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First-Generation Spiritual Formation: A Reflection

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
January 20, 2016 Eden C. Tullis

Analyzing our overlapping identities is a huge part of the work we do as student affairs professionals. We must constantly be in-check with who we are as humans helping other humans. Our paychecks tell us we get paid to assist students in their process of development, but we have an even greater duty to continue reflecting upon our own personal identities and beliefs that impact the interactions we have with students. That’s why this is a reflection about two very different identities of mine that coincided during the onset of my grad school career.

It was at this time that I decided to pay close attention to my identity as a low-income and first-generation student who was also attending Seattle University (SU), one of the 28 Jesuit colleges. The choice to attend SU was not an easy one for me. I was conflicted with the financial realities of attending a private school in an expensive city, but I intentionally chose that route because I wanted a chance to explore a non-secular education.  And while I loved learning about the theories behind faith community and faith development (thank you Fowler and Daloz-Parks), it was my own personal experiences with The Office of Campus Ministry that inspired me to intertwine my spiritual and professional paths. For two quarters, I was able to participate in spiritual direction. Around the same time, I attended a three-day silent retreat. A few months later, I opted to be a Chaplin for a Campus Ministry retreat. It was this last experience that had me noticing how the Millennial participants received religion to be part of a multi-faith world. Religion was not the only truth of the world, and the students at large were experiencing a strong sense of community through the personal stories they shared with one another and the challenging questions we all grapple with (i.e. who am I? what do I want to do with my life?).

Then in late 2013, as part of an independent study project, I spent seven months interning for the office. My research was centered on how spirituality could and does intersect with the first-generation status among undergraduates at SU. I obtained qualitative and quantitative data, and the following three themes became apparent: exploration, responsibility, and the Jesuit context of SU.  The interviewed students were molded by spiritual opportunities, leadership positions, their advisors or programs that helped them get to college, and the responsibilities that come along with having to pay for college. One student in particular stood out to me. He had come to college as a conservative Catholic and was finding out what sort of disconnect was happening with him and his family because he was examining and questioning his spiritual beliefs. His search for meaning was associated with talking to his peers who had very different views and opinions than those of his family’s. This created a great complexity for him as first-generation student who was attempting to develop his self-authorship while also distancing himself from his parents. 

Given these findings, it was determined that there can be another type of disconnect that can occur between a first-generation student and their family if they choose to attend a school that warrants this type of exploration. However, the ultimate conclusion that I drew was that in order to fully support first-generation, spiritual students we must build up an environment of exploration so such students can begin to sift through these two differing identities. If it’s a faith community they choose to do so within, then great. If it’s some other support system, then that’s fine, too, but when first-generation students begin to dialogue with people of separate belief systems, it then further affirms or disrupts personal values and choices and we should ultimately be supportive of such growth.

Thus, it was through this research that I made the connection between the foundation of college and the foundational and ethical questions we come up against every day. And if we’re challenging our students to ask questions about what they think about science or some math equation, shouldn’t we take the time to ask them what they think about life and in particular, their life?

Eden C. Tullis works in Campus Activities at South Seattle College. She is also a regional rep for the Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education  KC.