the brothers of Phi Kappa Theta were spread all throughout campus, which made it hard to build a bond and practice religious beliefs together. Organizing trips and spending time together wasn't easy.
But this year, they're opening their new house, which is the lone faith-based housing option at UNL. Keller said the lifestyle inside the house brings "a lot more relationship-building opportunities than there are in the dorms” to the 60 brotherhood members.
The brothers always eat dinner together, and the relationship they have is something that wouldn't exist without the fraternity, Keller said. Because some members lived together in earlier years in the dorms and off campus, they created bonds with their own circles, but not the brotherhood.
Faith Church is another off-campus faith-based housing facility, and is about a half-mile away from Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. The 119-room facility opened this August, said Arvid Olson, spokesman for Faith Ministries, which owns Faith Church and aims to help evangelical churches.
The facility cost $12 million to build — the bill was split equally between the ministry family and tax-free municipal bonds — and began accepting applications in September 2012. By April of this year, spaces were filled.
Along with living a moral lifestyle — which includes abstaining from alcohol, drugs, illicit sex and improper behavior — students must attend worship on a weekly basis, Olson said.12 comments on this story
“We allow religious students to live out their lifestyle each and everyday," Olson said.
Anytime Solis, the Troy student, is at his dorm, he can't help but notice the students' satisfaction about this kind of lifestyle.
It's not necessarily about living in a house with religious text on the walls or a chapel in the basement, Solis said, but rather having the ability to live in an environment with other believers.
They don't want to lose their dorms, Solis said.
"They love it. They absolutely love it."