Senior Paula Leigh smiles for her team photos for Pepperdine in fall 2021. Leigh said she found it refreshing how welcoming the Pepperdine community has been since her first year here. Photo courtesy of Paula Leigh
The Jewish community at Pepperdine is small, making up only 1.2% of the undergraduate student population, according to Seaver College. Despite its small size, many students said they find themselves able to keep their Jewish identity present while still attending a predominantly Christian school.
One of these students is senior Paula Leigh. Leigh said she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Sports Medicine with the goal of becoming a physical therapist.
Alongside her studies, Leigh has also been involved with sports at Pepperdine in the past. She ran cross country and track for two years but said she recently decided to take a step back for personal reasons.
“Most of my teammates were Christians or not religious,” Leigh said. “So there wasn’t really a big opportunity for me to dive deeper within my Jewish roots with the team. It also hasn’t been isolating for me. I haven’t been set apart.”
Like many students at Pepperdine, Leigh said COVID-19 impacted her experiences before getting used to college life.
“I was injured my senior year [of high school], but I’d already committed to Pepperdine, so it was a little bit difficult for me to get back into it,” Leigh said.
Alongside combatting coming back from injury, Leigh explained the difficulties of coming back during COVID-19 and the isolation it brought. While isolation was a problem for many students at Pepperdine, Leigh said the student-athletes had further trouble with having to be on or near campus during the academic year. Leigh said she tried to take advantage of the situation and make friends with fellow athletes.
“There wasn’t anyone else on campus besides athletes,” Leigh said. “It was a little hard just because you feel isolated. I didn’t know what was going on, and I was just a freshman in college. But, it was very encouraging to have a group of people to be mentors and friends for me.”
Embracing many diverse identities can be a crucial aspect of unifying Pepperdine’s community, according to the Office of Community Belonging. At Pepperdine, Leigh said she carries a unique identity that has influenced her time at college.
“I was raised Jewish, and my parents are actually both Messianic Jews,” Leigh said. “So they’re Jewish believers that Jesus is the Messiah. I feel very confident. I love my Jewish identity, and I feel very like connected to that.”
Leigh said it is meaningful for Jewish students to know there are other people like them on campus.
“We all somehow find each other, and it’s like an instant family, which I love,” Leigh said. “I feel like you find that with Jewish people everywhere.”
Leigh said if you meet someone and find out they’re Jewish, it’s like you have a bond that not many people understand.
“I think that’s very hard to explain, but it’s also very special,” Leigh said.
Leigh said she was also relieved at the welcoming nature of the Malibu community when she first came to Pepperdine.
“They’re familiar with the Old Testament, and like Jewish history, which I think is really refreshing, because then people are interested in Jewish history related to the Bible, and they’ll lean in and ask questions, and I love that,” Leigh said. “So overall, it’s been positive.”
Despite Pepperdine being a welcoming place for Leigh, she said oftentimes, people see Judaism as less complex than it really is.
“Being Jewish is not only a religion, but it’s a culture,” Leigh said. “We’re all one big family who has been through so many trials and tribulations throughout history.”
After four somewhat out-of-the-ordinary years, Leigh said she has some important advice for new students and athletes at Pepperdine.
“Don’t be afraid,” Leigh said. “Just be yourself. Everyone’s here to make friends, so it shouldn’t be intimidating to get to know new people. Just be authentic, and you’ll find the right people.”
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