Spirituality: A Passing Fancy or Growing Edge?
Rev. Deborah Casey, Mansfield University of Pennsylvania
Courtney Hull, Mansfield University of Pennsylvania
We live in a world of “sound bites” and “buzz words,” trying to capture a sense of understanding and insight in brief suggestive phrases before the world turns its ears elsewhere. Spirituality has become a “buzz word” for everything from being rooted in a particular religious tradition to (with apologies to the Beatles) a mystical, magical mystery tour of the meanings of life (Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr, & Knowles, 1967).
In his book To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education, Parker Palmer (1983) describes spirituality as a “way of being, of awareness.” While this spirituality may not include frequent attendance at religious services, we know students are exploring what it means to have the awareness Palmer discusses. Sometimes discussions happen within a classroom, at a late-night rap session, or on a service trip. Wherever they happen, students are drawn to these conversations as they ask questions, compare experiences, share beliefs and doubts, and seek information and avenues of expression.
As we know and have seen firsthand, college is a time of significant personal growth for many, if not most, young adults. New friends, new experiences, and new opportunities allow them to not only reflect upon the values and beliefs that they already possess, but also to explore perhaps a new way of being or a new awareness—a spirituality that will guide them forward into their adult lives.
In an effort to better understand how the undergraduate college years influence students’ perspective on spiritual and ethical matters, researchers at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA conducted the first longitudinal study, called Spirituality in Higher Education: Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose, to document changes in these perspectives between the freshman and junior years. This study examines data collected from 14,527 students attending 136 colleges and universities nationwide. The students first responded to the survey as they began their freshman year (2004) and then again at the end of their junior year (2007). This presented the researchers with the opportunity to document how the college experience may influence students’ perspective about spiritual issues over time. The study also explores changes in students’ religious beliefs and commitments, political orientation and attitudes, and health and well-being (Higher Education Research Institute, 2007a, December 18).
The study (HERI, 2007a, December 18) finds that students undergo significant spiritual growth in three areas: 1) A growing ethic of caring; 2) a need for reflection; and 3) a strong sense of purpose.
A growing ethic of caring: By their junior year, nearly 75% of students rate “helping others in difficulty” as being very important or essential, compared to 62% of those who said this as freshmen. Additionally, 67% say they strive to “reduce pain and suffering in the world,” compared to the 55% who said this as freshmen.
A need for reflection: “Developing a meaningful philosophy of life” is very important or essential to 55% of junior year students, compared to 41% who said the same as freshmen. Also, 61% of juniors say they are “thankful for all that has happened to them,” compared to 52% who said this as freshmen.
A strong sense of purpose: Half of all junior year students participating in the study say it is very important or essential to “integrate spirituality” into their lives, compared to 42% who said this as freshmen. Also notable, 83% are striving to “become a more loving person,” compared to 67% who stated this as freshmen. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of juniors say that they will work to “improve the human condition,” compared to 53% who said this as freshmen.
The study also revealed growth in what the researchers call an “ecumenical worldview,” with 55% of juniors saying that they are committed to “improving my understanding of other countries and cultures,” compared to 42% who said the same as freshmen. The majority of juniors are also open-minded about the religious values of others, with 91% agreeing that “non-religious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers,” compared to 83% who said this as freshmen (HERI, 2007a, December 18).
Alexander Astin, who conducted the study, indicates that “many students are emerging from the collegiate experience with a desire to find spiritual meaning and perspective in their everyday lives. The data suggests that college is influencing students in positive ways that will better prepare them for leadership roles in our global society” (HERI, 2007b, December 18).
Despite this high level of interest in spiritual engagement among students, the researchers have found that few colleges or universities are actively encouraging students to explore these issues, and there are few academic or campus programs to support these interests. Most students (60%) report that their professors never “encouraged discussions of religious/spiritual matters,” and only 20% report that their professors “frequently encouraged exploration of questions of meaning and purpose” (HERI, 2007a, December 18).
Whether you are an advisor, organization professional, or staff member working in higher education, you are probably aware of a deepening of this journey in the students you encounter. This infusion of new perspectives is often challenging, sometimes scary, and always risky. Where do we as the professionals who walk on these journeys with students turn for resources?
Direct students toward campus faith groups. Know your students well enough before recommending a particular group. Denominational student groups or parachurch groups (i.e. Intervarsity, Campus Crusade, Navigators, or Fellowship of Christian Athletes) work for some, and for others there are interfaith discussion groups sharing differences and similarities.
Invite spiritual leaders to your groups for discussions (with clear boundaries regarding respect for differing views), focus on the rituals of your organizations and how they came to be (many of them have spiritual dimensions), and use them to explore meaning and application both within the organization and beyond.
Offer service opportunities. Look for opportunities to serve the community through work days with local service agencies, participation in fundraising events (walks, relays), or tutoring and mentoring programs.
When a student puts him/herself into direct interaction with someone in need, when he or she works with someone outside his/her comfort zone, and when the recipients of the service become more than an idea or cause and begin to be known for who they are, lives begin to change from both sides of the relationship.
An example of spiritual exploration in action takes place at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, which hosts an annual program called “Santa’s Gift Bag.” The program helps families in need with Christmas gifts for their children. It is a program which is coordinated by United Campus Ministry and involves all areas of campus (students, faculty, and staff) as well as the churches and businesses in the community. It is exciting and encouraging to witness the shift from self to others that many students experience. The perspective that “service looks good on my résumé” changes to “this project is important and helps members of my community and is fun.”
Parker Palmer probably said it best, “…life in community is a continual testing and refining…in my life….keeping me both hopeful and honest about the love that seeks me, the love I seek to be” (p. 18).
Higher Education Research Institute. (2007a, December 18). Spiritual changes in students during the undergraduate years: New
longitudinal study shows growth in spiritual qualities from freshman to junior years. Retrieved on May 5, 2009, from
Lennon, J., McCartney, P., Harrison, G., Starr, R., & Knowles, B. (Writers/Directors). (1967). Magical mystery tour [Motion
picture]. London: 2 Entertain Video.
Palmer, P. (1983). To know as we are known: A spirituality of education. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
The Rev. Deborah Casey is the Protestant Campus Minister at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and has been part of United Campus Ministry at Mansfield University since 1992. Courtney Hull is a Certified Catholic Campus Minister at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and has been part of United Campus Ministry at Mansfield University since 2001.