Chaplains in religious garments from different traditions interacting
Category: Spirit of Georgetown

Title: What It’s Like To Attend Georgetown as a Non-Catholic: Takeaways From Current and Former Students

Date Published: January 25, 2022
Young Ari Filler walking with his rabbi, cantor and family down an aisle
Ari Filler with his rabbi and cantor followed by his moms and sister during his bar mitzvah in 2013.

Filler continued his weekly practice of attending Shabbat, and recently attended the Shabbaton: Jewish Life Retreat at the Calcagnini Contemplative Center — Georgetown’s retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The first Catholic university to hire a full-time rabbi, Georgetown offers lots of opportunities to participate in Jewish life through services, retreats, co-curricular groups, academic engagement and more. 

Filler was also eager to learn about other faith traditions at Georgetown. He attended services in the Georgetown Masjid and Copley Crypt, and looks back fondly on the mini Catholic mass his first-year residential minister would say in his New South apartment before serving brownies on Thursday nights.

“I think there’s a lot you can learn not just about other faiths, but also about your own faith and the value of faith to you by interacting with people from other religions and learning about other religions.”

In doing so, he found connections between the Jesuit values and his own faith — particularly the Jewish concept of b’tselem elohim — that all people were made “in the image of God.”

“We cannot have any sort of hate in our hearts because all humans are made in the image of God,” says Ari. “I think there’s definitely a meaningful overlap there with the concept of cura personalis — care for the whole person, care for every person — which seems to be inherently because we’re all children of God in some sense.”

Jesuit Values By Another Name

Doha Maaty stands in front of a an ornate framed prayer
Doha Maaty at Georgetown’s Masjid in front of the Ayat-al-Kursi, the 255th verse of the 2nd chapter in the Quran. “It is considered a prayer and a treasure and is recommended to be memorized and recited daily, especially after waking up and before going to sleep as a form of protection,” says Maaty.

Doha Maaty (NHS’23) moved from Egypt to Montana when she was five years old. She grew up practicing Islam with her family, but did not know many other Muslim Americans her age. When choosing a college, Maaty was looking for bigger Muslim and Arab communities to feel a part of.

“The journey that I was on was one that I think a lot of Muslim Americans face because we tend to not see a lot of representation in our broader communities,” says Maaty. “By going to college, it’s something that helped push me, and I’m sure others as well, to find my own path and my own representation and spark for my religion.”

Before she made her final decision, she was surprised to find a handwritten note from Georgetown’s Muslim chaplain, Yahya Hendi, expressing his excitement about her acceptance and welcoming her to the Georgetown community.

“I didn’t realize that that was something that people had on campus — an Imam, like an actual Muslim leader to be there, especially at a Jesuit institution.”

In fact, Georgetown was the first American university to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain in 1999. Encouraged by Imam Hendi’s note and excited about the prospect of studying in Washington, DC, Maaty chose Georgetown. 

In one of her first acts as a global health major, Maaty enrolled in CURA: A Healthcare Pre-Orientation Program, which leverages Georgetown’s Jesuit values to help explain the obligations of a career in health care. While she was expecting more of a focus on medicine than Jesuit identity in the program, she was surprised by how much the Jesuit values intersected with many in her own faith.

“The Greater Glory of God is also something that can be seen throughout Islam and the history and practices — even as simple as just being able to be there for something bigger than yourself,” says Maaty. “Women and men for others — being there and listening and taking care of people, serving them, visiting the sick, being kind, and so many other beliefs and practices — those are such big points in Islam that represent a lot of how we carry ourselves as Muslims.”

“We cannot have any sort of hate in our hearts because all humans are made in the image of God. I think there’s definitely a meaningful overlap there with the concept of cura personalis — care for the whole person, care for every person — which seems to be inherently because we’re all children of God in some sense.”

— Ari Filler (SFS’23)

Maaty found a Muslim community at Georgetown, and is now president of the Muslim Student Association, where she often brings together different religious organizations. In pursuing a Justice and Peace Studies (JUPS) minor, Maaty hopes to connect her faith, academic interests and extracurricular work to bring about a more peaceful world. 

“That’s one of the reasons I ended up going into the JUPS minor,” says Maaty. “I wanted to understand how I can look to the ‘other side’ and integrate justice and peace into conversations and have that holistic understanding of who people are and what ‘different’ communities can do to help each other.”

‘The Common Goal of Humanity’

Shana Shin (MSB’22) describes her parents as “very Buddhist.” In coming to Georgetown, she was curious to gain an academic perspective on her family’s Buddhism tradition. In her junior year, Shin enrolled in Buddhism and Film, taught by Professor Francisca Cho. 

Shin was surprised to learn how many of her own values — values she thought she held independently of any religion or culture — were actually informed by Buddhism. She was also surprised to find how interested non-Buddhist students were in learning about her religion.

“In class where a lot of non-Buddhist students expressed their interest in learning Buddhism and showing their understanding of…the religion that has a very different view of the world was very inspiring,” Shin says.

Shana Shin and her parents meditate on prayer mats at a meditation center in South Korea.
Shana Shin and her parents meditate on prayer mats at a meditation center in South Korea.

Following the class, Shin wanted to learn more — about Buddhism, about Buddhism on a Catholic and Jesuit campus and about the benefits of interreligious understanding. So she started a blog project in partnership with Campus Ministry.

“In a broader sense, there are so many conflicts in the world that are caused by different religious beliefs,” says Shin. “Focusing on understanding the differences but at the same time understanding the commonalities and emphasizing the common goal of humanity in general will be important for us to deal with the conflicts in the world and ultimately collaborate with each other.”

“I wanted to understand how I can look to the ‘other side’ and integrate justice and peace into conversations and have that holistic understanding of who people are and what ‘different’ communities can do to help each other.”

— Doha Maaty (NHS’23)

Georgetown was the first American university to hire a full-time Hindu chaplain, who also serves students of other Dharmic faiths such as Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism as the director of Hindu and Dharmic Life.

A December 2021 graduate, Shin takes her next steps toward building a more peaceful world with a greater appreciation for the role religion plays in her life and the lives of others.

“I’m very confident that my Georgetown experience helped me to develop understanding not only Buddhism, but also other religions as well,” she says.

Writing Your Own Life Story

Grace Smith (C’18) did not choose Georgetown because she is Catholic. In fact, she chose Georgetown in large part because she’s not.

Smith grew up celebrating holidays across all types of religious and cultural traditions that were important to those around her: Christmas and Easter for her dad; Passover for her dad’s best friend; Diwali for her best friend; and Chinese New Year for herself.

“My mom would always say that we grew up on the combo platter of religions,” says Smith.

When it came time to pick a college, Smith wanted to find a place where she could continue to challenge and refine her beliefs.

Though Georgetown was the first Catholic university to establish an LGBTQ Resource Center in 2008 — a center Smith would go on to be be very involved with during her time at Georgetown — she was worried about how her queer identity and “combo platter” religious background would fit with Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit values.

Grace Smith in Red Square wearing an orange "I am" T-shirt and holding a sign that says "I promise to be brave"
Grace Smith promised to “be brave” during Coming Out Day in Georgetown’s Red Square in 2015.

Ultimately, Smith decided she wanted that tension — a place where she could further her own personal and academic growth by discovering how her identity fit into Georgetown’s.

“Attending Georgetown as a non-Catholic student means challenging yourself to figure out who and what you are going to show up for,” says Smith. “It’s a powerful opportunity for self-definition.”

She was surprised by what she found.

When Smith arrived on campus, she found stability and familiarity in regularly attending Shabbat services, just as Filler did. But she continued to explore other services that were meaningful to her friends as she had when she was younger. 

Ultimately, Smith found that exploring different faith traditions was not contrary to Georgetown’s Jesuit, Catholic mission — it was essential to advancing interreligious understanding. 

“It didn’t feel antithetical to the Catholic mission or Jesuit mission of the school in so much as I feel like it embodied the best hope that Georgetown could have,” she says.

Filler’s exploration of his faith deepened not only his connection to the Jewish community at Georgetown, but began to change his outlook, too. 

“I’ve definitely become more religious since getting to Georgetown,” says Filler. “In high school, I don’t think anyone would have characterized me being this way, but now a lot of people I meet describe me as wildly optimistic, or just always seeing the sunny side of things. And I think that’s in large part because of Judaism.”

Like others who deepened their faith through community connections, academic study and encounters with other religions, Maaty understands through her own Muslim faith tradition that the journey toward interreligious understanding is deeply personal — but Georgetown will help each person along the way.

“Interreligious understanding means and symbolizes a lot to me because of my religious background,” says Maaty. “In Islam it’s very important to understand where others are coming from and meet people where they are. And it’s one of the biggest things that we take away when interacting with others — every person has their own life story.”