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Living in the Now: Spirituality and the Impact of the Pandemic on Undergraduate Students

Student Success Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Faculty
May 17, 2023 Michael J. Stebleton University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 2, May, 2023 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

(For additional related work on issues of purpose, career development, and meaning making, check out my LinkedIn blog post from July 2022: What Turns You On? at https://lnkd.in/dbibaY4m)

Clearly, the pandemic continues to shape students’ perceptions around their academic, personal, and professional experiences. In my last column post (February 2023), I described an exercise where I asked undergraduate students how Covid-19 might have influenced their own values about work and life overall. Most notably, many students discussed how the pandemic nudged them to re-evaluate priorities in their own lives, while other students discussed making significant changes around their major or intended career trajectories. In this post, we return to student perspectives that focus primarily on issues of spirituality. One definition of spirituality is “a concern with a person’s awareness of the existence and experience of inner feelings and beliefs that give purpose, meaning, and value to life” (Fisher, 1998, p. 16).

Holistic Student Approaches Includes Spiritual Development

Much has been written about issues related to spirituality and college student development in higher education contexts (Astin et al., 2011; Chickering et al., 2006; Mayhew et al., 2016). The Journal of College and Character serves as the leading student affairs peer-reviewed publication that addresses issues of moral, faith, and character development, and includes numerous contributions to spiritual development and wellness (Staples et al., 2022). From a historical perspective, student affairs educators are likely aware that the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View documents included holistic approaches to educating college students and caring for the whole student—including spirituality and faith development (Barton et al., 2020; Torres et al., 2012).

Connection Between Spirituality and Career Meaning Making

Relatedly, various scholars in the career development field aim to explore issues tied to purpose and meaning making (Buford et al., 2023; Colby et al., 2022). My interest in holistic student college development approaches, with a focus on career development (Dunlap, 2018; Stebleton, 2019), led me to examine students’ responses to how the pandemic altered perceptions of spirituality. Scholarship focused on “finding one’s path” or “calling” aligns with issues related to purpose, vocation, and spiritual development in higher education spaces (Colby, 2020).

Seeking Student Input on Spirituality Issues

I teach a course at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities titled, OLPD 2811: Societies of the Future. It is a required core class for our undergraduate students majoring in human resource development and business marketing education. The curriculum examines issues related to the future of work and the role of technology. In the fall of 2021, I created an informal writing exercise in which the 20 enrolled students were asked about the impact of Covid-19 and how the pandemic may have shaped or influenced their life, specifically their own career decision-making processes.

Student responses were collected and transcribed. The sharing of student responses does not constitute a scholarly thematic analysis. Rather, as the body of literature on college student spiritual development continues to grow, the exercise serves as an anecdotal collection of student responses in the middle of a global pandemic (Astin et al., 2010). I share some of their responses to a prompt that encouraged them to consider their beliefs related to spirituality.

How the Pandemic Altered Student Perceptions of Spirituality

Students were asked to respond to a series of prompts about how Covid-19 impacted them. They were asked to write out a brief paragraph or two outlining their reactions. Students were encouraged to write freely yet use complete sentences.

The following prompt read: If spirituality is an important part of your life, how have the challenges of 2020-2021 either reinforced or altered some of your beliefs or practices? (Note: religion and spirituality are not the same).

Students provided a range of responses. Listed below are several of their written reactions. Some students indicated that the pandemic forced them to think about their futures.

Shifting of Priorities About the Future

Several students commented on how the pandemic forced them to reconsider their priorities and re-envision their academic and career plans. One senior-level student wrote:

“I do believe that everything happens for a reason. We could see our "old ways” of working, education, and just mindsets becoming outdated. In a way, I think we’re going to look back on the pandemic as the start of a new revolution of personal values, in regard to work, school, and just life in general.”

Another student stated:

“The challenges of 2020-2021 caused me to think in depth about my future and career and to re-evaluate what I want my professional life to look like after graduation (i.e., making more time for family). 

A third student explained:

“2020-2021 made me reshape my life spiritually. I practiced my faith more; being that people around me were becoming really sick and I feared for their safety. Also, the importance of family.”

All three of these students articulated how the pandemic forced them to slow down and re-evaluate priorities and consider the role of family in their mindsets around education and work.

Students and Role of Religion and Spirituality

A few students distinguished between spirituality and religion. One student wrote:

“I am a Christian and have gone to church since I was born. During middle school/high school, I dreaded being woken up on Sunday mornings to go to church. As I’ve gotten older and during the pandemic, I have truly reconnected with God and learned to put my faith in him.”

A junior-year student wrote:

“I am personally not a religious person, but I am somewhat into spirituality. During the pandemic, I got really into yoga and incorporated it into my everyday routine. I found it gave me a sense of peace and calm amid all the chaos going on in the world.”

Another student wrote:

“{The pandemic} has definitely reinforced my faith and made it stronger.”

An acknowledgement of inclusion is warranted here. Although this was a small, non-representative class, the plurality and diversity of college students’ religious affiliations are vast and extend beyond Christian traditions and faith-based practices.

The Moment for Living Is Now

Several students talked about how the pandemic may have altered their daily activities. A senior student wrote:

“It’s just made me try to slow down in my life and realize that some things are out of my control. We aren’t able to change certain things, but it’s important to just keep moving and do the best you can. It’s made me really realize that it’s important to take each day at a time, and to just appreciate all the good that the day brought.”

Another junior student indicated: “I think over the course of the past year, my spirituality and more importantly my well-being have improved. During Covid, I realized your well-being and how in touch you are with the world, and yourself, is very important. It gave me the opportunity to become more aware and in touch.”

A third student revealed:

“I feel like to me it has reinforced the belief of living in the moment. Truthfully following through with that mindset.”

In sum, issues of spirituality were relevant to students—and they willingly shared those perspectives. The students’ experiences led to some targeted implications for student affairs educators.

Three Strategies for Student Affairs Educators to Support Students Around Spirituality

The informal analysis of these quotes reveals those issues of spirituality: (a) matter to students, and that (b) the pandemic forced students to re-examine their connection to issues related to spirituality and/or religion. Student affairs educators occupy positions where needed support can be provided to students around issues of spiritual development.

  • Create and encourage students to find spaces where they can share their experiences with others, including peers and student organizations. Most institutions have student groups organized around faith, religion, and/or culture (e.g., Hillel Jewish student organization, Oromo Student Union). It is important for student affairs educators to learn more about students and their connections to faith and their multiple identities—and the importance of religion and/or spirituality in their lives (McGuire et al., 2017).

  • Integrate discussions of spirituality into the curriculum, both inside and outside the classroom. Many students want the chance to discuss issues related to spirituality and meaning but currently do not have opportunities to do so in college (Bass, 2023). Faculty members may integrate discussions into course content; first-year experience directors and staff may find innovative ways to embed into the FY curriculum; and residential life and other student affairs educators can incorporate into discussions and activities, either informally or formally. Fostering interfaith communities and engagement can support student spiritual development, including students from marginalized groups (Wagoner et al., 2019).

  • Student affairs educators can be brokers of resources for students, including referring students to more traditional worship places, or resources that promote spirituality and wellbeing. For example, the University of Minnesota Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing offers workshops and classes that foster and promote student and staff wellness (https://csh.umn.edu/). Participants can take for-credit classes or workshops that address issues such as social media and wellbeing, integrative healing, nature therapy, and, most recently, taking care of planetary health.

Creating Communities of Care

Keeling (2014) stated that we need to foster communities of care for our students. This effort of care is likely more important than ever before given the ongoing issues and challenges that students and higher education professionals confront in the wake of the pandemic, along with rising concerns about college student mental health and inequities (Lipson et al., 2022). Creating opportunities for spiritual development is one way to demonstrate care for the whole student.

References

Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (2010). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students' inner lives. Jossey-Bass.

Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (2011). Assessing students' spiritual and religious qualities. Journal of College Student Development, 52(1), 39-61. https://doi:10.1353/csd.2011.0009

Barton, R., Cadge, W., & van Stee, E. G. (2020). Caring for the whole student: How do chaplains contribute to campus life? Journal of College and Character, 21(2), 67-85. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2020.1741392

Bass, S. A. (2023). Redesigning college for student success: Holistic education, inclusive personalized support, and responsive initiatives for a digitally immersed, stressed, and diverse student body. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 55(2), 4-13. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2023.2180273

Buford, M., Sharp, M. J., & Stebleton, M. J. (Eds.). (2023). Mapping the future of undergraduate career education: Equitable career learning, development, and preparation for a new world of work. Routledge.

Chickering, A. W., Dalton, J. C., & Stamm, L. (2006). Encouraging authenticity and spirituality in higher education. Jossey-Bass.

Colby, A. (2020). Purpose as a unifying goal for higher education. Journal of College and Character, 21(1), 21-29. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2019.1696829

Colby, A., Malin, H., & Morton, E. (2022). What college students are after and why. Journal of College and Character, 23(3), 189-209. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587x.2022.2087680

Dunlap, G. T. (2018). “What should I be when I grow up?” Vocational discernment and spiritual well-being. Journal of College and Character, 19(1), 65-78. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2017.1411275

Fisher, J. W. (1998). Spiritual health: Its nature and place in the school curriculum (Doctoral thesis). University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia http://minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au/handle/11343/39206

Keeling, R. P. (2014). An ethic of care in higher education: Well-being and learning. Journal of College and Character, 15(3), 141-148. https://doi.org/10.1515/jcc-2014-0018

Lipson, S. K., Zhou, S., Abelson, S., Heinze, J., Jirsa, M., Morigney, J., Patterson, A., Singh, M., & Eisenberg, D. (2022). Trends in college student mental health and help-seeking by race/ethnicity: Findings from the national healthy minds study, 2013-2021. Journal of Affective Disorders, 306, 138-147. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2022.03.038

Mayhew, M. J., Rockenbach, A. N., Bowman, N. A., Seifert, T. A., Wolniak, G. C., Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. (2016). How college affects students (Vol. 3). Jossey-Bass.

McGuire, K. M., Cisneros, J., & McGuire, T. D. (2017). Intersections at a (heteronormative) crossroad: Gender and sexuality among Black students’ spiritual-and-religious narratives. Journal of College Student Development, 58(2), 175-197. https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/1/article/650713

Staples, B. A., Shaheen, M., Mayhew, M. J., & Rockenbach, A. N. (2022). Challenge and support: Worldview champions promote spiritual wellness. Journal of College and Character, 23(4), 313-332. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2022.2123826

Stebleton, M. J. (2019). Moving beyond passion: Why “Do What You Love” advice for college students needs reexamination. Journal of College and Character, 20(2), 163-171. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2019.1591289

Torres, V., DeSawal, D., & Hernandez, E. (2012). The importance of The Student Personnel Point of View in honoring the past and acknowledging current perspectives. In K. M. Boyle, J. W. Lowery, & J. A. Mueller (Eds.), Reflections on the 75th anniversary of The Student Personnel Point of View (pp. 25-28). ACPA - College Student Educator International.

Wagoner, Z., Carter, I., Escoffery-Runnels, V., Gonzalez, B., Montes, A., Reyes, N., & Ruengvirayudh, P. (2019). Interfaith engagement and student empowerment among Latino/a and African American students. Journal of College and Character, 20(3), 259-267. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2019.1631191

Author Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Vic Massaglia and Abby Wilfert for their thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this blog.

Discussion Questions:

(1)     What does “spirituality” or “spiritual development” mean to you?

(2)     What are several strategies to promote spiritual development in your students? 

(3)     Some critics contend that any form of spiritual and/or religious development does not belong in secular higher education contexts. What might be your response? Consider divergent perspectives on this issue.

 (4)     Identify one key concept or component from this blog that you can apply to your own work in student affairs practice.