Campus Life

Shaping the Soul

Students say they’re looking for ultimate meaning in their lives. How Elmhurst helps them find it.

Of the many questions Ashley Greuel has been asked in her four years at Elmhurst College—questions in class, questions on surveys, questions to answer in little blue exam books—one stands out in her memory. It came in an introductory philosophy course on her first day of class as a freshman. The classroom was full of other freshmen who, like Greuel, weren’t entirely sure what to expect of their first encounter with undergraduate philosophy.

To get things rolling, the professor asked, “What is the meaning of life?”

Answers were not immediately forthcoming.

“I think we just sat there and stared back at him,” Greuel recalls. “We were like, ‘Huh?’”

Well, who can blame them? The question is a thorny one for anybody, and especially for eighteen-year-olds with other weighty matters on their minds, like how to find their way to the next class and what to make of their new roommates. On the list of life’s Big Questions, in fact, the one Greuel and her classmates were asked is just about the biggest.

Right now, by many accounts, the Big Questions—shorthand some educators use for fundamental issues of meaning, spirituality, and moral responsibility—loom very large at Elmhurst and on other American campuses. Researchers who study the attitudes of college students say that more and more students are searching for ultimate meaning in their lives, and expecting their college experiences to offer clues. In response, faculty and administrators are asking how they can better help their students to seek and find answers to the Big Questions.

In her own way, Ashley Greuel has spent a good part of her years at Elmhurst exploring the Big Questions. A senior, she is active in the Niebuhr Center, which serves faith-motivated students looking to serve society and to discover and explore their life’s callings. Her explorations have led Greuel in a clear direction: after graduation, she plans to pursue graduate study at Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston and eventually to enter the ministry. Last year, as president of the Spiritual Life Council, Greuel helped to organize “Spiritual Journeys,” a monthly series of informal campus gatherings in which students, faculty, and staff share insights into their lives of faith.

At a Spiritual Journeys session last spring, students gathered in the house of the chaplain, the Reverend H. Scott Matheney, and helped themselves to the cake, cookies, and soft drinks set out in the kitchen. Forming a circle of sofas and armchairs in the living room, they settled in to listen to a few of their peers.

The students’ talks varied in style and subject. Shelly Ruzicka told how a trip to the College’s Oxford Program in England fed her passion for social justice and for promoting the fair trade movement. Eliza Leatherberry related how her call to ministry was strengthened after she encountered intolerance in the name of faith.

For everyone gathered, the evening offered a chance to compare experiences, share a few laughs, and, at least on this night, shed a few tears. “It’s very personal,” Greuel observes. “We’re in someone’s home, not in a classroom or office, and it’s a chance for us to share experiences. After all, we’re all looking for something.”

Like Ashley Greuel, college students around the country are telling just about anybody who asks that they’re “looking for something.”

The spiritual quest of college students was the subject of a series of recent studies by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. The UCLA studies involved more than 100,000 college freshmen. Eighty percent described themselves as interested in spirituality. Seventy-six percent said they were looking for meaning in life. Seventy percent reported doing regular volunteer work back in high school. Two out of three said that it is essential to help others in difficulty.

These statistics tend to support what others are saying about today’s college students. Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, argue that the current generation— “millennials,” they’re called—are defined in part by their affinity for community service and civic purpose. In her book, God on the Quad, Naomi Schaefer Riley described a “missionary generation” of students motivated by religious faith.

The numbers most likely to make educators take notice are these: two-thirds of the freshmen surveyed by UCLA said they want their college to play a role in their spiritual development. But only about half of the juniors surveyed said they are satisfied with the opportunities their institutions offer for spiritual exploration. More- over, sixty percent said their professors never encourage discussions of spirituality.

With such data in mind, many leaders in higher education are reexamining whether and how colleges can help their students on their spiritual search. W. Robert Connor of the Teagle Foundation, which focuses on liberal learning, urges teachers to return to addressing Big Questions both in and out of the classroom. (To which some teachers fire back that they have never stopped doing so.)

Larry A. Braskamp has taught at Loyola University Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and elsewhere. An Elmhurst College trustee, he is the co-author of Putting Students First, a study of how colleges can encourage their students’ personal development. Braskamp says institutions should aim to provide an education that is more holistic. “For thirty years now, the emphasis has been on practical, professional preparation. What we’re asking is, ‘How can we create communities that develop students spiritually, socially, and affectively?’”

In Putting Students First, Braskamp and his co-authors, Lois Callan Trautvetter and Kelly Ward, examine ten colleges and their strategies for engaging their students’ moral energies. For some institutions, that means independent study courses that tap into the more personal concerns of undergraduates. On many campuses, service-learning projects seek to educate students about social problems and put them to work, actually doing something about them.

The four years of college “are the years when one thinks about what to do with the rest of one’s life,” says Paul Parker, a professor of theology and religion at Elmhurst. “Beneath every question about ‘What should be my major?’ is ‘What are my values and how do they play out?’”

Elmhurst students can choose from an assortment of programs and activities that in one way or another address the Big Questions.

Each year, for example, an array of speakers takes the stage at Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel as part of the College’s religious lecture series. The Niebuhr Lecture focuses on ethics and contemporary theology. The Cardinal Bernardin Lecture presents issues related to Roman Catholicism. The Heschel Lecture brings prominent Jewish thinkers to campus. The al-Ghazali Lecture honors an eleventh-century Muslim philosopher and theologian. Among the prominent religious thinkers to speak at Hammerschmidt in recent years are the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, the Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes, the death-penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean, and the archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George.

George’s predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, was an early recipient of the College’s Niebuhr Medal, which honors extraordinary service to humanity. Other recipients have included Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Millard and Linda Fuller, the co-founders of Habitat for Humanity. Niebuhr Medal recipients often meet with students and speak at Hammerschmidt Chapel.

Of course, the chapel also serves as the primary campus venue for worship and religious celebrations, including weekly Communion, annual Ash Wednesday and Thanksgiving services, and an Advent tradition, the Festival of Lessons and Carols. In addition, thousands of alumni have gotten married in Hammerschmidt over the years.

The Department of Theology and Religion—the oldest academic department at Elmhurst—tells prospective students that it will help them “plumb the depths of social issues, find paths of self-discovery, and grapple with fundamental questions of God.” Faculty in a range of academic disciplines—biology and education as well as philosophy and theology—integrate ethical and spiritual concerns into their coursework. The College’s three special academic centers provide service-learning opportunities to hundreds of students. Finally, Elmhurst students themselves organized the Spiritual Life Council, along with a set of additional groups dedicated to exploring religious identity, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ, UCC Fellowship, Hillel, and the Catholic and Muslim student associations.

Nancy Lee, the director of the Niebuhr Center, says students often take the lead in seeking ways to experience service and meaning. “We create opportunities and outlets for them, but the students in some ways are outrunning us. It’s hard to keep up with them,” she says proudly. “They’re on fire to do these things.”

A difficulty in talking about spirituality on campus is that just about everyone has a different idea of what “spirituality” means. For many, the word connects directly to matters of religious faith. Others use the word more broadly to signal an interest in anything mystical or ineffable. Sometimes the definitions get broad indeed: Naomi Schaefer Riley describes a student who says her favorite spiritual activity is turning off the lights in her residence hall room and putting on a CD of the Indigo Girls.

Paradoxically, while spirituality often connotes contemplation, it often manifests itself in action.

Take Erik Hodges’s trip to Ecuador. Four years ago, Hodges was an Elmhurst freshman searching for useful ways to put his personal faith to work in the world. Then he heard about the Niebuhr Center. “I was torn and look- ing for some direction,” says Hodges. “It was like they were talking directly to me.”

Hodges enrolled in a Niebuhr Center course called “Serving Society,” which examines the tradition of faith-motivated service—from the Bible to Hull House to Gandhi. The course required personal reflection and journal writing. Spurred on, he began looking for a chance to do education-related service work in a Spanish-speaking country. (Hodges was an education major with a minor in Spanish.) He went to see Nancy Lee. She helped him find a position in Ecuador, working for an organization called Hogar de Cristo, which provides medical care to rural migrants living in desperate poverty in shantytowns outside Guayaquil.

Hodges spent part of the summer between his sophomore and junior years in Ecuador. He was unprepared for his first encounter with Ecuador’s slums, with their pirated electricity and open sewers. “It shocked me,” he says. “I remember seeing the prefab bamboo huts with pink roofs that had been built for these communities, going as far as the eye could see. There was so much need.”

Thursdays in the communities were medical days. Hodges’s job was to conduct surveys of the residents to help determine their medical needs. It was not a job that always made him comfortable. Besides the physical difficulties (heat and insects were equally oppressive), he struggled with asking strangers about the most intimate details of their lives.

“It was a difficult time for me,” he says. “And it changed me.”

When he got home, Hodges decided that he would have to find more time for service work. He spent future spring breaks not sunning himself on a beach but building homes in poor communities, working with Habitat for Humanity. He also decided to pursue graduate studies in public health.

Hodges, who graduated last spring, says his experiences with the Niebuhr Center also changed him in more subtle and personal ways. “I’m able to look a little beyond just, ‘What am I going to do this weekend?’ I’m more interested in the things that really matter.”

Erik Hodges’s experience is not unique at Elmhurst. Professor Lee proudly points to a long list of students that the Niebuhr Center has placed in service positions, both around the world and close to home. (One example: Zubair Ahmed, a pre-med major, received grant support to do tsunami-relief work in India this year, through Indian Muslim Relief and Charities.)

The Niebuhr Center—along with the Niebuhr Lecture and Niebuhr Medal—were named for two of the College’s most distinguished alumni, the theologians Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr. Lee says the center’s mission is inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s pragmatic, socially involved theology, and by Richard Niebuhr’s injunction that to be truly faithful means “engagement in civil work for the sake of the common good.” The center works with about a hundred students, providing internships, offering courses, and connecting students with opportunities to serve others.

Through the Niebuhr Center and other campus entities (including fraternities and sororities), Elmhurst students are finding their way to shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, and other service sites in metropolitan Chicago and beyond. The work often is very hands-on. For the students personally, the impact, as Erik Hodges found out, can be deeply affecting.

At Elmhurst, service-learning is one example of the kind of innovative educational approaches—sometimes called “pedagogies of engagement”—that aim to develop the moral and spiritual sense of students and to make their college experiences more relevant and profound. Other examples include student research projects and inter-national study experiences. The students benefit from exposure to the unfamiliar, get a taste of social problems at home and abroad, and put their energy and idealism to work for the common good.

“The question for me is how to bring the world into this place,” says Chaplain Scott Matheney. “Faith is never just private. It has a personal component, but it inevitably is tied to something larger.”

At least some courses at Elmhurst require service-learning experiences. Occasionally a student will question the notion of being required to volunteer. “If students are required to do service, they’ll do it grudgingly,” says junior Brian Devitt. “And they probably won’t get much out of it.”

The whole notion of making spiritual and moral education a priority in higher education has its critics. Stanley Fish, a prominent public intellectual and former dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that seeing to the moral development of students distracts from the intellectual mission of colleges and universities. “Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and any institution,” Fish writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “As I look around, it does not seem to me that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else’s job, too.”

Nancy Lee has a different view. She points to the way community service and academic rigor can complement each other. “The strength of service here at Elmhurst is that it is linked to courses. It’s not just existential. It’s not just, ‘I want to do something nice.’ It has an intellectual grounding. The heart and the head work together.”

A renewed emphasis on moral and spiritual development on college campuses would represent something of a return to the original program for American higher education. Starting with Harvard’s founding in 1636, most private colleges aimed to build not only the intellects but also the characters of their students, requiring religious instruction and regular chapel attendance. At Elmhurst, founded in 1871 as a preparatory seminary for an immigrant church, the German Evangelical Church in North America, compulsory daily chapel persisted until 1949. Elmhurst still values its affiliation with the United Church of Christ, the modern successor to its founding denomination.

As is the case at most schools, today’s students at Elmhurst are as likely to feed the spirit with meditation or yoga as with daily or even weekly worship. In fact, the UCLA studies suggest that, even as students express a desire to explore spiritual concerns, they are less likely to involve themselves in mainstream religious services. One survey reported that the percentage of students regularly attending worship services dropped from 52 percent to 29 percent from high school to college.

According to media coverage of the UCLA findings, some parents are concerned that their children will drift away from their faith during their college years. That’s a concern that dates back at least to William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale, published more than a half-century ago. Other media accounts focused on how the findings of student spiritual hunger belie the image of college life that has emerged over the last few decades: one that centers on the competitive grind to get into a good school and land a rewarding job.

Still, as Kevin O’Donnell, a co-chaplain at Elmhurst, points out, the college experience has always been in part about personal exploration and self-discovery. “This is nothing new. For a lot of students, college is the first chance to encounter new ideas and have new freedom,” says O’Donnell. “They’re looking to be engaged spiritually.”

Larry Braskamp says it is useful for teachers, in appropriate settings, to offer reflections on their personal experiences and beliefs. That is not uncommon at Elmhurst. Speakers at the monthly Spiritual Journeys meetings have included a number of faculty, staff, and administrators, including President Bryant L. Cureton.

For some professors, sharing a bit of personal information in the classroom is an effective teaching tool. Paul Parker says he offers a “spiritual autobiography” at the outset of his theology courses. “I tell them, ‘Here are my values; here are my commitments.’ Not so that they can become like me. But I tell them that I am a pacifist, for example, so that when we talk about nonviolence, they will know where I am coming from.”

Of course, not every teacher, at Elmhurst or elsewhere, chooses to take such an approach. In a time of religious controversy at home and conflict abroad, many campuses are experiencing heightened sensitivities to matters of personal belief, and such discussions must be handled with care. “Relationships between students and faculty become more complex, difficult, and controversial when the faculty are involved in fostering character,” Braskamp acknowledges.

Moreover, many faculty members are uncomfortable about discussions of religion and morality in the classroom. The UCLA studies indicate a degree of ambivalence among faculty regarding the place of spirituality in higher education. Nationwide, eighty percent of faculty said they considered themselves “spiritual.” But only thirty percent agreed that “colleges should be concerned with facilitating the spiritual development of students.” Given those numbers, the list of Big Questions for students might include not just “What is the meaning of life?” but also, “Who will help me find out?”

At Elmhurst, for all the paradoxes and difficulties involved, helping to foster the spiritual searches of students remains a stated institutional goal. The College’s mission statement “affirms the spiritual basis for living a meaningful and purposeful life.” Realizing that aspect of the mission requires ongoing, dedicated, far-reaching effort. “It takes a whole campus of whole people,” says Larry Braskamp, “to develop whole students.”

By Andrew Santella
Illustration by John Ritter

Illustration by John Ritter

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