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WSU program focuses on student spirituality

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Illustration contributed by Mel Morgan
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PULLMAN — Wiccans celebrate the full moon with a sacred circle of candles and incense. It’s a nighttime, outdoor ritual that could alarm unsuspecting police and residents, particularly in a small town like Pullman.

Jinee Melland, a 20-year-old undergraduate student at Washington State University, didn’t want to cause any trouble by worshiping with her friends. She turned to Google for help, which is how she stumbled upon Spirituality at WSU, a new program designed to help students on their spiritual quests.

“I wasn’t expecting much of a response, actually,” she said. “We don’t tend to get good vibes from people.”

But Mel Morgan, assistant dean of students, talked to local police and provided Melland with a list of locations where the Wiccan group could gather.

They’ve been worshiping trouble-free on campus ever since.

Spirituality at WSU, Morgan said, is based on a seven-year research project conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. The researchers, Alexander and Helen Astin and Jennifer Linholm found 80 percent of surveyed college students were interested in spirituality and 76 percent indicated they were looking for meaning and purpose in their life.

The UCLA study reported that universities have, “increasingly come to neglect the student’s inner development — the sphere of values and beliefs, emotional maturity, spirituality, and self-understanding.”

Alexander Astin said he’s seen several universities trying to help solve this problem by implementing the research, mostly through seminars, forums and creating space on campus for meditation.

He said the study also found students' religious engagements tend to decrease in college (church attendance, for example), but their spiritual qualities are strengthened.

“What may be most important is that spiritual growth contributes positively to the more traditional kinds of college outcomes — academic performance, how satisfied you are with college and psychological wellbeing. It’s important because it seems to enrich the whole college experience,” he said.

He added that faculty can do many things to help a student’s spiritual growth, like encouraging them to reflect, contemplate and meditate.

“Secular institutions, in many ways, are better equipped to explore these questions because there’s no party lines, so to speak,” Astin said. “It’s the ideal place to explore these questions.”

Morgan was intrigued by the research because she said she’s seen students question their values and ponder what they want to do with their lives. Those are spiritual issues that often don’t get talked about in academic settings, she said.

“Separation of church and state doesn’t mean we can’t talk about religion. Yes, we need to be cognizant and respectful, but we can and should talk about these things. It’s at the front of everything we do,” she said. “We are here to help with a student’s spiritual development, just like counseling services are there to help with a student’s emotional and mental development.”

Janae D. Brewster, residential education director, said Spirituality at WSU is a safe place for students to explore spiritual issues.

“It’s a way for us, not to debate religion, but to talk about more of those underlying values and ideas and questions that are (often) tied to religion,” she said, noting students with no religious affiliation are also often interested in spiritual issues like community service, finding meaning and caring.

In its inaugural year, Spiritualty at WSU helped the Wiccan group as well as a group of Muslim students find a worship space and has been building a coalition of faculty and community faith leaders that students can turn to for help.

The program also partnered with the university’s Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center to host a recent panel on open and affirming churches in the area.

Melland said several of her peers are battling with spiritual issues and has encouraged them to check out the spirituality program.

“It’s definitely helped me connect. It’s a good tool,” she said. “I feel a lot more comfortable being away from home.”

Tracy Simmons can be reached on Twitter @SpokaneFAVS or by email, [email protected]

Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of FāVS.News, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.

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