Although 82 percent of people in Mississippi claim to be Christian, there still exists an array of different religious groups in the Pine Belt and at The University of Southern Mississippi. Amid the conservative Christian culture of this, the Bible Belt, USM stands out as a place of greater tolerance and respect for diversity.
These groups or individuals who do not profess to be Christians may feel as though they do not fit in with the crowd. Some feel like lone outcasts, while others do not think twice about the fact that they are different. At USM, most feel the community is open-minded and passionate about diversity.
“Some members of the USM community are welcoming and appreciate having a diverse campus,” said Daniel Capper, philosophy and religion professor. “Others are ethnocentric and intolerant, arrogantly asserting the superiority of their religion and blindly demeaning anyone who is different from themselves. Finally there are many folks in the middle who appreciate diversity and don’t want to be intolerant, yet still sometimes put up false boundaries.”
The university encourages and promotes acceptance in the classroom and workplace and continues to strive for a higher sense of inclusion for students of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.
“We have a number of professors, staff members and students who work to create a more accepting campus every day,” – Capper
USM is home to many religious and non-religious groups. Some might argue that being a minority in the South has its challenges, but others claim that it comes with advantages.
“Coming from an ethnic or religious minority background in the Deep South certainly has its challenges,” Capper said. “But there are benefits, too. Folks from minority backgrounds tend to have a bigger picture of the world that they operate from, as they are required to participate beyond the bounds of the dominant culture. They often have broader minds, and a broad mind brings joys that a narrow mind cannot imagine.”
Undoubtedly, Southern Miss is religiously and ethnically diverse, with students and faculty from all around the globe, including China, India, the United Kingdom, Africa, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and others.
Students from different cultures and backgrounds shared their responses to how well they acquiesce with the rest of campus. Incidences of religious discrimination do occur, even at this university. “USM is extremely diverse, but tolerance is a different issue,” said senior biology major Emily Wilson. “I’m conflicted on saying that the university isn’t tolerant because I have a lot of friends who are unique, open and caring to people of any gender identity, ethnicity, religion or skin color, but I’ve also been discriminated against for various reasons by many people on this campus. I would say there are places at USM to find acceptance, but there are also places where you are going to meet heavy resistance if you are not white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, Baptist or Catholic.”
“I don’t think I fit in at all,” junior business administration major Cristian Gomez said. “It’s strange how the fact of being a minority pushes me to change myself so I can feel more accepted in a culture I don’t quite understand yet.”
Although Gomez and his family practice Christianity, they do some things differently as compared to other families.
“I know that my family and I are a lot different from most families religiously for the simple reason that all we do involves our religion,” Gomez said. “Being devout Catholics, as a family we have a daily routine of praying every chance we have.”
Junior biochemistry major Karthik Balamurugan believes that USM is greatly diverse after socializing with students and faculty of different religious backgrounds and beliefs.
“I think that as kids, many of us follow and practice the religious beliefs that our parents grew up with and that some of them began to explore new beliefs at some point in college,” Balamurugan said. “For example, I was raised as a Hindu, but now I consider myself to be agnostic after coming to college. Living in the Bible Belt, I don’t believe my ideologies really fit in with the rest, and I don’t think that they should, given the differences of opinion.”
Different students share different beliefs, but they do not use those beliefs to offend each other; instead, they kindly accept those differences.
Although many students do not feel like they fit in with their settings, they actually relate to more students than they think. Being immersed in USM’s diverse campus, minorities can coalesce with one another.
“It’s hard to come out and tell people outright that I’m Buddhist,” Wilson said. “Honestly, most of the time someone ends up trying to save me, even after I explain that I’m also capable of being a Christian and Buddhist and that I have periods where I regularly attend church. I get a lot of shocked reactions because I’m a young, middle-class white woman, and I am expected to be a staunch Southern Baptist due to being raised in the Bible Belt.”
USM’s campus is ranked number 720 in ethnic diversity nationwide, with a student body composition that is above the national average.