A Call for Transformation: Supporting Diverse Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities on Campus

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Joe Pritchett, Director, Office of Faith and Meaning, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA.

September 26, 2018

I always find a lot of enjoyment in connecting with new first year students as they arrive on campus at the beginning of the academic year. It was no different this year, when I was approached by a first-year student while walking back to my office on the first day of classes. He introduced himself and shared with me that he was Muslim. He was curious about public space on campus where he might pray. He happened to be in luck as we were in the building where the multifaith room and prayer space were located. We walked together down to the ground floor of the building, and down a hallway tucked away in the corner of the floor. At the end of that hallway we walked into the prayer and reflection space on campus. It is small, windowless, but well-appointed and inviting nonetheless. 

He thanked me, and before we parted ways I shared with him more information about the Muslim Student Association and let him know that my office provides a shuttle to the local mosque for students interested in participating in Jummah prayers on Friday afternoon. As I continued back to my office and reflected on this experience, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between the prayer space and the much larger, centrally located chapel on our campus. Granted, the chapel is now mainly used for classes in the Music department, but it still regularly hosts religious services for two of our Christian student groups on campus. Space matters, and from a religious perspective, the space on my campus was originally designed for Christian students. As the College’s population has diversified it’s been necessary to rethink space, and that often means repurposing small, tucked out of the way rooms like the one that is home to the prayer space I visited with this new student.

Policies matter. In a previous role I held, I met with a Jewish student who, with a mix of frustration, anger, and sadness told me of her problems getting excused to miss class for a particular holiday. She explained that she had few issues with most of her faculty, but that one in particular made her jump through a few extra administrative hurtles to miss the class, along with letting her know how she would be at a disadvantage in the class due to the material she would be missing. I listened to her, and shared with her some ways that she could report this experience in an effort to make sure others don’t experience the same problem. I also reflected on my own experience as an undergrad whose Christian identity was and still is very salient to me. I couldn’t remember an instance where I felt this kind of burden in order to observe a religious holiday. It reminded me that the academic calendar was generally built around the Christian calendar, and while there were polices in place to ensure students could be excused from class for religious observances it was up to faculty and staff to uphold that policy fairly.

Community matters. I sat down with a student who identifies as Hindu just last week. Her religious identity is one that is important to her, and she was seeking out community of other students who identify as Hindu. I let her know that while there is no formal student club or group that meets on campus currently, that as a student she could take the lead in forming a club herself. We worked together to identify other students she could connect with and I promised to help her through the process if it was something she might be interested in. All the while, I was thinking about some of our larger religiously affiliated student groups who have staff from national organizations who have tremendous resources dedicated to creating community and working with students on campus.  I benefited from communities like this as an undergrad. Why should it be so easy for some but difficult for others to find them?

These are three examples of many I could share that reinforce the idea that higher education, in both formal and informal ways, was molded and shaped by the Christian tradition. You might have stories like this to tell. They might be your own. As the student population has changed over time to incorporate diverse religious, spiritual, and secular identities, institutions have responded in various ways, and to greater or lesser extents, to accommodate that change. While incremental change (such as finding a small space on campus that can accommodate Muslim prayer) exists, it’s past time to imagine the transformative changes needed to truly support the diverse religious, secular, and spiritual identities that exist on our campuses today. I hope that you’ll join us during the pre-conference “Power, Privilege, and Oppression: Facing Christian Hegemony in Higher Education” at NASPA’s Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities conference to explore ways we all might take part in this transformation.

Click here to learn more about the 2018 RSSI Conference. 

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