Engaging Students in the Topic That Must-Not-Be-Named

Emily Fidago, Assistant Director of Student Leadership & Civic Engagement, Chatham University

January 4, 2018

During the three-and-a-half years that I have worked at Chatham University, I have become accustomed to regularly partaking in conversations with students, staff, and faculty about a wide variety of sensitive topics ranging from socioeconomic status to sexual orientation to race. These conversations are a common occurrence and take place anywhere from our offices to the dining hall to the student lounge. From my observations, many students at Chatham seem downright eager to engage in these conversations, and faculty and staff are mostly more than happy to partake. However, despite the openness with which our community speaks about all of these personal topics, there is one topic that is mostly left out of the conversation: religion.

Apparently, the Chatham community is not alone in its hesitancy to talk about this topic. According to a 2014 Pew Research Study entitled “Religion in Everyday Life,” about half of American adults seldom (33%) or never (16%) talk about their religion. Four out of ten respondents say that they do not even talk about religion with members of their immediate family.

As the liaison for our Multi Faith Council (MFC), I am especially aware of students’ engagement (or lack of engagement) with spirituality/religion programming. The MFC eats lunch on campus in the dining hall once a month. Signs placed on the table prior to lunch encourage students to sit with or stop by to chat with the MFC. In this public setting, students are rarely willing to approach the Council. In fact, I think we have had only one student stop by during the fall 2017 semester.

Thinking that perhaps approaching the lunch table was intimidating for students, I changed a few of the lunches into “Mix and Mingle” events in spring 2017 which allowed students to drop by our student lounge, grab some snacks, and informally chat with the Multi Faith Council members who were hanging out in the lounge. This new approach was also a bust.

Despite the fact that students do not engage with these Multi Faith Council events, there is a growing number of students who attend a weekly bible study held by one of the Multi Faith Council members. The study is held off-campus at a neighbor’s house and is regularly attended by 20 to 25 students. Students are willing to leave campus to seek religious services and events but typically do not engage in offerings set on campus. This begs the question: Are students more willing to engage in programs such as the bible study because it is held off campus and not in a public setting? Are students avoiding “outing” themselves as religious in public on campus?

A recent survey that Chatham University conducted supports the idea that students may be uncomfortable with identifying as religious on campus. In partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core, Chatham administered the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) to both students and staff, as well as faculty in spring 2017. Both the quantitative data from the survey and the qualitative data derived from focus groups demonstrate that religious students overall view the campus as both less sensitive and less welcoming. However, students who identify as religious and engage in curricular religious and spiritual experiences perceive the campus as being more supportive than their peers who are less involved in these experiences.

Based on these findings, we can make the conjecture that engaging religious students in curricular and co-curricular religious and spirituality experiences is important for their overall experience at Chatham University. How do we attract students to these opportunities? Perhaps the first step is making conversation about religion more commonplace and comfortable for our students. This could start with more intentionally incorporating religion into conversations about social identity when we speak with students. We could also utilize pre-existing program series that have an established following such as our lunch-time discussion series, Diversity Dialogues, and include a topic that focuses on religion. We plan to continue to work with the Interfaith Youth Core in spring 2018 to create a strategic plan to increase interfaith cooperation at Chatham University.

How does your campus engage students in religious/spirituality programming? What successes and challenges have you faced? Is conversation about religion a topic that your students are willing to engage? Why or why not?


Pew Research Center (2016, April 12). Religion in Everyday Life. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2016/04/12/religion-in-everyday-life/

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