Supporting Students’ Search for Meaning in Their Lives

Although some say their spirituality is closely linked to their religion, the two are not the same

Undergraduates come to campus searching for meaning and identity. Who am I? Why am I here? What really matters? What should I be doing with my life? Many expect their college experience to help them with the search. How does higher education respond?

Once upon a time, most colleges had religious missions with moral and spiritual dimensions. With the growth of public universities—and the secularization of many private colleges—higher education became identified with intellectual growth alone. Students grappling with bigger questions were left to their own devices.

Student affairs professionals claim to serve students as whole persons. Spiritual values and struggles are a common aspect of young adulthood. Whether a school is religious or secular, public or private, any attempt to serve the whole person must take spirituality into account.

Two studies now in progress address aspects of student spirituality and higher education’s response.

Associate professors Dr. Judy Rogers of Miami University OH and Dr. Patrick Love of New York University are studying how master’s degree programs in student affairs prepare professionals to respond to undergraduates’ search for meaning. Rogers spoke at the NASPA conference in Tampa FL in March.

Drs. Helen and Alexander Astin of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA surveyed 2004-05 freshmen about their spirituality and plan to follow up with the same students as juniors. They released the freshman part of the longitudinal study in April.

Hunger and diversity

Teaching in the college student personnel program in Miami University’s department of educational leadership, Dr. Judy Rogers offers graduate students a course in spirituality to help prepare them to work with undergraduates.

“Are we ready to work with students who are in spiritual distress?” she asked. Student affairs professionals are the front line in student issues, but most of us are at the third grade level in our understanding of religion and spirituality.

Some students think in spiritual terms, and not just with their spiritual advisors. When they consult a professor or career counselor about where to look for a job, they want to feel free to bring questions of values and vocation into the discussion.

Church-state separation or a religious school’s creed can leave some students feeling marginalized and silenced, making spirituality a diversity issue. “Undergraduate students hunger to talk about their spirituality,” Rogers said.

Graduate students hunger too, it turns out. When spiritual development is part of the student affairs curriculum, it raises issues they knew they’d have to deal with someday. “It’s sitting on the shelf in the crock pot,” she said. It bubbles and simmers, with new bits tossed in now and then. Students plan to take it off the shelf eventually but are afraid of feeling stupid when they do.

Defining spiritual development

Rogers and Love interviewed students and faculty in three graduate programs for college student personnel at three different schools: one public university, one Roman Catholic and one Christian-based (Protestant). Their results are not yet published.

 After asking interviewees to define spiritual development, they showed them a five-point definition by Love and Donna Talbot:

  1. Seeking authenticity and wholeness as part of identity development.
  2. Transcending one’s current locus to take a wider view.
  3. Forming a growing connection to self and others.
  4. Finding meaning, purpose and direction in life.
  5. Openness to relation with something intangible beyond human existence or rational thought.

Most agreed with the first four. “It’s number five that gets a little dicey for some folks,” Rogers said. The most widely shared theme was the sense of connection, together with the search for meaning and purpose.

Although some say their spirituality is closely linked to their religion, the two are not the same. Religion implies connection with a tradition or community, while spirituality involves a process of inner development.

Faculty roles

Program values, personal beliefs and teaching styles influence how faculty approach issues of spirituality with their graduate students. Rogers and Love interviewed four faculty members in each of the three programs.

“There was always a sense of making space for the silenced voices. Which voices were silenced depended on the type of institution,” Rogers told WIHE. Regardless of school affiliation, part of the faculty role was to make a safe space for students who are religiously and spiritually diverse.

Maneuvering the boundary of church and state was a challenge at the public university. Outside of a class on spirituality, faculty didn’t raise the subject but tried to set a respectful climate for students who brought it up. Those who didn’t think in terms of spirituality talked with students about being authentic and making ethical decisions.

Faculty on the Christian-based campus were expected to integrate faith and learning. Talking about faith and spirituality was very normal in the classroom. Their challenge was to expose their graduate students to other perspectives, preparing them to work with undergraduates of many faiths as well as atheists and agnostics. “Making a safe space there was making space for students who weren’t evangelical,” Rogers told WIHE.

They found the most openness in the Catholic program, which had a religiously diverse student body. Themes of social justice and vocation permeated the university and its student personnel program.

To tell or not to tell?

At both the Catholic and the secular school, faculty don’t mention their personal views in the classroom (unless it’s a class about spirituality) but answer questions one-on-one. “Once you’ve been labeled a person who taught spirituality, students feel it’s okay to approach you,” she said.

Faculty in all three programs struggle with how much of their spiritual journey to share with students—even in a class on spirituality or during office hours. “Across the board faculty ask, is it appropriate? I don’t want it to be about me,” she told WIHE .

Finding the balance is a constant challenge. Faculty who feel a need to be the expert are most reluctant to reveal much about themselves. Others, viewing what happens in the classroom as mutual construction of knowledge, do some personal sharing to make spirituality classes more authentic and students feel less like guinea pigs.

Because spiritual questions matter to undergraduates, those who work with them need basic spiritual literacy. “This is part of our professional life now. It’s not so much do we do this as how we do this,” she said.

Freshmen seeking purpose

Anyone who doubts undergraduates’ interest in spirituality needs only look at the results of the HERI freshman survey, released in April (see below). Analyzing data from more than 112,000 new students at 236 colleges and universities, Drs. Helen and Alexander Astin were surprised at the extent of spiritual concerns.

Unlike the stereotype of a self-centered generation motivated by financial success, more than three-fourths say they’re looking for meaning or purpose. Nearly half expect college to help them fi nd it. They want college to help them understand themselves, develop their personal values and express their spirituality.

Spiritual or religious beliefs bring strength, support and guidance to two out of three incoming freshmen. Similar numbers feel strengthened by trust in a Higher Power. More than three-fifths have had spiritual experiences witnessing the beauty and harmony of nature; more than half, while listening to beautiful music. About 40% feel secure in their religious or spiritual views, a quarter are seeking and a quarter feel conflicted or doubtful. Only one in seven students has no interest in religion.

Empowerment and health

Students expect college not only to promote their self understanding but also to prepare them for responsible citizenship. Many colleges include the latter in their mission statements. The freshman survey suggests spirituality is a factor.

Those with high scores on spirituality (or, to a smaller extent, religion) are much more likely than low-scorers to help others through community service, donations to charity and helping friends with personal problems. They express more commitment to values like reducing pain and suffering and making the world a better place.

Highly spiritual students feel more empowered to make a difference in the world. The statement “Realistically, an individual can do little to bring about changes in our society” drew agreement from 34% of the least spiritual students but only 18% of the most spiritual.

Spirituality appears to be a factor in students’ mental and physical wellbeing as well. Although highly spiritual students (unlike religious ones) experience slightly more psychological distress than average, they have much stronger coping mechanisms: feeling at peace and finding meaning during hard times.

Physical health is better among students with spiritual or religious interests; they eat healthier diets and are less likely to smoke or drink. Those in spiritual or religious turmoil have less healthy habits and miss more school because of illness.

Higher education can’t afford to ignore students’ spiritual struggle. Students bring religious and spiritual concerns to campus. They count on college to help them sort it out. Faculty and staff should not let them down.

Email Dr. Judy Rogers at
Dr. Patrick Love at or 212.998.5524

Read the HERI report at

Spirituality in First-year Students

The HERI survey of 2004-05 first-year students found:

Spirituality Indicators

83% believe in the sacredness of life

80% have an interest in spirituality

76% search for meaning and purpose in life

74% talk with friends about the meaning of life

64% say their spirituality is a source of joy

47% seek out opportunities to grow spiritually

Religious Indicators

81% attended religious services in past year

80% discuss religion/spirituality with friends

79% believe in God, seen as love, creator, protector

76% discuss religion/spirituality with family

69% pray

69% draw strength, support and guidance from their religious beliefs

40% think it’s important to follow religious teachings in everyday life

Doubts and Reservations

65% sometimes feel distant from God

57% sometimes question their beliefs

52% have disagreed with family about religion

48% sometimes feel angry with God

Indicators of Tolerance

83% agree that the non-religious can lead moral lives

64% agree that spiritual growth doesn’t depend on being religious

63% reject the notion that people who don’t believe in God will be punished

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