Although students who celebrate the Christian faith are given a break from classes to celebrate Easter, students who belong to other religious holidays are given the opportunity to recognize their own holy days.
Steve Miller, a pastor of the United Church of Christ (UCC) in Vermillion, also teaches the world religions class at USD. In class, Miller focuses on the diversity of religions and brings representatives from each religion to speak on what it is like to practice their faith at USD and in South Dakota.
In his twelve years teaching at USD, religious diversity has expanded, Miller said.
“There were always Christians and a wonderful gathering of Native American folks that were here that practiced traditional indigenous things from their reservations,” he said. “But more lately there have been more international students, so we’ve had more of a spattering of Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and we have a small population of the Jewish community here, so we represent many of the major religions; (they are) small, but hearty, and visible on campus.”
Anita Shrestha, an international student from Nepal and a graphic design graduate student, is president of the International Club and belongs to the Hindu religion.
Although she has not heard much conversation about whether or not the university should acknowledge other religious holidays on their calendar, she said she thinks there should be more.
“We celebrate international holidays, holy days back home, but I don’t think they’re really seen here in the states,” she said. “I think people migrate here and are kind of everywhere, so they should be in the calendar so people as a whole know that these kinds of festivals exist–so they know about it. It’s about awareness for religion and for culture… I think that’s important.”
There are no university or South Dakota Board of Regents (SDBOR) policies regarding how students celebrate other holidays, but professors can work with students on a case-to-case basis to excuse absences.
Kim Grieve, Dean of Students, said the Easter Break has always been a part of the SDBOR calendar, although she does not know exactly why.
“The Board of Regents sets the calendar… which does have the Easter holidays on it,” she said.”I think it’s historical; it’s just been in the calendar for many many years.”
Grieve said students can work through the Dean of Students office to work with their professors on their absence.
“As far as students that want to celebrate their holiday, they can send their information to the Dean of Students office, and we’ll send their information, letting their professor know that the student is celebrating a particular holiday and may not be in class, and then we just ask that the professor work with them according to their procedures and all of that,” Grieve said. “We have not had any problems, faculty have been very good working with students on cultural celebrations.”
Miller said faculty are understanding of the diversity of religion at USD and is accommodating to missing class to celebrate religious holidays.
“If someone comes, especially ahead of time, and says ‘this is my holy day, I need to be gone… I think they would treat it like any other excused absence,” he said. “I have not heard any students complain about it, and I know a lot of international students with different practices… My experience with staff is that they’re aware that we’re becoming a more diverse campus, most of them welcome that, international student especially.”
Grieve said some students choose not to miss class to celebrate, but instead celebrate on a weekend. Miller said this is because of the different ways people can identify with their faith.
“I understand that there is a wide spectrum of the way people understand their religious faith,” Miller said. “I think in other religions there are people who are fiercely traditional and would need to go on that day, and then there are other students who would just celebrate the day after.”
Maria Vyshkovskaia, a junior finance major, is an international student from Russia. She said although her faith celebrates Christmas during a time where there is class, it is not crucial for her to miss class to celebrate.
“We have a different calendar. We celebrate, for example, Christmas on the 7th of January, which was the first day of school,” she said.
Shrestha said USD professors are very supportive of celebrating religious holidays.
“USD has given the platform to students to kind of bring out that religion and festival to celebrate,” she said. “When you reach out to a professor, they want to know if they can support you in any way.”
Vyshkovskaia said celebrating holidays can be difficult since there is no Orthodox Church in Vermillion.
Miller said students who practice other religions other than what the UCC teaches are still welcome to join in on the Easter services.
“They’re welcome. Vermillion has 22 Christian communions here in town, there’s plenty of opportunity for local things,” he said. “We have a lot of USD students here; they would be welcome here and at any of the Vermillion churches.”
The UCC often allows members of other faiths to use their space for religious ceremonies, such as funerals, Miller said.
The USD community and the ability to celebrate religious festivals helps her feel more at home, which Shrestha said is something she is grateful for.
“You don’t have exactly your family environment,” she said. “But you have your USD family here.”