Believe it or not: The meaning of spirituality on campus

By Jessica Buterbaugh
September 02, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Spirituality completes me.” A simple statement by Aathithya Divakar, a first-year graduate student at Penn State Harrisburg, rings true for many people. Across the globe, individuals pray to and worship different religious and spiritual entities, actions that are a part of their everyday lives, and across the University, Penn State offers opportunities for students to explore and express their personal beliefs — including those who don’t practice a religion.

Hindu views, welcoming atmosphere

Born and raised in India, Divakar was raised in a family that has been practicing Hinduism for generations. His religion, an ancient belief that evolved from cultural changes throughout India, is an important part of his identity.

“I feel incomplete without being connected to the gods,” Divakar said, explaining that Hindus believe in deity worship and, while there are nearly 10,000 deities to choose from, Hindu myth discusses three main gods — Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, or the creator, the preserver and the destroyer. “My spirituality provides me a means to do things. It allows me to set goals and achieve them.”

Before enrolling in Penn State Harrisburg’s electrical engineering graduate program in January 2014, Divakar had spent his entire life in India.  Travelling to central Pennsylvania was intimidating and he wasn’t sure what to expect. While 80 percent of India’s population practices Hinduism, Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project shows that, in America, only 0.4 percent of adults identify as Hindu.

“It’s not so scary,” Divakar said about being away from home. “It is hard, but the people here are so good. People actually ask me about my religion because here people want to know a lot about other people.”

"Being such a diverse campus, that helps a lot because when you see different people, you naturally want to know about them.”

— Aathithya Divakar,
Penn State Harrisburg graduate student

In the past six years, Penn State Harrisburg has seen a significant increase in international student enrollment, an attribute that Divakar believes has helped him and others adapt to campus life.

"Being such a diverse campus, that helps a lot because when you see different people, you naturally want to know about them,” he said. “If you have just one set of people, you don’t bother and you don’t care about getting to know things. But here, you have a lot of people from different places around the world and that actually helps people to want to learn about different cultures and religions.”

Finding a good fit for fellowship

Although it is a common belief that young adults lose touch with their religious and spiritual upbringings when they leave home to attend college, many students actually experience a growth in their religious and spiritual beliefs during their college years. For students Eric Yoffee and Kayla Maneval, their religious beliefs helped dictate where they would attend college.

When visiting college campuses as a high school student, Eric Yoffee, a junior marketing majoring at the University Park campus, made it a point to visit Hillel, an international Jewish campus organization, at every campus he visited.  

“Everywhere I went I would go for the weekend. On Friday nights I would visit Hillel,” Yoffee said. “It was actually pretty great because that gave me not just the faculty or administration’s persona, but I got to see how the students interacted.”

Of the five universities Yoffee applied, Penn State stuck out because of the strong relationships the members of Hillel had.

“Everybody was just very personable and wanted to know more about me,” he said.  “They were very welcoming and I could tell that they wanted me to have a good experience.”

"I know that I might not even have chosen Penn State if I didn’t know that there was a Christian group on campus.”

— Kayla Maneval,
sophomore at Penn State Berks

Like Yoffee, Maneval, an animal sciences major at Penn State Berks, selected Penn State because of the religious and spiritual groups that are available for students of faith.

"I know that I might not even have chosen Penn State if I didn’t know that there was a Christian group on campus,” she said.

When enrolling at Penn State Berks last fall, Maneval was not living what many might consider a stereotypical college freshman experience. As a devout Christian student living off-campus with her aunt and commuting to campus, Maneval struggled to find friends she felt she could connect with.

“The friends I made weren’t Christian, so I had to deal with them talking about alcohol and parties and stuff that I am just not into,” Maneval said. “It was rough. I didn’t have anybody to talk to about my faith.”

Feeling out-of-touch with campus life, Maneval visited campus strictly to attend class, saying she had no reason to remain on campus. That all changed when she attended the Club Rush, an annual event that introduces students to the available student organizations on campus.

“I knew that when I came to Penn State Berks that the Christian Student Fellowship was a group I wanted to be a part of but I didn’t know how,” she said. “So as soon as the career fair came in, I made a beeline for the CSF table!”

From that moment forward, Maneval saw her social struggles disappear. She made new friends and became more involved with campus life. She no longer rushed home after classes — she finally felt like a “regular” student.

“CSF just relit the joy in my heart because I was so happy to find my other family in Christ, and they were happy to find me.”

In addition to meetings and campus events, Maneval is able to continue her spiritual growth through mission trips offered by CSF. During her 2014 spring break, she had the opportunity to travel to Jamaica, New York, a neighborhood located in the Borough of Queens, to assist with Hurricane Sandy relief.

“It was an amazing experience,” Maneval said. “Not only were we able to help this woman rebuild her home, but you could feel the presence of God in the work we did. I was just incredible to hear the stories from other kids in the group and watch them grow in their faith.”

Hillel also promotes student engagement through various events and activities. As the vice president of university relations for Hillel, Yoffee spends his time working with and building relationships with other Jewish and non-Jewish student organizations.

Last year during University Park’s annual Student Organization Involvement Fair, Hillel set up next to the Saudi Arabian Student Association, and a relationship sparked.

“We just started talking to the group and they were really nice,” Yoffee said. “Now, we are in the process of planning a falafel-making event with them.”

“It’s about building connections. We’re not here to build walls."

— Eric Yoffee,
vice president of university relations
for Hillel

The group also participates in wintertime Interfaith Innertubing with other student organizations and, among its members, hosts ice cream socials and an annual Valentine’s Day speed dating event. This fall, Hillel is launching FYSH (First-Year Students of Hillel) to get freshman students involved with the group.  

“It’s about building connections,” he said of the group’s outreach endeavors. “We’re not here to build walls. We’re here to make connections and engage and build relationships — not break them.”

Student spirituality nationwide and at Penn State

In 2002, researchers from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute embarked on a seven-year study examining the role of colleges and universities in the development of undergraduate students’ religious and spiritual qualities. The study, The Spiritual Life of College Students, revealed that college students are actually very interested in spirituality and spiritual involvement. Results also showed that 48 percent of students believe that colleges have an obligation to help them develop both emotionally and spiritually as well as encourage personal expression of religious and spiritual beliefs.

In an effort to meet those expectations and facilitate spiritual and religious freedom among students, Penn State campuses offer a variety of interfaith and nondenominational facilities, as well as recognized organizations, for students to explore their beliefs. The Labyrinth Garden at Penn State Berks offers students and community residents a place to mediate and indulge in self-discovery. At Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, students have the opportunity to participate in religious, spiritual, ethical and social development activities at Smith Chapel. Penn State Altoona students can visit the Edith Davis Eve Chapel and those attending Penn State Mont Alto can find serenity at the quaint Emmanuel Chapel. Professional students attending Penn State School of Medicine at Penn State Hershey, as well as Hershey Medical Center patients, have access to an interfaith chapel.

In a study conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, undergraduate students showed significant interest in spirituality and spiritual involvement, and believe that universities have a responsibility to encourage spiritual development and personal expressions of spiritual and religious beliefs.

In addition to the spiritual options present at the Commonwealth Campuses, University Park is home to the largest multifaith center of its kind on any campus in the United States. Home to the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development (CSED), the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center is a 44,000-square-foot building that provides office/meeting space for more than 50 of the approximately 60 University-recognized religious/spiritual groups on a first-come, first-served basis. CSED also sponsors a variety of interfaith and ethical programs and activities that highlight the similarities, rather than differences, among religious and spiritual cultures and traditions. The center aims to educate students and promote community and relationship building.

 “We are one of the advocacy centers on campus,” CSED Assistant Director Beth Bradley said. “In addition to managing one of the most diverse facilities on campus, we work with different student groups and individuals and host a variety of interfaith activities and programs, provide resources for students seeking religious/spiritual support, and collaborate with other campus and community partners to promote a welcoming and inclusive environment for all.”

 With a meditation room and five main worship rooms — a nondenominational chapel and worship hall; a small meditation chapel, which is the most Christian in orientation in the facility; a Muslim prayer room and a space for the Jewish community — the center has an open door policy. Any student or University/community group that honors CSED’s Code of Ethics and Penn State Principles can reserve space at the center. CSED hosts a large number of religious and spiritual organizations that become affiliate groups and have the option to reserve space for free and obtain an office space if available. A list of regularly scheduled meetings and services is available online.

 “The center is a place for students, faculty, staff and the community who have established beliefs as well as a place for those who are exploring their spirituality. The center is a very open and welcoming place,” Bradley said. “And you don't have to be religious or spiritual to visit or find a quiet place to study in our facility. There are a variety of events that occur here and many groups who rent our space.” That holds true for students who are skeptics and nonbelievers; the Penn State Atheist/Agnostic Association has an office in the building.

"You're accepted here no matter what you believe in or don't believe in."

— Michael Wearen,
CSED work study student

As a work-study student, senior Michael Wearen has seen firsthand the peaceful atmosphere that exists when one enters CSED. Students work and learn together to overcome their own ignorance about cultures and religions.

“It’s crazy when you hear about people being killed for their beliefs,” he said. “Here, there’s nobody pushing their religion or beliefs down somebody else’s throat. You're accepted here no matter what you believe in or don't believe in."

Open: Exploring cultures, perspectives

For Amanda Simon, CSED has opened many avenues for spiritual exploration.

“I don’t really identify with any specific religion,” Simon said, “although I still consider myself to be very spiritual, even though I don’t have one religious identity.”

Simon, a junior majoring in Spanish with a French minor, identifies as being culturally Jewish in that she celebrates traditional Jewish holidays, but has been on a journey to discover her spiritual identity since arriving at University Park.

"Because of the spiritual center, I’ve gotten to experience a lot of different cultures and religions, and kind of got to poke around and try new things,” she said.

Because of her connection with Jewish culture, Simon joined Hillel and participated in Jewish activities but did not feel that emotional connection she was searching for. She also spent time with the Catholic Campus Ministry, the Muslim Students’ Association and a campus Buddhist group. She has even explored the Baha’i faith, the youngest of the world’s religions, with a local resident who is trying to build a campus organization.  

"Because of the spiritual center, I’ve gotten to experience a lot of different cultures and religions, and kind of got to poke around and try new things.”

— Amanda Simon,
non-religious student at University Park

“I’ve just been all over the place going to different events and activities, meeting different people and having a good time,” she said. “The spiritual center is a great place because it is a safe place to express yourself and see who you identify with. There are so many opportunities for open dialogue.”

Respecting beliefs

Regardless of their choices, many students who identify as being religious or spiritual say that their beliefs are a part of who they are.

“It’s really just shaped my entire identity and the decisions I make,” Yoffee said of his Jewish faith. “Every decision that I make has some sort of Jewish decision based with it.”

Maneval agrees, stressing the personal significance of her beliefs.

“It’s so important to me because that is the way that I want to live out my life,” she said. “I want to live my life for Christ — not for worldly possessions.”

Although she identifies as non-religious, Simon still believes in the importance of spirituality, saying that it is important to find something to connect with. And even though she continues to search for that connection, she is still on a spiritual journey and is enjoying every minute.

“It’s about believing in something bigger than humans,” she said about spirituality. “It’s some force that we don’t have any control over. It’s something greater that gives you something to think about.”

Working with CSED for eight years, Bradley has seen thousands of students enter the center in search of something greater.

“It’s an important part of a person’s life, especially a college student’s,” Bradley said about searching for that spiritual connection. “A lot of students are trying to identify who they are, and college is a time for them to grow and explore. The spiritual center provides them with an outlet to do that.”

While public opinion may assume that many college students have a laissez faire attitude towards religion and spirituality, students’ experiences and research prove that campus life and spiritual pursuits share a healthy, harmonious coexistence.

“I think the spiritual life on campus is much stronger than what we actually know,” Wearen said. “It’s kind of like we have this veil over our face and we only see what we want to see. But it’s out there.”

Last Updated November 12, 2015