US freshmen reveal their spiritual side
College life requires just the right balance between study, work, and play. And for many, there's a fourth essential: prayer.Skip to next paragraph
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Nearly two-thirds of American college freshmen pray at least weekly, according to the first comprehensive nationwide survey about their spiritual and religious views.
On public and private campuses alike, spirituality has moved beyond the chapel. Whether students prefer meditation, sacred music, or grappling with meaning-of-life questions around the dinner table, many schools are responding by making more space for spiritual exploration.
"We've been inclined to say, 'Well, these issues are very personal, they don't fit into the sort of scientific objectivist framework of higher education,' ... [but] there's a lot we can do to address students' spiritual concerns without ... promoting any particular sectarian religious point of view," says Jon Dalton, director of the Hardee Center for Leadership and Ethics in Higher Education at Florida State University.
Forty-eight percent of freshmen say it's "very important" or "essential" for their college to encourage their personal expression of spirituality, reports the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles. Yesterday it released "The Spiritual Life of College Students," a study of more than 100,000 American students, weighted to represent all first-time, full-time freshmen at four-year schools.
It reveals many facets of students' inner lives, including:
• Why they pray. Frequently it's for help solving problems, for forgiveness, and to express gratitude.
• Their level of confidence in their views about religious or spiritual matters. Forty-two percent identify themselves as "secure"; 23 percent "seeking"; 15 percent "conflicted"; 10 percent "doubting"; and 15 percent "not interested" (respondents could check off more than one).
• Correlations between spirituality and well-being. Although students who score high on scales of religious commitment or spirituality aren't immune from feeling depressed or overwhelmed, they are more likely to say they frequently feel at peace, and that they can find meaning in times of hardship. They're also more likely to have a healthy diet, abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and avoid staying up all night.
In college, "you're in a state of flux and change," says Elizabeth Sherlock, a senior at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. A member of the United Church of Christ, she says her faith grounds her amid the stresses of daily life.
Ms. Sherlock is also active in an ecumenical group, and she's seen a growth in spiritual seeking in her four years on campus. One of Smith's responses has been "Spiritual-i-Tea," a series of discussions that plays off the school tradition of afternoon tea.
Chaplains - representing Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Protestant faiths - host it in the library rather than in the chapel, attracting a wide range of students.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Iraq, and the recent US elections, Sherlock says, "issues of theology and God are being thrown about and used in various ways, and I think students are looking for ways to discuss that and reconcile with their own notions of spirituality."
Perhaps not surprisingly, college freshmen aren't as prayerful as the overall adult population: 82 percent of American adults pray during a typical week, a recent survey by the Barna Group found. But HERI's finding that 61 percent of freshmen pray weekly and 28 percent pray daily presents a much different image of a group that's often typecast as a reckless party crowd.