Could you tell us about yourself very briefly?
My name is Angela Tona, I am studying Social Work, Interfaith Studies, and Music at Nazareth College of Rochester in Rochester, NY.
Angela, tell us about this passion that you have for interfaith studies. When did it start? Was there something in particular that inspired you?
Interfaith has always been a big part of my life. Growing up, I was raised Catholic and my best friend was Jewish. I celebrated Shabbat with him almost every Friday. I also went to a Jewish day camp and was fascinated by the prayers we said before meals. Later on, I went to a Catholic high school. Although we learned about World Religions, I was taught that all other religious views were inferior. This both angered and inspired me to learn about as many faiths as possible and give them as much love and respect as I gave to my best friend growing up.
Do you consider yourself different from the majority of college students in the United States because of this passion?
I feel like today we meet people of all different races, cultures, and religious identities. We have also heard about the horrors religion can turn into and I think that this leads to young people my age steering away from religion and pursuing a more humanistic approach. I, myself, identify as a Humanist because I value all human life equally regardless of their different beliefs. I value all beliefs and attempt to do good for others whenever I can. I think that the majority of college students in America are learning more towards this lifestyle as well.
Tell us about your work at the Hickey Center. What are the main goals of this center and what is your role?
At the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, we promote understanding and appreciating differences through education and dialogue in an increasingly global landscape. I, as a student worker, have the pleasure collaborating with other students, faculty, and religious leaders in the Rochester community. My major role is to coordinate the Global Citizenship Conference which brings over 500 high school students to Nazareth College to learn about others’ religions, being culturally competent and how to recognize and respond to religious intolerance. A committee of over 10 high school students, college students, faculty, and interfaith leaders in the community whose ages range from 15 to 85 spend over six months planning for this day-long event. I also serve as the student president of the Center for Spirituality. This center’s mission is to cater to the interfaith needs of students while they are on campus. We hold weekly programs including TED talk discussions, nature retreats, spiritual diversity dinners, and other social programs all with the goal of creating and sustaining an interfaith environment.
What are the major events and programs offered or supported by the Hickey Center and what kind of students can benefit from it?
The Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue hosts monthly forums where religious leaders from all over the Rochester area come together to discuss social issues from their respective religions’ perspective. Students can really benefit from this because it helps them learn about the viewpoint of an actual person that follows a particular faith, rather than receive information from an uninformed news reporter. The center also hosts two large events: the Global Citizenship Conference, and the Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference which brings religious scholars from all over the world. This year, the theme of our conference is the environment and how we, as an interfaith community, can come together and fix what we have broken.
Do you think colleges around the United States need more initiatives like the Hickey Center?
I definitely think that more colleges in the United States need to create more initiatives like Nazareth College’s Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue and Center for Spirituality. Throughout my experience, I have acquired the skills I need to understand the cultures and perspectives of the many people I will encounter in both the workplace and social world. I also recognize how to have respectful yet fruitful debates with people who do not share my views thanks to my extensive interfaith dialogue experience. Two weeks ago, Nazareth College was ranked in the top five ranking out of five hundred or so colleges in the country for the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. Although this was a huge honor, Nazareth’s world does not entirely revolve around interfaith. This just means that 99% of US colleges have less interfaith initiatives than we do. It is truly disheartening to know that the vast majority of other colleges suffer from a less inclusive and less culturally competent environment. The more people understood each other, the less conflict we would have in our world.
What do you think is the most challenging issue that youth nowadays are facing all across the world?
I think that the most challenging issue that youth face nowadays is acceptance. Young people are either manipulated into oppressing others, or are forced to become something they are not. They are faced with the dilemma of obeying the conservative racial, gender, sexual, and religious segregation or following the peaceful pluralistic movement of the younger generation. It is really hard to accept someone for who they are when our parents and grandparents tell us what is right and what is wrong. Young people like myself struggle with finding their identity because there are so many perspectives thrown our way on a daily basis.
Why do you think interfaith dialogue is important for us today and for the future generations?
I feel that interfaith dialogue is the only way we can achieve true peace. Religion and spirituality are kept in the deepest chamber of the soul and every single person has some sort of religious or philosophical perspective. By understanding one another at the deepest level, we can better understand their perspectives on matters that affect us every day we encounter people of different cultures. We must understand and appreciate each other’s differences before we can appreciate our similarities. Interfaith dialogue does not only help us understand each other’s cultures. It also gives us the tools to engage in respectful and fruitful debates with people who have different views on all aspects of life.
What career do you see yourself pursuing in the future?
I see myself doing social work in community planning and policy. I would really like to dedicate my life to helping underprivileged people gain opportunities they deserve through governmental policies. I believe that my interfaith experience will be extraordinarily important in this field. I feel that having the experience of dialogue allows me to use my privilege to change unjust policies.
Is there anything you would like to say that you haven’t said yet?
There is a very bright light within each and every one of us. It is our duty to make sure that light is well oiled in everyone we meet.