Alyssa Jorgensen is the (incoming) President of the Secular Students at Virginia Tech, formerly the Freethinkers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.
Here we talk about personal background, the new role, and the rebranding of the organization.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Alyssa Jorgensen: I grew up in Virginia, in what some Christians would refer to as a “lukewarm” Christian household. My family believed in the Christian God, but we stopped going to church when I was young and the Bible was rarely brought up. I’d occasionally watch VeggieTales and that was the extent of my Christian education. I basically had the simplistic belief that if you were a bad person you went to hell and if you were a good person you went to heaven, so I didn’t worry about whether I would go to hell or not since I was a good child. However, when I was in seventh grade, I realized that there were more steps to getting into heaven while on the internet where I learned that according to Bible you were supposed to repent of your sins and dedicate your life to Jesus. That day I truly believed I was going to hell and that fear caused me to become a born-again Christian at thirteen years old despite not being raised as a strict Christian. I de-converted by senior year of high school, and in fact, most of my family are secular now.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Jorgensen: I have only just recently begun formal education since I am entering my second year as an Undergrad at Tech. I personally love school and going to classes, so I’m excited to continue my higher education. As far as informal self-education goes, I do enjoy watching YouTube videos on a variety of topics primarily environmentalism, politics, religion, and intersectional feminism. I have learned a lot from YouTube and some of the videos I have watched inspired me to think more critically and do my own research and formulate and defend my own positions on a variety of subjects. I have recently started watching The Atheist Experience and Talk Heathen on YouTube which have helped me with my epistemology.
Jacobsen: As the Freethinkers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University closed down and became the Secular Students at Virginia Tech, and as you’re the incoming President of Secular Students at Virginia Tech, what are some the preparatory parts of the position?
Jorgensen: Right now, I am primarily brainstorming ways that I could make our organization even better than last year. I have already created a document with my goals for this organization and how we can accomplish those goals, along with thirty discussion topics and twenty-three activities, so I’m confident we won’t have to worry about not having anything to do at our meetings. I will have to start planning for Gobbler Fest as well, which is an event that Virginia Tech holds every year where organizations get together on the drill field and advertise themselves in order to hopefully get new recruits. I actually decided to join the Secular Students after talking to the previous president at Gobbler Fest.
Jacobsen: What are your plans for the Secular Students at Virginia Tech?
Jorgensen: My main goal is to improve our engagement with our members and people outside the organization so hopefully we can gain and retain more members. Since last year was our first year on campus, we were a very small group with about only seven to ten recurring members. We were also working on establishing ourselves and figuring out how to actually run this organization, and although there were a few rough patches I would say that the first year was a success; although, I definitely recognize where we could have done better and I have developed ideas to hopefully fix those issues. For example, I realized that we always had better turn out at our discussion-based meetings than our activity-based meetings, so I decided to have all our meetings be discussion based with social activities on the weekends when more people have time to hang out and when we can have better, more fun social activities than what we could do during the week like picnics, hikes, movies nights, and maybe even laser tag. One of the goals of this organization was to have this be as much a social group as it is an educational and discussion-based group, so I definitely plan to carry that same goal into this year because I do want secular people to be able to have a place where they can easily make friends and bond with people since not everyone bonds through intellectual discussions. I also plan on getting our group more involved in community service this year. I’m hoping to organize a service project that can engage the Virginia Tech community.
Jacobsen: What will be the rough demographics and size of the Secular Students at Virginia Tech community?
Jorgensen: If it’s anything like last year it would be a small group and primarily White and Male. Only about two of our recurring members were women including me. I do expect our group to grow this year, however, now that we have an idea of what we are doing and where we can improve, I can expect our organization to have more active members because we have a lot of interested people on campus who sign on to our e-mail list and express excitement upon hearing about our group, but then we never see them again, so hopefully I can help our group become more appealing, so more people want to take time out of their day to engage with the group.
Jacobsen: Who have been important mentors or faculty members in the development of the Secular Students at Virginia Tech?
Jorgensen: Dr. Shaily Patel is our faculty advisor, so she helped make this organization possible and I’m thankful for that. Christjahn has been especially helpful in guiding this organization in the right direction as an older graduate student who has been part of secular organizations before and as a mature atheist. One concern of having a secular organization of young college students is that we may end up attracting stereotypical pompous atheists who just want to mock religious people and exert their logic and rationale onto everyone. Fortunately, we didn’t have too many problems with that since as it turns out most atheists are just normal people, but what Christjahn has taught me has equipped me with the resources to handle that situation if it were to arise. I have had one guy come up to our table and excitedly ask if this organization was about making fun Christians, and I had to tell him that we want to avoid doing that and instead we want to foster respectful discussion.
Jacobsen: If we look into the ways in which secularism is seen in the Virginia Tech community, what is the view of it? How are the religious viewed by comparison?
Jorgensen: Virginia Tech is one of the best places to be a Christian. The three largest organizations at Tech are Christian with several other smaller Christian organizations. Through our Ask an Atheist booths we have spoken to a variety of Christians each with complex religious beliefs who all are clearly dedicated to living their life for God. There’s even a chapel on campus which holds mass on Sundays. My first day on Campus I walked outside my dorm for about five minutes before running into two Christian girls asking me to join their organization. Christianity is extremely prevalent here, so I would say Christianity is viewed very positively here. I’m not too sure about how other religions are perceived here. That may be something I can explore this upcoming year. As far as secularism goes, I would say people are either neutral about it or they get excited when they see us whether it’s because they are secular themselves or they are a religious person who is excited to talk to us. I have had a secular woman hug me because she was so excited to see that our organization exists and we have a positive relationships with many religious people outside our organization, but I have also experienced dirty looks from people at our Ask an Atheist booth and have heard stories of angry preachers on campus but haven’t experience it myself, so it is pretty much a mixed bag, but primarily positive here when it comes to people’s feelings about the secular community. We have never encountered any angry religious people while doing our Ask an Atheist booths and our organization has never been treated differently from any other organization as far as I can tell, so I would not describe the campus as overtly hostile to secularism.
Jacobsen: Who seem like stellar leaders in the work for secularism in the older cohorts and in the younger cohorts? Why them?
Jorgensen: Jack, our former president and upcoming vice president, has done amazing things for this group and I expect him to keep doing amazing things. He was the one who organized Dan Barker to come speak at our campus, and he also organized a trip for a few of us to attend the American Atheist Convention in Cincinatti, Ohio this year which is pretty amazing. Christjahn, for previously stated reasons, primarily for his guidance in keeping this organization on track. Claire has been a big help in giving insight into the group from a perspective outside of an officer position which has helped me in deciding what we could do better this year. She is taking an officer position this year as our social media coordinator and will have tremendous influence in improving our social media presence and engagement with the community.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Jorgensen: Since this is primarily a local organization, if anyone is a student or a faculty member at Virginia Tech, they are welcome to join our group, and anyone in the Blacksburg area can attend our public events. Since we are a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance, people can help by donating and supporting them. People can also follow us on social media our Instagram is @secularstudentsvt, our twitter is @secularvt, and our Facebook page is Secular Students at Virginia Tech. People can e-mail email@example.com for more info or questions.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Jorgensen: I just think it’s important for campuses to have a community where secular people can feel welcome with zero judgment and where they can plug into a support group when they get to campus. Especially if someone comes from an environment hostile to secularism, it is so important to let them be in a place where they can be free to express themselves and be honest about who they are and not worry about rejection from their peers.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Alyssa.
Jorgensen: Thank you, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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