Cults On Campus

Cults Prey On New Students' Feelings Of Alienation, Experts Say

San Diego 10 News/November 12, 2002

San Diego -- The problem of cults is plaguing college campuses across the country, and in San Diego it's no different, 10News reported.

Young people in college are at a stage in life where they're searching for meaning and their place in life, 10News reported, and many of them are being recruited into organizations that many people believe people are cults.

Former University of California, San Diego student "Lucy" told 10News that she found herself wrapped up in a group that she has since come to believe was a cult.

"I was new in college. I didn't know a lot of people," she said. "Part of the whole brainwashing thing was that I was going to go to hell if I didn't do everything they expected me to do."

A number of cult experts, like the Rev. Dr. Brian Hooper, told 10News that college campuses are ripe for finding young people vulnerable to high-pressure religious movements.

"They tend to prey on kids. They may be seen as not being really connected on campus. When they bring them in, they welcome them warmly. But once they do, they reward them and separate them from contact outside," Hooper said.

Dozens of colleges across the country have actually banned certain high-pressure groups from campus, 10News reported. And some colleges have put out a student pamphlet that warns students about cult activity.

But the problem is somewhat acute in the Golden State, according to University of San Diego theology professor Dr. Evelyn Kirkely.

"California, in general, has been this utopian land for new religious movements," she said.

Lindsey DeSalvo is a local college student who says she has been pressured by cults.

"I've been approached a couple of times. They try to hand you a Bible, or invite you to a barbecue or something," she said.

But a Bible and a friendly demeanor does not necessarily a cult make. Several legitimate religious organizations exist on the nation's campuses -- the key to identifying a cult is determining how much individual time the group demands.

Kirkely said that a cult also tends to have a charismatic leader, and doesn't allow its members to question the leader's policies.

Former San Diego State University student Ali Ghashgaee, along with Lucy, is also a former member of the International Church of Christ.

He told 10 News that he believes he was tangled up in a cult.

"Something was telling me, 'I'm spending more time than with my own family,'" Ghashgaee said.

Steve Smith is a spokesman for the church in San Diego. He said ICOC is not a cult and that Lucy's and Ghashgaee's experiences are an exception.

"I think that when you blindly follow one particular person, then you become a cult -- that is definitely not us. Our people are definitely thinkers," Smith said. "In any organization people have bad experiences -- for whatever reason."

Regardless, a number of groups have set up Web sites that criticize ICOC as being a cult, among them:

Cults On Campus

The following steps are recommended by experts at New York University for people who just don't feel right about a group they've met on campus:

Ask yourself:

  • What commitment of time, money and other resources are expected from you?

  • Would I be assigned recruiting or financial quotas?

  • Is associating with family and friends discouraged?

  • What benefits will I gain from being a member of this group? How do these benefits fit with my own goals and ideas?

Does the group:

  • Encourage you to continue your studies, to succeed academically, and to graduate, or does the group say that its activities are more important than school?

  • Answer the questions that you ask, or are you told repeatedly that the answers will come later?

  • Discourage discussion of its beliefs, either with other members or with your family or friends?

  • Want its members to give up traditions and beliefs?

  • Require absolute obedience and devotion to its leaders?

  • Allow members to have quiet times alone, or time with other friends outside the group?

  • Predict tragedy will befall anyone who leaves the group?

For more information on how to identify a cult and getting help, contact the USD Counseling Center at (619) 260-4655; UCSD Psychological and Counseling Services at (858) 534-3755; or SDSU Counseling and Psychological Services at (619) 594-5220.

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