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Preview of Upcoming 2017 NASPA Session on Student Spirituality With JCC Authors

Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education
January 23, 2017 Pete Mather Ohio University

The Journal of College and Character is pleased to present a session on student spirituality at the March 2017 NASPA Conference.  The session is titled, "Contemporary Dynamics in Student Spiritual and Religious Identity," and it is scheduled on Monday, March 13, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. The presenters are two authors (Darris R. Means and Janina Montero) of articles from the past year. The articles are

Darris R. Means & Audrey J. Jaeger (2016) “Keep Pressing On”: Spiritual Epistemology and Its Role in the Collegiate Lives of Black Gay and Bisexual Men

Eboo Patel, Janina Montero, Cindi Love & Mary Ellen Giess (2016) Navigating Conflicts Related to Religious and Non-Religious Identity on Campus

These articles reflect a movement toward focusing on college student meaning and purpose highlighted by Astin, Astin, and Lindholm in Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives (2010) and Parks in Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith  (2000).

The article by Means and Jaeger focuses on the role of spirituality in the lives of African American gay and bisexual men and brings in theories of identity intersectionality. Darris Means, an assistant professor at The University of Georgia, is representing the authors of this article in the NASPA session as well as on this blog.

The other featured JCC article, authored by Patel, Montero, Love, and Giess,  focuses on conflicts among religious identities. This article is different from the Means article in that it focuses on religious identity rather than spiritual experience, and is centered on how administrators navigate this dynamic on their campuses.  Janina Monterro, retired vice chancellor of student affairs at UCLA, is representing the authors of this article in our conversation. 

Taken together, these articles highlight the importance of administrators paying attention to their students’ spiritual and religious lives.

One of the interesting parallels between these two articles is that they both attend to dynamics around negotiating tensions. Means and Jaeger’s article describes internal tensions: for example, the authors point out the tensions some of their participants experienced between their conservative religious upbringing and their gay and bi-sexual identities. It should be noted, however, that spirituality could also serve as a source of strength in their social environments, but it did often require creating new understandings of spirituality. The tensions that are highlighted in the Patel Montero, Love and Giess article are more external tensions between identity groups. The authors provide case studies in which they analyze the nature of the tensions or conflicts and provide personal reflections on how they negotiated those conflicts.

Both articles provide rich portrayals of real stories on college campuses and ways to best manage tensions or even leverage the conflicts for improved educational experiences and environments. I want to emphasize that the tensions are not simply presented as hurdles but as opportunities for growth.

As I consider these two articles, I offer two questions to which the authors respond below:

1. Both articles illustrate potentially problematic conflict (inner-personal or interpersonal). The case study article represented by Janina gives examples of how administrators can support adaptive solutions that result in strengthened environments. It is notable that some of these identified approaches can be immensely challenging for educators—e.g., Patel’s story of meeting with students who were protesting his presence on campus. The Means article provides some suggestions related to spaces, resources, and staffing to support students’ exercise of spirituality. It is undoubtedly the case that decisions about resource allocation are often highly political and are very likely to surface the kind of conflicts highlighted by Janina and her colleagues. I’d like to extend this discussion on the role of conflicts, such as the ones highlighted in these two articles, in the education and development of students and institutions. More specifically, through your research and practice, what have you learned about how conflicts such as these involving matters of religion and spirituality can best be leveraged to create productive learning outcomes?

Darris Means:

Colleges and universities across the United States continue to experience reduced state financial support; rising costs; and concerns related to student access, retention, and affordability, which means there will continue to be conflict between resource allocation and how to pursue the mission of an institution when there are varying perspectives among higher education stakeholders. In addition, researchers have discussed how religion and spirituality are often viewed as topics that should not be discussed in higher education because they are deeply personal. Thus, resources to support programs and services related to religion and spirituality may be seen as inappropriate, especially at public and nonsectarian colleges and universities. 

Based on my scholarship, I believe there are two considerations prior to incorporating matters of religion and spirituality into learning outcomes for programs, services, offices, and divisions of student affairs. First, it is important to clarify what is meant by religion and spirituality. Through my research and reviewing research of others, I recognize that “religion, understood sociologically, usually operating through the prism of theism or approved deities, proscribes morality and a way of life, imposes cultural norms and traditions” (Munt, 2010, p. 9), while spirituality is not always related to adopting a doctrine and more about giving meaning to life or developing self-chosen pursuits of something sacred (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011; Hill et al., 2000; Tanyi, 2002). Religion and spirituality can overlap for some students but can be seen as two distinct concepts for other students. Furthermore, some students may consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to create learning outcomes related to religion and spirituality if there is not clarity about the two concepts within the context of a program, office, division of student affairs, and institution. In addition, it is critical to explore how the two concepts, religion and spirituality, may be related to equity, diversity, and inclusion and how religion and spirituality relates to campus climate and sense of belonging for students, particularly non-Christian students and LGBTQ+ students. 

Second, it is important to connect religion and spirituality to the larger mission of the institution and the mission of the unit (e.g., division of student affairs, academic department) once there is clarity around the differences between the concepts and how religion and spirituality contribute to the campus climate. It may be difficult to receive resources to support programs and services related to religion and spirituality if there is not a connection to the institutional mission or mission of the unit. It is also critical that student affairs educators, faculty, and administrators consider how power, privilege, and oppression is related to spirituality and religion when developing learning outcomes, programs, and services. Finally, I have found in my research on Black gay and bisexual men and spirituality in higher education that some student participants described their spirituality as a source of support for academic decision making and motivation in college. I believe there is an opportunity to further support students to leverage their spirituality, however they define spirituality, to support their persistence in higher education. 

Janina Montero:

Since my early years as a practitioner at Wesleyan University, with a campus culture that encouraged independence, self-reliance and critical analysis of everything, including beliefs and conventions, I have believed in the value of conflict as a path to understanding and learning. And I still do. Although I also now believe that, in matters of religion and spirituality, the stakes are higher and the challenge is much more complex in great measure because of the tensions and global politicization I touch on in question #2.

The major deeply political conflict often (mis)presented along religious lines was the civil war in Northern Ireland during the last 30 years of the 20th Century. While the war, often described as a conflict between Catholics (the Irish) and Protestants (the English), was persistently present in the world, especially Europe and the US, and in the news during those years, in my experience, it was not a reality that invaded the dynamics of student life in most of our institutions (although it was certainly often discussed in many classrooms, academic talks and professional meetings). And, of course, the fact that student life in the US did not address this conflict does not mean that students and communities with personal, political, or national bonds to Northern Ireland were not deeply affected.

Today, on the other hand, our campus reality regarding religious conflict is very different; it is much more immediate and personal, deeply intertwined with global events and political views and positions, and closely scrutinized from the perspective of every political “side.” While we should not fear conflict as a powerful educational and developmental tool, a careful framing for the exploration of the conflict is now especially crucial as the consequences of an insensitive, inept, or failed engagement may have significant consequences not only for the students involved, but their communities on and off campus, faculty and staff, and the institution as well. (Social media is unforgiving, inaccurate, and forever.) Further, the complexity of the issues, the need to absorb a significant body of historical, cultural, and social knowledge in order to make a dent in the path to understanding, and the pressure to reach conclusions and outcomes in one sitting, one workshop, or one program, all militate against the “productive learning outcome” to which we aspire.

In my view, these are not explorations that can be done quickly; they need sustained engagement, at least some knowledge base, and a readiness to invest significant time and intellectual effort. Approaches such as InterGroup Relations, Sustained Dialogue, or The Olive Tree Initiative in the University of CA, which have a record of success in effective learning outcomes, clearly suggest that a partnership of the curricular and co-curricular opens up the most promising avenues to engage these highly politicized religious/spiritual/cultural divides.

. . .

2. While substantial scholarship has encouraged attention to religious and spiritual matters on college campuses, it remains a challenging topic to discuss, particularly in public higher education. I have seen this in my own classes: for example, when we discuss Fowler’s and Parks’ theories of faith development, some students go as far as to insist that discussions of and attention to faith and spirituality are not appropriate for student affairs or other campus educators, apart from chaplains. Is this something you (authors) have seen in your experience? How do you navigate this space of resistance?

Darris Means: 

From my research and personal experiences, I have learned that we cannot separate discussions related to faith and spirituality from discussions on power, privilege, and oppression. Faith and spirituality and power, privilege, and oppression are intertwined, and, thus, faith and spirituality must be taught, studied, and considered as concepts that are connected to social justice. For example, I have interviewed Black and African American gay, bisexual, lesbian, queer, and same-gender loving students who have discussed how they have witnessed, experienced, and/or resisted racism, homophobia, misogyny, antisemitism, transphobia, classism, other forms of oppression, and the intersection of these forms of oppression in spiritual- and faith-based spaces. When faith and spirituality are not critically examined in student affairs or treated as a monolithic, universal truth, we fail to recognize how faith and spirituality may bring up tremendous pain for students based on their social identities.

As I stated in the previous response, it is also important to recognize that one’s spirituality and spiritual practices may not be connected to religion. In my research, some students discussed how religion and spirituality were interconnected, and I have had students discuss how spirituality was related to their connectedness with others or nature. So what does this mean for higher education, particularly public higher education? I believe there are opportunities for student affairs educators at colleges and universities to provide space for students to explore and/or re-conceptualize their understanding of spirituality, while recognizing that spirituality does not have to be connected to religion. For example, there could be dialogues, guest speakers, and other programs that explore spirituality. Student affairs educators who are organizing dialogues, guest speakers, and programs should also include opportunities for students to discuss the connection between social justice and spirituality.

Janina Montero:

Yes, resistance to engaging these issues does exists among different populations in our institutions. In a public context especially, where there are few—if any—institutional references to religion (by regulation, by custom and traditions, by shared expectations) it is not unusual to see resistance, unease, and discomfort specifically among our student affairs staff and colleagues. In many of our private colleges and universities, religious traditions are not only acknowledged and recognized, but even celebrated in institutions that are now undoubtedly secular. Think, for example, about the location and prominence of the Chapel (capital “C”) in universities like Princeton or Duke, and also in many colleges. Chapels may now be non-denominational, but their physical place, footprint, and program speak volumes about the role of religion in the origins, traditions, and values of these—mostly Christian—institutions.

On the other hand, Sandy and Lena Astin—in deeply public UCLA—have brought new light into the value and the developmental need to acknowledge and engage students’ spirituality and the religious traditions they bring to our campus communities. But, in addition to the new thought-provoking scholarship of the last ten or so years and the interest of a number of student affairs practitioners, world politics and national tensions are creating a new imperative for the ways in which we frame our developmental work. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been playing out in many of our campuses and in the minds of the broad public very much along religious lines: the Jewish and Muslim traditions. Moreover, the expanding conflict in Syria, the existential threat of ISIS, terrorist acts in Europe, the Middle East, and the US, and the massive proportions of the recent ongoing waves of refugees and immigrants mostly from Muslim countries, are escalating tensions and sharpening biases. Perceptions of threats of violence or even the threat of an impact on the status quo from foreign nationals are often described along religious lines: Muslims, infidels, Christians, Jews, radical Islam, Evangelism, etc.

In our campus communities, whether public or private, there is a new need—and maybe even a new student affairs imperative: that we intentionally educate bearing in mind students religious/spiritual dimension, that we create contexts and formats that encourage a dialogue that specifically considers and takes into account religious beliefs, tradition, and values. Beyond the classroom, as student Affairs practitioners, it is now essential that we develop the skills and competencies that allow us to serve and support our students in the spiritual and religious realm as well. A starting point to “navigate the space of resistance” might be introspection and analysis within the local context and experience. This assessment would allow us to determine the focus for staff training and preparation and the most productive programmatic initiatives that engage those questions we hear from our students as they seek meaning and understanding of their place in the world.


Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ inner lives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hill, P. C., Pargament, K. I., Hood, R. W., Jr., McCullough, M. E., Swyers, J. P., Larson, D. B., & Zinnbauer, B. J. (2000). Conceptualizing religion and spirituality: Points of commonality, points of departure. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 30, 51–77 doi:10.1111/1468-5914.00119

Munt, S. R. (2010). Queer spiritual spaces. In K. Browne, S. R. Munt, & A. Yip (Eds.), Queer spiritual spaces: Sexuality and sacred places (pp. 1–34). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Tanyi, R. A. (2002). Towards clarification of the meaning of spirituality. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 39, 500–509. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2648.2002.02315.x