Students easy targets for cult groups

The Guardian, Wright State University/February 20, 2002
By Jake Stanley

Over the past couple of years, colleges and universities nationwide have instituted offices and programs to deal with cults, or high-pressure groups on campuses. Ohio University announced this month that it is considering starting a relationship with Wellspring, a cult recovery and resource center near Athens, Ohio. "Cults usually recruit on college campuses," said Ron Burks, clinical counselor and cult expert, in an interview with OU's The Post. "Be advised, you're a target."

One student, who wishes to remain anonymous, sees a threat of these groups at Wright State. Involved in a group on campus he now believes to be a cult, he found strange methods that presented to him a "red flag."

He admits that he wasn't aware of what he was involved in for some time, but "kept his guard up" and notes that many who are involved in cults really don't feel like they are doing anything that is detrimental or wrong. "It's very subtle, overt, unobtrusive. Almost like breathing air," he said.

Though all students get free psychological counseling, WSU doesn't presently have a program to deal specifically with cults, according to Amy Sues, associate director of the Office of Student Life.

Sues agrees that college students are highly susceptible to such groups. "The college age is a time for experimentation and exploration," she said, making students vulnerable. She added that Student Life would establish a program if the need for one grows.

The former cult member recalled how he became to realize the group he was involved in was a high pressure group. In the beginning, he said that he was receiving an "unusual amount of invested interest from total strangers." They were elusive about questions, and responded with what seemed to be rehearsed answers.

Questions were seen as questioning God, and having a lack of faith. Questioning the leader in front of others was not deemed appropriate, because he didn't want to "lose face in front of followers."

When he found and completed a checklist that included about 20 instances of cult-like behavior he said he checked off all but one or two, which told him it was time to move on. When he did so, he said he was scowled at and ostracized. "The emotional control was hard to deal with. It would have been much worse if I was living with them or tied in financially."

He warns students should be leery of any group that separates themselves from others, and deems people that leave as evil. Groups that have a "one-way" mentality, black and white answers for everything, and who are not forthright about their doctrine or finances are all warning signs of something to avoid partaking in.

He sees college students as a target because of their absence of structure for the first time, and they are usually open to new things. They may be feeling stressed, lonely, dependent, unassertive, alienated, and be searching for a spiritual meaning. "They feed off idealism [of] aspiring to a higher power," he said.

"We don't pay enough attention to mental health as much as our physical well-being in this country," he said, adding even the military has had problems with cults. "It's a weakness in our society. It allows them to get in. There is a lot of support available, but not awareness."

The Rev. Chris Rohmiller, head of Campus Ministry and advisor to Newman Catholic Organization, said he knows of only one true cult to inhabit the WSU campus within his eight years on campus.

About four years ago, International Church of Christ, he recalls, was a national group that came from Cincinnati and set up a house in Fairborn. They would then visit WSU to do recruiting, looking for that "certain kind of person that's susceptible," said Rohmiller. Some of their destructive tactics included making students drop out, working for no pay and lying to their members about finances, he said.

Rohmiller's advice for avoiding a group that demonstrates cult-like behavior is to seek advice from Student Life, get information from Campus Ministries, continue to develop critical thinking, and promoting healthy living and relationships. "A frontal assault is a waste of time," he said. "It's pretty hard to stop a person from joining if they really wish to do so."

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