For many students, exploring spirituality in college constitutes an integral part of the journey to adulthood. Many college administrators and educators know that student spirituality plays an important role in education.
According to the Pew Research Center, 47% of college-educated adults consider religion important to their lives. Keeping one’s faith or discovering a new spirituality often requires a conscious and consistent effort. This guide presents several ways to accomplish this goal.
On-Campus Organizations and Resources for Religious and Spiritual Students
Many colleges and universities offer resources that support student spirituality and growth on campus. Students can deepen their own beliefs or explore other religions in many ways, including the options listed below.
Students who wish to practice their Christian faith sometimes find it difficult to locate a church of their denomination close to their college. Fortunately, many nonsectarian institutions offer services on campus welcome Christians from all denominations. In addition, college administrators often encourage students to start a club or group.
Some Christian organizations connect students not only to local worshippers, but to worshippers in other areas as well. For example, the Reformed University Fellowship maintains a presence in close to 200 colleges and universities worldwide.
Most major U.S. cities offer diverse places of worship. Jewish students at a university close to a synagogue can attend service regularly. However, colleges and universities in small towns may not offer the same advantage. Organizations such as Hillel International and Chaban on Campus International help keep Jewish college students grounded in their faith and connected with similar students.
Some colleges offer Jewish studies as a major under a liberal arts degree. Jewish and non-Jewish students alike can study the Jewish religion in a structured manner.
Although Hinduism is the fourth-largest faith group in the United States, Hindus make up only 1% of the U.S. population. Hindu students may have difficulty finding the support they need in college, especially in rural America. Hindu college students can explore the benefits of joining the Hindu Student Council organization.
This organization focuses on the college experience of Hindu students in the U.S. It is the largest pan-Hindu youth organization in North America. The organization hosts over 200,000 members and more than 35 chapters in colleges and high schools across the country.
Buddhist students may find it challenging to practice their faith in colleges and universities steeped in western tradition. The Buddhist Society offers several online workshops, meditation classes, and other resources. The organization welcomes members from all over the world. With proof of enrollment, students pay a discounted annual membership fee and gain access to newsletters, classes, and webinars.
Followers of Nichiren Buddhism can explore Soka Gakkai, an international organization focused on this branch of Buddhism. The organization welcomes followers of this path as well as explorers hoping to know more about Buddhism in general or Nichiren Buddhism in particular.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America includes the Archdiocesan district in New York and eight major cities. These cities are New Jersey, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston. Outside of these areas, college students may find it difficult to locate a community of worshippers.
The Orthodox Christian Fellowship seeks to address this concern by focusing on building communities of faith in colleges and universities throughout the U.S. that follow the teaching of the Greek Orthodox Church. The organization provides students with in-person and online opportunities for fellowship, education, worship, and service.
Muslims in America continue to face discrimination and intolerance. Therefore, Muslim college students can find it challenging to exercise their faith in a non-nurturing environment. The Muslim Student Association provides several resources to help Muslim students practice and thrive while in college.
The Islamic Network Group also promotes interfaith understanding and acceptance. It offers various resources to help administrators, educators, students, and private citizens foster religious and cultural tolerance.
Some students enter college with long-held agnostic beliefs, while others encounter agnosticism for the first time on a college campus. The Secular Student Alliance helps agnostic college students establish chapters in their schools and gives them a platform where they can share their philosophy and beliefs with students and other interested individuals.
Top 7 Challenges Religious Students Face in College
First-year college students may find it especially difficult to balance their religious beliefs with college life. Other activities include academic requirements, social expectations, and extracurricular activities. The challenges described below represent some of the common difficulties encountered by religious and spiritual students in college.
1. Finding Balance
College students often explore fresh ideas and try new experiences. These may run counter to one’s religious beliefs. Finding balance often means allowing new ideas to inform older beliefs to help one emerge wiser from the experience.
2. Observing Religious Traditions
Some religious practices may appear odd to non-followers. Students can invite curious peers to religious services to foster better understanding and engender greater acceptance.
3. Attending Parties
Students who follow a religion that does not allow alcohol consumption can have a particularly difficult time attending college parties. Fortunately, there are many other ways to socialize in college. Some options include sports and student organizations.
Religious differences may present particularly difficult challenges in dating. Students should look for relationships that emphasize mutual respect, tolerance, and acceptance.
5. Physical Differences and Stereotypes
Physical displays of religion and culture, such as a hijab or turban, can provide opportunities to share the history and purpose of the practice.
6. Finding Community
Sometimes, students can find a school organization that specifically relates to their religion. When this is not possible, students should look for groups that practice tolerance, respect, and acceptance.
7. Confronting Conflicting Ideas of Religion
To prevent conflict, students should avoid confrontations with intolerant people and nurture conversations with curious truth-seekers.
Anne Klaeysen, New York Society for Ethical Culture
Q. Why do you think it's important for college students to remain steadfast in their religious/spiritual beliefs?
Presumably, a student has a choice of which educational institution to attend and goes through a process with their parents to select one that matches course offerings to future goals. If one of those goals is to remain steadfast in one’s beliefs, there are many excellent sectarian colleges. But even seminaries seek to challenge students so that they can better understand their faiths.
Many years ago, I had a choice between St. Rose, a Catholic college for women, and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, a secular institution. I convinced my parents that the latter was the better financial deal. My parents were concerned until my uncle, a Catholic priest, reassured them that there was a Newman Club on campus.
Frankly, my choice had more to do with the diversity I saw at SUNY. I grew up in a small, homogeneous village where a mixed marriage was the one between my Irish Catholic mother and Dutch Reformed father. I longed for a different environment and found an enriching one on the secular campus with the activist priest. I also took a comparative religion class.
Years later, I married a Jewish student I met there. We had a Humanist wedding ceremony and raised our two children at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, where they participated in the Children’s Sunday Assembly. An important part of the curriculum is comparative religion.
From an early age, our children visited meeting houses of other faiths and learned what other people believe and how they behave. It was a wonderful preparation for college. Our son majored in religion at the University of Rochester, our daughter in psychology at Carnegie Mellon. Both remain Ethical Humanists.
The challenge, in my experience, comes from students being too fearful and rigid to take in all the wonder and awe around them. Each college has its own tradition, something that can be researched before matriculating.
Campus visits are essential. They provide opportunities for conversations with students and faculty. The campuses where I serve as chaplain, Columbia University and New York University in Manhattan, take great care with their tours and orientations. Their goal is less about students fitting into their traditions than it is about meeting the needs of their students, including their spiritual and religious needs.
We chaplains and religious life advisors are on hand at campus orientations. Our contact information is posted online. We work together in interfaith settings, as well as with campus wellness and counseling centers. A workshop offered at NYU called Faith Zone is especially helpful in opening up the conversation about beliefs. It is an award-winning program being replicated on other campuses.
To remain steadfast in one’s beliefs, one must study them, and chaplains are available to conduct study groups. It is through deep understanding of one’s beliefs, their origins, and practices, that students can confidently remain in their religious communities.
Q. Do you have any advice for college students who would like to seek religious/spiritual services on campus?
Seek out the interfaith center when you visit campuses and talk with the chaplains. On orientation day, stop by the chaplaincy table and pick up literature. There’s usually also a lot of swag there, so pick up the pens, water bottles, and bracelets, too. Go online to find contact information for the chaplains, the times and venues for religious services, and the names of student religious clubs. Visit all of the chaplains on campus, not just the ones from your own faith. You will learn so much, and we have all been trained in pastoral counseling.
I recently met with a Mormon student who was preparing to return home to Utah for the holidays. Her faith had been challenged, not by other students, but by her church’s discrimination against the children of LGBTQ parents. My role was to listen and reflect back what I heard her say so that she could better connect with her thoughts and feelings.
Attend interfaith gatherings. Sadly, interfaith vigils take place often these days. Recently I have mourned with my Muslim colleagues the murders of and attacks on their students. My interfaith work over the years has both reinforced my Humanist faith and given me great respect for other faiths, especially in the field of social justice, where we share much common ground. In Ethical Culture we talk about putting deed above creed. Belief is important, but only when it motivates and supports ethical action.
12 Ways College Students Can Incorporate Their Spiritual Beliefs Into Everyday Life
The challenge of practicing one’s faith in a secular world does not end in college. The suggestions below can help students incorporate spiritual beliefs into everyday life while in school and after graduation.
When waking, set a positive tone for the day to help yourself stay motivated and focused.
Take time for a few intentional breaths and a quick meditation before getting out of bed.
Focus on keeping an altruistic heart and being kind to those around you.
Learn a mantra, scripture, or verse and recite it to yourself throughout the day.
Use morning routines, like showering or brushing your teeth, to meditate and be intentional on the task at hand.
Read a few verses of the sacred text of your faith before bed.
Find a prayer app or newsletter to remind you to pray daily.
Attend a weekly religious service or gathering.
Eat foods condoned by your faith.
Listen to podcasts that relate to your faith.
Pray before your meals, even silently.
Take time to recognize the reason for certain religious holidays.
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