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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Vol. 31 No. 2 Fall 2004

The Complex and Rich Landscape of Student Spirituality:
Findings from the Goucher College Spirituality Survey

Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Recent studies and surveys confirm anecdotal data about college studentsí growing interest in the life of the spirit.1 Religious and spiritual beliefs and practices help students develop identity, provide strength and support, and offer venues for seeking meaning, satisfaction and purpose in life. At the same time, however, researchers are trying to dig beneath the surface more deeply to understand the shift occurring on college campuses regarding religious and spiritual practices and beliefs. Increasingly, while students may not be "dissatisfied" with "traditional religion," fewer are choosing to participate in mainstream religious traditions, and instead are becoming devotees of "spirituality."2 What is behind such a shift, and what does it mean?

"Katie" and her college experience exemplify the shifting spiritual landscape (Iíve changed her name for the purpose of this article). A student at a small liberal arts college on the East coast, Katie was raised in a family that only sporadically practiced Protestant Christianity. Without much in the way of any ongoing religious education in her childhood, she arrived at the beginning of college with many questions about religion and her own lifeís meaning and purpose. Embarrassed that she had never read much of the Bible, she enrolled in her first religious studies course. She was quiet and hesitant at the start, afraid that her lack of knowledge would make her stand out. Not long into the semester, a section of the course exploring feminist biblical hermeneutics introduced her to an area of contemporary scholarship previously unknown to her, requiring her to open and read parts of the Bible. She was hooked, her silence forgotten. She began bringing her Bible to class, with page upon page of text highlighted in yellow, alternately expressing her delight, incredulity and anger at what she had discovered. "I canít believe I never read this before! Do you know what is in this? Listen to what this passage says about women!"

Like a growing number of students in colleges and universities, Katie sought out religious studies as a venue through which to investigate her own spiritual/religious questions, commitments and uncertainties. A senior now ready to graduate, Katie represents many students across the country in her rejection of affiliation with any particular religious community or tradition. Katieís spiritual growth was stimulated and nurtured through intellectual development as a religious studies major and deepened by community service with disabled children and adults, not through becoming part of any student religious organization or by joining a church, synagogue or temple on or off campus.3

Student affairs professionals are beginning to search for appropriate responses to this growing trend. According to a study launched by Jon Dalton of the Center for the Study of Values in College Student Development, not only do student life professionals see an increase in spiritual activities of many kinds on college and university campuses that may not be connected to any specific religious tradition, they "regard spirituality and religion as distinctly different domains." Simultaneously they acknowledge an increase among students who express spirituality in personal, individualized ways (personal prayer and meditation), or through community service or volunteerism.4

As Chaplain and Assistant Professor of Religion at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD over the past four years, Iíve had ample opportunity to witness this phenomenon both in and outside the classroom at the micro level of our college of approximately 1300 students. Two years ago I decided to implement a "spirituality survey" at Goucher to try to learn more about how our students understand their own spiritual lives and to invite reflection from students about the design of spiritual and religious life programming, learning and worship opportunities, and spiritual and religious life spaces on our campus. In particular, I hoped to explore how students understand the content of spiritual growth outside of religion, and to investigate whether the increasing emphasis on spirituality is connected to a concomitant distancing from religious practices and traditions. During the fall and spring of 2003-2004, students enrolled in the required "Wellness" course at Goucher were invited to complete the spirituality survey as a part of a class session on studentsí spiritual lives.5 Four different "Wellness" classes participated in the project, representing an availability sampling of 105 students from Goucherís sophomore, junior and senior student populations.6

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