When I was looking at universities, I narrowed my selection on three real criteria: the strength of the program I was entering (journalism), class size, and how much scholarship money I could get. I wanted a school with a low student-to-faculty ratio, a good student newspaper, and, of course, to graduate as debt-free as possible. I chose Baylor, a private Christian university in Central Texas, where I spent three-and-a-half years earning my degree.

Even though I’m not religious, I didn’t worry much about the school’s Christian overtones; I attended a small, private Catholic high school, where Christianity was present but the focus was on academics. I thought college wouldn’t be much different. And once I took the campus tour, I was sold. It was beautiful and clean, and I didn’t get any overly religious vibes. Boy, was I in for a shock.

Not only was religion present, it was everywhere. People prayed before every school function, the topic of women’s modesty was earnestly debated and it seemed like every social media post I saw was about small-group worship. Several times during my education, people earnestly attempted to convert me, and in one class, after the professor finished speaking, a girl stood up and claimed to prophesy.

Though I had never minded being around religion before, I felt intensely isolated and lonely. Every aspect of campus life seemed like it was integrated with religion, from the minute I stepped on campus to my graduation day. And since the university’s hiring policy prevented both non-Christian faculty and secular dorm leaders, I didn’t have anyone I felt I could turn to for advice. I was a stranger, an “other.”

There were plenty of student leaders, of course, but after a couple of them suggested I adopt religion as a coping strategy, I stopped looking for their advice. In one ugly episode, it was bluntly suggested I go somewhere else. “Why come here in the first place?” I was asked. Implied: you made this choice. Stop complaining.

The honest truth is that I didn’t know what I was walking into when I chose to go, and a number of reasons made transferring impractical. Would I choose differently if I could do it again? I have no frame of reference to judge by. Some days, the answer would have been yes. I had no desire to stand out and often kept my opinions subdued or to myself to avoid feeling uncomfortable. But I didn’t really feel better, just a different kind of uncomfortable, plagued by a nagging sense of dishonesty.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t make friends or value the mentoring relationships I did form during my time there; in fact, I consider them invaluable. I found many who were welcoming, tolerant, warm people who befriended me with no care for my background or lack of proper religion. No, individual people didn’t contribute to my loneliness, the culture of the university was responsible.

Even though I felt alienated by the university’s policies, I consider my time there valuable, and I don’t hesitate to say I love Baylor. I feel my education was excellent, met professors I respected,  and made friendships with both Christian and non-Christian students that are immensely satisfying. Heck, I even met my boyfriend there.

I can’t change my own past, but I can use my experience to tell other students: if you choose a religious university, go into it expecting religion to be ever-present. A simple tour will not show you what life on campus is really like. Find a way to talk to current or former students who share similar opinions, and ask them about the campus culture before you sign the dotted line.