Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Are Converging in Higher Education

Reverend J. Cody Nielsen

September 14, 2016

In November of last year, former Vice President for Student Affairs at Oregon State University, Larry Roper, Ph.D., released a statement on Facebook regarding the current state of the student experience on campus.

“Those of us who work in higher education are presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity. It is a defining moment for us and our institutions, as nationwide students have collectively raised their voices…. Students are rightfully claiming the space to which they are entitled, demanding acknowledgment of their dignity and humanity… Students are demonstrating their rage at how they are made to feel like outsiders in places that should be cultivating a sense of home. We must show our appreciation by responding with thoughtful and sincere leadership - providing real answers to real issues. Students and our campuses need to see the best of who we are show up during this defining moment.” (, August 12, 2016)

While this statement was focused toward many of the current situations regarding events that have taken place at Missouri, Princeton, and so many other institutions, the language speaks to larger efforts at creating inclusive campus environments for students. One of the most marginalized and yet important aspects of these environments is the religious, secular, and spiritual identities of our students. No matter whether atheist, evangelical, or everywhere in between, all members of the campus community, most especially our students, bring an identity to campus that needs be considered when creating and implementing safe environments at institutions of higher learning. 

For decades conversations, programs, and resources about religious, secular, and spiritual identities have been pushed to the sidelines left to campus ministries, chaplaincy offices, and even cultural/ community centers like Hillel to oversee. Partnerships that could be forged between these professionals and those in academia and student affairs have remained untapped and opportunities to share in visioning and goals of solving complex issues have been less than adequate.  And yet, data over the past two decades has found time and time again the need for higher education to further engage this area of diversity on our campuses. 

It is because of this need for exploration and inclusion that NASPA proudly announces the 2017 NASPA Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence, a student, community, and professional development opportunity, which will be held May 22-24, 2017, at the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center. This gathering is designed to bring together higher education professionals, chaplains, campus ministers, community organizers, faculty, and others working with students around this topic to provide tremendous furthering of the field, and to provide participants with the skills needed to work to solve these complex challenges in our campus environments. Professionals will come to learn of each other’s unique lenses and approaches to these topic areas, will be presented with new and innovative ideas, and will be given case studies from colleges and universities which are leading the way around religious,  secular, and spiritual identities.  We look forward to coming together next June for this inaugural conference.

The 2017 NASPA Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence is brought to you by the Executive Planning Committee:

  • J. Cody Nielsen, Executive Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Minnesota and Expert in Residence for Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Initiatives for NASPA
  • Sharon Daloz Parks, Principal of Leadership for the New Commons and Senior Fellow at the Whidbey Institute
  • Peter Laurence, Education as Transformation
  • Jessica Lott, Director of Jewish Educational Networks, Hillel International
  • Larry Roper,  Professor, School of Language, Culture, and Society, Oregon State University
  • Jaime Washington, President and Founder, Washington Consulting Group
  • Ross Wantland, Spirituality and Religion KC Co-Chair Elect and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Janett C. Ramos, Assistant Director: New Student and Family Program, Northeastern Illinois University
  • Nick Stancato, Campus Organizing Manager, Secular Student Alliance
  • Amer Ahmed, Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development, University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • David Wright, Director for Spiritual Life and Civic Engagement, University Chaplain, University of Puget Sound
  • Stephanie Gordon, Vice President for Professional Development, NASPA
  • Stephanie Reynolds, Assistant Director for Knowledge Communities and CLDE Initiatives, NASPA

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