Interfaith Diversity and the Future of Student Affairs

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I recently returned from #ACPA15 in Tampa, Florida. It was a blast! I attended sessions on ADA changes, Twitter, coaching, leadership, and even blogging! The conference brought together student affairs professionals from around the country to Consider, Collaborate, Create, and Commit. All this took place against the amazing backdrop of the waterside Tampa Convention Center.

One of the conference’s keynote speakers was Eboo Patel. I especially enjoyed Patel’s message about the need for Interfaith Leadership. I have often reflected on the role of higher education in addressing religion as part of student identity development. As Patel said, “Student Affairs has made huge impacts on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Student Affairs helps shape American democracy. How would the U.S. look if we focused on religion?”

Faith-based organizations provide important support for students during the transition to college, when faced with loss, and when exploring the deep issues that emerge during the college experience. In addition to supporting students in their spiritual development, we need to facilitate the dialogue around religious identity and diversity. This includes opportunities for engagement, meaningful interactions, and inspiring relationships across differences.

In 2011, I helped organized our campus involvement in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. The initiative brought together students, faculty, staff, community members and faith-based organizations. Together, we engaged in community service projects that bridged religious and cultural lines. College is a time for students to explore spirituality, morals, beliefs, and even purpose and interfaith community service is a way for students to learn about and explore various faiths and contribute to the common good.

The United States is one of the world’s most religiously diverse nations. Patel reminds us it is important that Students Affairs professionals have the same frameworks, competencies, and tools to work within the realm of religious diversity as we do with ethnic diversity. Patel asked some hard questions. Why has Student Affairs not been more proactive about this? Is religious diversity too hard? Are there dimensions of religion that we are uncomfortable with? Is celebrating diversity only celebrating the differences you like?

I am struggling to answer those questions myself. Doing social justice work often requires a strong self-awareness and understanding. When I embarked on my personal journey to explore my own racial identity, I became a better advocate for ethnic diversity and social change. I believe the path to religious diversity will involve the same attention, research, and knowledge development. I am looking forward to the journey and hope to see interfaith diversity in the future of Student Affairs.

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