International Students Face Sacred Struggles

By Amanda Joerndt
Brianna Gleghorn

A Buddhist international student traveled from Sri Lanka to study mechanical engineering. She later realized the difficulties she would face in practicing her religion.

Hasaru Kodytuakku, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, is one of three Sri Lankan students enrolled at Youngstown State University. 

Although the Andrews Student Recreation and Wellness Center and Jones Hall installed meditation and prayer spaces, students still resort to traveling off campus to practice their religion.

 Kodytuakku said practicing Buddhism can be an obstacle at times due to the lack of Buddhist temples in the area. 

She resorts to worshipping in her dorm room.

Hasaru Kodytuakku worships in her dorm room with a self-made temple by using a wooden stool to hold her worship items. Photo Courtesy of Hasaru Kodytuakku

“I wish there were at least one temple nearby, but there are two temples in Pittsburgh. But still, even those temples are not the actual temples we have [back home],” Kodytuakku said. 

She said her daily practices consist of worshipping, offering flowers and lighting an oil lamp and incense.

“I have a private room, so I have a stool set up for worshipping with a Buddhist statue there,” Kodytuakku said. “The thing is, I can’t actually light a lamp because we have smoke alarms, so I can’t actually use the incense, and it’s hard to find flowers to offer to Lord Buddha.” 

She said although she attends the Nepalese Student Association festivals, she hopes YSU will add additional resources for students who have different worship practices.

“It’s impossible to build a temple for Buddhists. But maybe just a room to practice having Lord Buddha and letting us have the chance to do whatever we usually do, like offer flowers, light oil lamps … the things we can’t do in our dorm room,” she said.

According to Kodytuakku, she hopes to form a bigger circle of students who practice Buddhism and that another Sri Lankan student will enroll at the university.

YSU’s student body is made up of various religious identities, such as Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim groups.

While some students can travel within walking distance to a Jewish synagogue on Elm Street, Buddhist students can find their nearest place of worship at a temple near Pittsburgh. 

Practicing Islam in Youngstown

Many Muslim students resort to the two meditation facilities in the rec center and Jones Hall for religion practices. 

Cameron Adams, assistant director of operations and guest services at the rec center, said although some students use the meditation room on a regular basis, he feels the room is underutilized. 

“They find it really useful because it’s quiet and tucked in and just a nice place to come in and meditate and do whatever stuff you need to do in here,” he said.

According to Adams, the room holds different equipment for religious practices along with running water for tranquil meditation sessions.

“I think there’s just a lot of students that practice some type of religious belief, and they need the space to do that and feel comfortable,” he said. “We have the water running to make it a tranquil and calming setting.” 

Adams said because a public institution “can’t mix church and state,” the meditation room was the next best option. 

“It was one of those things where the donors who put up the money wanted to have some type of church or chapel-funded thing. … So, we compromised and came up with the meditation studio space,” he said. 

Carly Devenburgh, assistant director of international student and scholar services at the YSU International Programs Office, said Jones Hall built prayer rooms along with nearby hand and feet washing centers for student use.

“For the Muslim students, some of the students also do a foot wash and they wash their face, their hands and their feet before they pray,” she said. “That is something that our office recognized. Students were using the bathrooms, and we just didn’t think that was respectful or safe practice.” 

According to Devenburgh, she believes the university can be more accommodating to different faith beliefs. 

“I think there is more that we can do in that area. Maybe looking at our website, making sure different temples or, you know, different religious sites are available so that we can point especially new students that might be new to the area,” she said. 

Like Kodytuakku, Taufeeque Mohammad, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, resorts to off-campus resources as a more efficient alternative to practice his religion.

Mohammad travels to the Youngstown Islamic Center in between classes to continue practicing Islam while studying at YSU.

Taufeeque Mohammad poses in front of the Youngstown Islamic Center sign before a prayer service on Nov. 15. Photo by Heather Newsome/The Jambar

He said the practices are much different in the United States versus those in his home in Nepal. 

“We are supposed to pray five times a day and men are supposed to pray at the mosque. Women are supposed to pray at the house,” Mohammad said. “In my country, they don’t let women in the mosque. I don’t understand why, but up here it’s a different scenario.” 

He said when the International Programs Office mentioned forming an Islamic center on campus, not many students seemed interested. 

“Many people just find it better to go to the mosques,” Mohammad said.

According to Devenburgh, the International Programs Office will be welcoming a new coordinator to YSU in hopes of bringing innovative ideas to connect different cultures on campus. 

“We’re anxious to see what ideas she might have and how she might connect with students, so this might be one of those areas that we could work on,” Devenburgh said.

The meditation room provides students with different cultural items for appropriate prayer or worship. Photo by Heather Newsome/The Jambar

The Teachings of Judaism and YSU Students 

The Jewish population in the greater Youngstown area is “not the size that it once was,” according to Hunter Thomas, a YSU alumnus and a program director for the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown. 

Thomas is in the process of converting to Judaism after finding his passion for the religion through his experience at the JCC. 

“It was like this pull that some of my coworkers who aren’t Jewish really didn’t have,” Thomas said. “I went to synagogue for the first time in August 2018, and it just clicked, and I felt right at home.” 

He said he found his passion in the middle of his senior year in 2018, making it challenging at times to balance school and religious priorities. 

“There was a really great learning opportunity there for me to help my classmates and professors understand what a student who is practicing Judaism and going to school might need,” Thomas said. 

According to Thomas, he spent his time practicing at Congregation Rodef Sholom on Elm Street, giving him a place to study his religion during his free time. 

I started meeting with Rabbi [Franklin] Muller at Congregation Rodef Sholom to do more deep dives into topics that I was interested in, which for me are the idea of God and social justice,” he said. 

Sarah Wilschek, executive director of Congregation Rodef Sholom, said the synagogue welcomes YSU students who are seeking a place for religious studies.

“We’re right off the campus of YSU,” Wilschek said. “We most notably host students for high holidays, so if they’re Jewish students on campus that really look for a place to go for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, they are welcome to come here and it’s open to all.”

According to Wilschek, students frequently attend Shabbat services to learn more about the religion for class purposes or their personal benefit. 

“We also host Shabbat services almost every Friday night and one Saturday a month,” she said. “We’ll get YSU students coming from different classes that need to observe services from a different religion from their own or students who want to know more about the religion.” 

Jacob Labendz, assistant professor of Judaic and Holocaust Studies, said although his job is to educate students about Jewish culture, he is still open to talking with students about Judaism.

“In terms of religious programming, we don’t have anyone on campus doing that. … I’m happy to teach about and through religion, but we don’t have any place for students to go officially,” he said.

The Andrews Rec Center meditation room gives students a quiet and peaceful place for prayer or meditation needs. Photo by Heather Newsome/The Jambar

Buddhist and Hinduism Practices 

Michael Jerryson, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, said, in his opinion, most people are not educated on different Buddhist practices.

According to Jerryson, holidays that follow the Christian celebrations are widely accepted and observed, whereas celebrations of other religions are not. 

Sadly, people don’t know enough about Buddhism,” he said. “We can see this also in the fact that the Buddhist holidays are just ignored.”

Jerryson said when international students travel to YSU, they are outside of their familiar traditions and placed in a new environment.

“When you travel abroad outside the United States, you want to find these expat communities,” Jerryson said. “Where you can go to a church and at least feel like if you’re Christian that, ‘Ah, there’s some familiarity’ because you get bombarded with culture shock.”

Shilpa Bhandari, a junior math and computer science major, said as a member of the Nepalese Student Association she encourages domestic and international students to engage and intermix more frequently. 

“I just think it would be better if domestic students hung out with international students,” she said. “Even in our events, we do not see a lot of domestic students, but we want to promote that diversity, right?”

She said the only issue she has encountered on campus is with her dietary restrictions.

“In the Hindu religion, we do not eat beef, pork. We worship cows. So, for me, the food part has been a little challenge because beef is everywhere,” Bhandari said. 

The sanctuary in Congregation Rodef Sholom is within walking distance of YSU.  Photo by Heather Newsome/The Jambar