Study: Most students on spiritual quest

By Kate Augusto

About 76 percent of today’s college students are on a spiritual quest, with only 17 percent reporting not to be, according to a recent study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The study, released in September 2006, surveyed 112,000 college freshmen from 236 diverse colleges and universities. It followed a pilot study conducted in 2003 with 4,000 college juniors from 46 different colleges and universities, said Helen Astin, Professor Emeritus in the Graduate School of Education and a Senior Scholar at HERI.

The survey, containing almost 200 questions, was given to students at each college. The questions had students rate the importance of attaining wisdom, check off which spiritual activities they were involved in, describe their current views about spiritual and religious matters and respond to other questions about spiritual health.

Spirituality is defined by HERI as “our sense of who we are and where we come from, our beliefs about why we are here-the meaning and purpose we see in our lives-and our connectedness to each other and to the world around us.”

Being spiritual and being religious are not interchangeable, according to HERI. In fact, 31 percent of the students who considered themselves to be on a spiritual quest identified themselves as having no religion. 19 percent of those who scored high in spirituality said they were “conflicted” in their religious beliefs, whereas only 12 percent of low scorers said they were conflicted.

Northeastern students fall right in line with the findings of the HERI study, according to Shelli Jankowski-Smith, director of Spiritual Life at Northeastern. Jankowski-Smith said she has seen a steady increase in the level of spirituality among students over the past three years, evidenced by the growth of various religious groups and the higher demand for programs, including spiritual yoga and meditation. These are held at the Sacred Space on the second floor of Ell Hall.

The spiritual life center cannot keep up with the demand for yoga, Jankowski-Smith said. Also, the meditation group, which had just four to six people last year, has doubled. Jankowski-Smith, who has worked for other universities in the Boston area, said the Northeastern community is more open to trying new things than the other places she’s worked.

Michael Meyer, senior lecturer in the philosophy and religious studies department in the College of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern, said in an e-mail that there are about 280 students in various religious studies courses this fall.

Jonathan Eggers, a sophomore political science major, is enrolled in Understanding the Bible. However, Eggers identifies himself as agnostic, and not on a spiritual quest.

Eggers said he chose to take the class because he feels that “many people look at [the Bible] aesthetically; the class puts it in a historical, non-religious context.”

Lucy Eilbacher, a sophomore religious studies major, is also enrolled in Understanding the Bible. Unlike Eggers though, Eilbacher considers herself on a spiritual quest. She said she explores her spirituality through her Catholic religion and is taking the class to learn more about the Bible.

There are other examples outside the classroom of increasing spirituality at Northeastern. At a recent interfaith potluck dinner there was an unexpected turnout of 80-100 people, said Brother Joe Donovan, the Catholic Chaplin at Northeastern University.

At this dinner, Muslims and Hindus prepared appetizers, Jews prepared the main course and Christians prepared dessert. Everyone ate together, giving the opportunity for sharing and exploring spirituality, Donovan said.

Other examples can be seen off campus. The Northeastern Catholic Center held their fall retreat this year at St. Tecla’s Retreat House in Billerica, with about 30 to 40 students in attendance, according to Dave Vitello, a middler accounting and finance major who attended the retreat.

The theme of the retreat was Singular Connection, Raising the Bar on your Faith. Speakers discussed theological aspects of Catholicism, while student witnesses shared their religious experiences and took part in individual prayer.

Vitello, who said he is on a spiritual quest, said the retreat helped him step back from everything in his life and reflect on how he lives and how he can deepen his relationship with God.

Jankowski-Smith said spirituality is higher today due to the immense pressure and demand on students to succeed. Under this pressure, students try to find a meaning in life in order to pursue success.

Donovan said students don’t have time until late in their college careers to deeply pursue spiritual questions. He said one reason students turn to spirituality is the emphasis they place on material goods.

“People are finding dissatisfaction at the fundamental level,” he said. “There is a lot more access to a lot more things, which is good, but when it’s used to give us meaning we realize it’s kind of empty. We are dissatisfied with the promise of stuff. There’s got to be something deeper, something more- everything [else] falls short.”

Astin said she and her colleagues conducted the study, which is the first of its kind in terms of magnitude and the targeted age group, because they felt colleges weren’t attending to the development of students as whole.

She said the focus of college is “mostly knowledge and learning and not personal development. We [administrators] have the responsibility to listen to students and attend to their whole being because in the long run that will be most helpful.”

The freshmen in the study will be surveyed again this year as juniors. About 60 people from 10 different institutions will be participating in a workshop discussing how to bring spiritual issues into campus life. Northeastern is not one of the 10, but Astin said HERI will be releasing the information in the future to help other institutions increase student spirituality awareness.

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