Thriving Together Well-Being Weekly: Spirituality in College

by Sherrene DeLong, Well-Being Program Coordinator

Thriving Together Well-Being Weekly: Spirituality in College

“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.” - Brené Brown 

Before I started college, well-meaning elders warned me about the dangers of a liberal education and its influence on my religion. “Be careful,” they said, “or that liberal college will make you an atheist!” Despite my conservative Christian upbringing, I wasn’t scared. In fact, I took it as a challenge, so much so that I majored in the study of religion at a non-religious university. Challenge accepted.  

My classes were an array of fascinating worldviews. I took courses on specific religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and others) as well as classes that theorized about the creation of religion (sociology of religion, religious plurality, and anthropology). I met with professors who had travelled all over the world, who studied the original languages of religious texts, and who never shared their personal sense of spirituality. It wasn’t about what they thought was right or wrong, they said, but about learning different perspectives. 

Outside of classes, we had more robust conversations about the “rights and wrongs” of religion and spirituality. My professors may have travelled the world, but my peers were the world come to me. College proved to be one of the only times in my life where I was surrounded by people who were completely different than me: different skin tones, languages, heritages, cultures, and religions. We challenged one another’s beliefs, attended each other’s religious services, and worked together to understand differences as well as similarities between us. Some of us lost our religion. For others, it forged our faith like never before. 

College helped me realize how homogenous and insulated my home and high school environment had been. After going to a private Christian school all my life, setting foot on my public university was a step into broadening my perspective and forging my identities. My personal faith was like a muscle I took for granted: I was born with it, and I exercised it occasionally. But college was the boot camp I needed to truly make my spiritual muscle – and my well-being – stronger and healthier. I felt the difference as I grew out of the spirituality of my home environment and established my belief system with intention and purpose. My confidence and independence soared, and my new community surrounded me with support I’d never experienced before. My spirituality was directly connected to my well-being, and college provided the perfect environment for me to thrive in this way. 

Scholars have studied this unique college experience and its influence on spirituality, but also the influence of spirituality on the college experience. In an article titled “Pathways to Thriving in Students of Color,” the authors note that spirituality was the most surprising pathway they found for student thriving. For students of color in particular, spirituality was found to have the largest effects, specifically for Asian and Black students.

So what is spirituality, and why does it lead to thriving? Scholars who measure student thriving defined spirituality broadly as “students’ belief in a power beyond themselves, along with a reliance on their beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life as a coping mechanism and a lens through which to view the world” (p. 16)Spirituality in this sense is not limited to religious beliefs or practices, but emphasizes a connection to something greater than ourselves. This connection grounds us and sustains us when challenges arise. And as we learn from these scholars, spirituality helps us thrive in measurable ways. 

Exploring one’s spirituality can be daunting, but it is an integral part of our overall well-being. For college students, the platforms and guides are already in place to help you begin or continue this journey. At Mason, we often talk about this as “finding your why,” the motivation behind your life and goals.

Ways to Make Spirituality a Core Part of your Well-Being

Take time to write down what you feel is your purpose in life. Write down your life goals, your motivation for those goals, and how you are taking steps to reach those goals. The practice of writing these things down helps with processing your “why.” Remember that it’s ok if you don’t have a clear purpose right now. Whatever you write down in this practice is just a snapshot of where you are today, not your ultimate destiny. Update your goals and purpose as you find them. 

Evaluate about your epistemology, or your way of knowing. How do you know what you know? How do you decide what is true? What is the lens you use to understand and process your life experiences?  Think critically about your assumptions, the way you were conditioned to approach life, and evaluate ways you want to intentionally embrace those assumptions or maybe develop new ones.  

Get to know others from different parts of the worldMason has an incredibly diverse student body, giving you the opportunity to connect with people with myriad perspectives. Observe how others view life, death, purpose, and motivation behind goals. Notice those that overlap with your worldview and those that are different. 

Attend a religious club on campus or connect with the campus ministersAlthough spirituality is not limited to religious involvement, religion is the most common means of spirituality. The college environment provides this unique means to learn about different religions and find what’s right for you. 

Above all, have conversations, lots of them, and be open to learning new ways of thinking and seeing the world around you. Perhaps making a journal to collect your thoughts and reflections will help you trace the development of your spirituality. You could even take a religious studies class or two.  

Whatever you decide to do, college is the perfect time to develop a deep sense of spirituality that will carry you throughout your life. 

In the end, my fascination with religions and spirituality throughout college helped me lean into Christianity in a healthier way. My understanding of Christianity had just been something I’d grown up with and followed automatically, without interrogation or doubt. College allowed me the freedom to question, to nuance my theology, and to find an entire denomination and church community that fit me much better than the one in which I grew up.  

Exploring spirituality in college doesn’t mean you have to change your entire belief system, but it can mean that it gets stronger. It’s that strength that contributes to your well-being and gives you the supernatural motivation to keep moving forward toward life goals. Your spiritual fortitude, your connection to something greater than yourself, will help you thrive, both in college and beyond. 

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