Residence Life Professionals and Religious Diversity
Trained student affairs professionals can help foster environments of religious pluralism in their communities.
Residence halls are often the first places college students encounter religious and philosophical difference. As student populations become more religiously diverse, professionals working in Residence Life are met with the challenges of accommodating religious observance, navigating conflicts between residents, and providing structured opportunities for students to explore this palpable aspect of identity. Trained student affairs professionals can help foster environments of religious pluralism in their communities.1
A growing body of research indicates that students’ informal interactions outside of the classroom affect their belief that people of different belief systems can work together for the common good.2 Living in close quarters offers students first-hand encounters with religious practices that are often unfamiliar to them; this lack of understanding can lead to conflict. There are a unique set of challenges associated with engaging religious and philosophical diversity in residence halls; professionals raise questions around the appropriate amount of accommodation for religious observance, and, at public schools in particular, whether it is even appropriate to discuss religion.
Nevertheless, student affairs practitioners are dedicated to providing holistic support for students and their many intersecting identities, including religious, spiritual, and secular affiliation. With global religious tension at a six-year high and a growing call in the field of higher education to graduate global leaders, making the choice to ignore religion is no longer a responsible option.3 Fortunately, there is a growing number of educators who are dedicated to opening the door to a wider discussion of religious diversity in residence halls across the country. Here is one of their stories:
Incorporating Interfaith into Residence Life
Steven Sajkich, Resident Director at Miami University (Ohio)
My training and experience as a full-time student affairs professional in residence life has provided opportunities to engage in discussion and learning with both my fellow student affairs professionals and students.
Living and working in a residence hall with both first-year and older students presents challenges at times, due to a lack of awareness and understanding of minority religious traditions and secular students’ perspectives. This often appears in roommate conflicts due to religious disagreement. By educating and training our student affairs professionals and student staff, we are able to be proactive in preparing our students to live and work in a global society.
At Miami University of Ohio, I provide my colleagues, student staff members, and residents with opportunities to explore interfaith topics. This includes a semester long book discussion with fellow staff, organizing a program for Better Together Day in my residence hall, and allowing the space for students to discuss and ask questions through programming and informal conversations. Often times, student affairs professionals are unsure how to offer programming related to spirituality in their residence halls or to have conversations with their student staff. I always suggest that they start with something simple. For example, for my program for Better Together Day, each of my Resident Assistants were given two IFYC “We Are Better Together” wristbands. I gave one to them after they engaged in a conversation with me around spirituality or how they made meaning in their life, and the other wristband was given to one of their residents after they engaged in a similar conversation. This is just a simple example, but one that encourages a start to interfaith engagement for students and staff.
Suggestions for Interfaith Engagement
As illustrated in Steven’s example, there are strategies residence life professionals can employ to build a culture of religious pluralism in their communities. Interfaith engagement, at its core, encourages understanding between people with differing beliefs. Helping students to learn from one another, as one peer to another, is a great way to start. Here are more things to consider:
1. Know Yourself. One reason religious and philosophical diversity is difficult to engage in is the sense that you have to be an expert on every religious and secular belief system. Practitioners are discovering that understanding one’s own perspective is the first step in building interfaith relationships. This also involves taking a hard look at one’s own biases and assumptions about different faiths and philosophies, owning intentions and impact, and reconciling difficult experiences they may have had with people of certain faith or philosophical backgrounds.4 All of these factors influence how educators interact with students around their religious identities and practice. In interfaith encounters, it is not one’s responsibility to tell anyone else what they believe or should believe, but to seek to understand how they practice their faith and/or make meaning in their lives.
2. Use the Skills You Already Have. Student affairs professionals have a wealth of interpersonal skills they can utilize to support students entering into religiously diverse spaces. Experience engaging other, equally complex forms of identity (e.g. race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation) regularly come into play in student affairs practice. Additionally, professionals are often skilled at seeking support and resources to help them if they feel their expertise is limited. The skill set necessary to engaging religious diversity is similar to multicultural competency: acknowledging assumptions, sharing personal narrative, dialoguing across lines of difference, etc.5 Many professionals indicate that students do not look to them for ‘all of the answers’; instead, students seek support as they navigate the complexity of engaging religious difference.
3. Help Your Students Build Community. This is a cornerstone of residence life, and there are ways to make sure that religious diversity is a part of your efforts. Work to either create or communicate your policies for religious accommodation and observance. For example, is there a dedicated space for Muslims to pray if needed? Do Jewish students know where to find kosher dining options? Is there a Secular Student Alliance (SSA) on campus to support atheists? Students who feel they have space and support for their spiritual (or secular) expression generally report higher levels of acceptance towards people with different worldviews from their own (a concept known as pluralism orientation).6 Consider an intentional conversation on each hall at the start of the year to outline community agreements for keeping interactions (including interfaith ones) respectful and enriching. Revisit the agreements a few times a year, and encourage roommates to discuss their religious or ethical practices with one another early on as a part of roommate agreements.
4. Provide Structured Opportunities for Interfaith Engagement. While informal interactions have great effect on students’ attitudes toward pluralism, growing appreciative knowledge and interfaith literacy is also an integral part to building positive attitudes toward people of different religious or secular identities.7 Activities like site visits to different places of worship, book discussion groups, and interactive activities like “speedfaithing” provide students with ways to explore interfaith cooperation at varying levels. It also provides your RAs, RDs, and Area Coordinators the chance to get to know one another and normalize religion as a part of the greater conversation around diversity.
5. Train Your Staff and Para-Professional Students. Often staff may feel at a loss when religious and philosophical difference arises, because religion is often absent from their training experience. More and more professionals on campuses are working to provide focused training opportunities for their staff, including partnerships with Religious Life staff on campus and other entities that provide religious diversity training. Projects like Secular Safe Zone through the SSA, and Ask Big Questions from Hillel (among others), in addition to trainings on interfaith relationship-building offered by IFYC, are all avenues to build competency in addressing more difficult situations that arise in religiously diverse spaces.
By designing both formal and informal opportunities for students of differing beliefs to engage with one another, and being willing to make the case for interfaith literacy as a part of their programming, residence life staff can play a powerful role in normalizing religious diversity. We hope this resource provides a helpful starting point for you in considering how to advance interfaith cooperation in your practice.
1 Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, distinguishes between the fact of diversity and the achievement of pluralism when she writes, “pluralism is diversity engaged toward a positive end.” Available at www.pluralismproject.org
2 Rockenbach, Mayhew, et. al. Fostering the Pluralism Orientation of College Students through Interfaith Co-Curricular Engagement. The Review of Higher Education, Volume 39, Number 1, Fall 2015, pp. 25-58.
3 Pew Research Center. Religion and Public Life. Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/01/14/religious-hostilities-reach-six-year-…
4 Arao, Brian, and Kristi Clemens. “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces.” In The Art of Effective Facilitation. Reflections from Social Justice Educators, 135-150. Sterling, VA: ACPA-College Student Educators, International, 2013.
5 Pope, R., & Reynolds, A. (2004). Multicultural competence in student affairs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
6 Rockenbach, Mayhew, et. al. Fostering the Pluralism Orientation of College Students through Interfaith Co-Curricular Engagement. The Review of Higher Education, Volume 39, Number 1, Fall 2015, pp. 25-58.
7 Patel, E. Sacred ground: Pluralism, prejudice, and the promise of America. Boston: Beacon Press 2012.