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Spiritual atrophy in college

Most colleges and universities pride themselves on graduating students who go on to be the great thought leaders and creatives of our time. My alma mater- Wesleyan University is no different and definitely celebrates being the container that gave rise to one of our most creative luminaries- Lin Manuel Miranda of ‘Hamilton’ fame. Wesleyan recently put on a fundraising campaign that raised $482 million. The campaign slogan- "This is Why” emphasized why alumni should donate stating:

"BECAUSE the freedom—the challenge—to make our own paths would be overwhelming to some. But not us. Not fifty years ago. Not a century ago. Not today." 

When I read that part of the slogan, it begged the question, what does it take for us to exercise the freedom and take on the challenge of making our own paths at Wesleyan or anywhere? Social scientists like Brene Brown have spent a lifetime doing research to answer that question. In one of her book’s “The Gifts of Imperfection” she notes that the interesting thing about creativity and meaningful work is that in order for that to unfold, it requires profound personal development work.  She notes that this personal development work should involve being intentional about building a practice that helps you listen to your intuition, follow your passions, and learn to dance with your fears. Ultimately, your personal development is the key that will unlock your highest creative expression and your most innovative and relevant ideas that are needed to shatter the status quo.

Now, the very incubators that are supposed to foster our most creative expression like college can be the very containers that normalize personal and spiritual atrophy, rather than promote the personal and spiritual development that we know facilitates our ability to be creative and identify our unique meaningful work. According to a recent study from Alyssa Bryant into the religious and spiritual practices of first year college students, she found that most college students become less religiously active in their first year of college. The dominant college culture promotes the notion that college is a time for academic achievement and arrested development on the personal and spiritual levels. Imbalance in this regard is normalized, even celebrated as a badge of honor, so totally getting wasted on Friday night gets you a laugh and a high-five from friends rather than a lecture.

The research around the benefits of spiritual practice for college students is clear. Alexander and Helen Astin’s study on the Spiritual Life of College Students indicates that students that score above 50% for spiritual engagement are more likely to feel centered or at peace in challenging times and more likely to report that they are physically healthy, in that they don’t stay up all night or excessively drink in college relative to their peers that aren’t spiritually inclined.

Now, what would it be like if academic achievement and personal development work went hand in hand? In my experience my personal and spiritual development work in college enhanced my ability to academically achieve, and provided a sense of clarity around my professional calling, mission and purpose. 

We are now at an important junction in our culture where personal development work is becoming more mainstream. This means we are strategically poised to address the imbalance between the high focus on academic achievement and lack of attention on personal development for college students. I share the hope of Alexander and Helen Astin, who call for real investment including allocation of resources to bring our attention to the "inner lives of students’ development that is—the sphere of values and beliefs, emotional maturity, spirituality, and self-understanding."

1)    The Journal of College Student Development, Volume 44, pp. 723-74

2)      The Spiritual Life of College Students by Helen and Alexander Astin. Retrieved from http://spirituality.ucla.edu/docs/reports/Spiritual_Life_College_Students_Full_Report.pdf