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.

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.

As students progress in college, church attendance often declines, previous studies report. "That may create the impression that there is lack of religious commitment, when in fact, it's strong, [but sometimes] more private," says Alexander Astin, one of the principal investigators of the study. The survey shows that 17 percent of freshmen score high on a scale of religious skepticism, while more than half score high on either religious commitment (things such as following religious teachings in daily life) or religious engagement (attending church or reading sacred texts). A follow-up study will measure how their views and practices have changed in two years, when they are college juniors.

The survey also indicates much tolerance for others' views. Eighty-three percent agree that "nonreligious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers." Mr. Dalton of the Hardee Center sees the broader interest in spirituality not as antireligious but as "just another expression of the search for meaning and transcendence, right alongside religion."

On the second floor of a building at the heart of its busy Boston campus, Northeastern University offers the Sacred Space, an expansive room with softly lit wall panels of translucent green glass. Students stop by to chant, pray, sing, walk in meditative circles, or sometimes just lie on the floor listening to their iPods, says Shelli Jankowski-Smith, director of the Spiritual Life Center.

Set up in 1997, the Sacred Space is also often used by Muslim students for prayer, and the antechamber has an area where they can perform ablutions.

About half the time, the room is reserved by groups or classes. On a recent Thursday morning, several dozen undergraduates took off their shoes and sat on carpet squares or cushions for an introduction to meditation and relaxation techniques, a small part of the curriculum in a wellness class taught by Prof. Dorett Hope of the nursing school.

Ms. Jankowski-Smith asked them to focus on their breath, to let go of thoughts about the past and the future, and to focus on the present. After a few minutes, when the room became palpably still, she told them in a quiet voice to ask themselves these questions: "What is my spirit? Where does it exist?"

Aimee Bailey, a physical therapy major who hadn't known about the Sacred Space, said afterward that the wellness course is adding an important dimension to her studies. "We're supposed to be helping other people be healthy, but no one is taking care of themselves." Compared with science classes, where "there's no room for interpretation," she says, this one asks students to think for themselves. "At first, it's weird.... Students just want the answer - What is wellness? What is spirituality?" Ultimately, they have to find their own answers.

Fostering openness to religious and spiritual diversity is important, but there also need to be boundaries, says Jankowski-Smith, the campus's first full-time director for spiritual life. Some cults "prey on college campuses," she says. She recently drew up guidelines, including a distinction between evangelizing and unacceptable forms of proselytizing.

Spirituality has been integrated much more quickly into the student-life aspects of campus than into the classroom, says Peter Laurence, executive director of the Education as Transformation Project, which works with colleges nationwide to create more dialogue about spirituality. In many cases, it's not the right subject for classroom discussion, he says, but a growing number of professors are finding ways in which the overlap can be appropriate.

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