• Character Clearinghouse photo

Michelle Sterk Barrett, 2016 Dissertation of the Year

Posted Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Michelle Sterk Barrett

Recipient of the 2016 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Dissertation of the Year Award, Dr. Michelle Sterk Barrett, interviews with members of the Character Clearinghouse. In the interview Dr. Sterk Barrett talks about her dissertation, the Boston College PULSE program, and the future of her research.

Recipient: Michelle Sterk Barrett

Institution: University of Massachusetts, Boston

Dissertation Title: Fostering the Spiritual Development of Undergraduates through Service-Learning


Listen to the Interview audio:

Tell us about the purpose of your dissertation titled “Fostering the Spiritual Development of Undergraduates through Service-Learning.”

This mixed methods study analyzes the relationship between service-learning participation and the occurrence of spiritual growth among 272 undergraduates in the Boston College PULSE Program.  The overall research questions included:

  • Did spiritual growth occur among undergraduates participating in service learning?
  • Which aspects of the service-learning experience related to the occurrence of spiritual growth?
  • Finally, based upon Nevitt Sanford’s theory of college student development, the third question was, “What role did “challenge” and “support” paly in the process of spiritual growth?”

Through a pre-test/post-test survey adapted from the College Students’ Beliefs and Values instrument created by Astin, Astin, & Lindholm (2011), the components of the service- learning experience that relate to spiritual development were analyzed quantitatively.  Interviews with eleven study participants whose quantitative survey results demonstrated particularly high or low levels of spiritual change then provided further explanation and detailed description of growth processes.

Can you tell us about the Boston College PULSE program?

Yes, the Boston College PULSE Program was begun in the early 1970s and initially arose out of student protest.  As a Jesuit institution, Boston College required then (as it does now) that all students to take courses in philosophy and theology.  Students felt that these disciplines were irrelevant in the context of the modern era and pushed the administration on the necessity of taking the courses.  At the same time, students were seeking opportunities to be involved in social action—as were so many in their generation.  Fr. Joseph Flanagan, a Jesuit and chair of the philosophy department at the time clearly heard the student concerns and worked with them to develop a way in which the study of these disciplines could be made more relevant to their everyday experience and their desire to be more deeply engaged in societal issues.  Thus, one of the first service learning programs was begun in the United States—though that was not the language used to describe the program at the time.

Because of the long history of PULSE, the program structures have been modified over the years to maximize the potential power of PULSE to impact student lives and community-based organizations.  Though there are a few elective classes, the majority of students (about 400 annually) take an interdisciplinary introductory philosophy and theology course entitled, “Person and Social Responsibility.”  Each of the approximately 10 faculty members that teach this course annually construct it in a slightly different manner, but all courses have the common themes of analyzing what philosophers have had to say about developing a just society and what theologians and various religious traditions have had to say about the responsibility that individuals have towards the common good in a society. While studying these subjects, students are simultaneously serving for 10-12 hours a week in a community-based organization. They meet weekly with half of their class and the professor for a reflective discussion section that enables integration of the academic content and service experiences.

Why did you choose this particular topic of study?

My initial interest in this topic arose when I did a year of service after graduating from Villanova.  In all honesty, I chose to participate in a post-graduate volunteer program because I didn’t know what else to do after college.  I was a psych major graduating in the midst of a recession who didn’t want to go home to Southern California after college.  Many of my friends were doing a year of service so I thought, Why not?  I think the fact that I had absolutely no expectations for the experience led the year to have a deeply transformative impact on me.  It presented me with so many overwhelming questions and challenges that I had to dig deep in order to persevere through the year.  I had been a spiritual person upon entering the program, but I had never previously had to rely on my spirituality to get me through difficult times in this way.  I had never previously been pushed to think about my spiritual life and what I believed in this manner.

Fast forward 5 years and I found myself working with the PULSE Program at Boston College.  Over the nearly 10 years that I worked there, I observed the same pattern among hundreds of students.  PULSE was transforming student lives in a way that was deeply spiritual.

I wanted to learn how to study this and document what was occurring among students involved in this service-learning experience.  I also wanted to help fill what I saw as a notable gap in the literature.  Nearly all of the limited number of studies that had previously looked at this area had not investigated the intersection between service learning and spirituality as a primary focus of the study.

So, I eventually chose to leave the job I loved with PULSE and pursue doctoral work at UMASS Boston with two of the foremost experts on service learning: Dwight Giles and John Saltmarsh.  Alyssa Bryant from North Carolina State University and one of the leading scholars of spirituality in higher education eventually became the third member of my committee.

For our readers, will you differentiate the terms spirituality and religion? And talk about how you perceive the differences or similarities in the two terms.

There is a section near the beginning of the dissertation that focuses on exactly this question of how religion and spirituality overlap, but are distinct from one another.  It is interesting to note that prior to the 1990s, higher education literature used the terms interchangeably.  In the literature, it is now generally agreed upon that spirituality is a distinct concept from religiosity. While there is overlap between the concepts of religiosity and spirituality for some individuals, this is not always the case. In other words, some individuals can be spiritual without being religious and some can be religious without being spiritual.  Studies have generally considered religion to be associated with membership in institutions or organizations with a community of believers, adherence to a set of faith-based beliefs and and participation in rituals/ceremonies.  Zabriskie actually wrote a whole dissertation on this topic in 2005.

Through a literature review, this study came to conceptualize spirituality as including the following components:

  1. being engaged in a dynamic process of inner reflection to better understand oneself and the meaning and purpose of one’s life
  2. living out one’s personal philosophy of life with authenticity and integrity
  3. seeking a connection/relationship with a higher power
  4. belief in the interconnectedness of humanity and a related desire to be of service to others

What results did you find most encouraging regarding spiritual development and service learning?

The first discovery that was unexpected and particularly interesting to me actually came before I began the study.  In doing the review of the literature, I discovered that there was significant overlap between these two scholarly fields that had developed independent from one another.  The empirical and theoretical work describing how spiritual growth occurs completely intersected with the scholarly work informing the best practices in service-learning.  Both areas emphasized the importance of cognitive dissonance and related disequilibrium; reflection; and the importance of relationships.

This overlap helps to explain the strength of the study findings. While I knew through personal experience that numerous students were experiencing spiritual growth during PULSE, I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how high this number was.  In the pre-test/post-test comparison it was approximately 78% of students. In a self-report of spiritual growth, it was similarly about 80% of students.

Finally, I found it very gratifying to do a public presentation on the dissertation research to about 100 students and faculty at Boston College. As I went through the conceptual model explaining how spiritual growth seems to be occurring through the service-learning, I could see the heads nodding in agreement throughout the audience. Afterwards, I had many students approach me and share how delighted they were to better understand what had just happened to them during their PULSE experience.  So, I knew that what I had written really resonated with the students.

What results, if any, did you find most troubling?

While it wasn’t a primary focus of my study, it was notable that nearly all of the views on religion expressed by interviewees were either negative or neutral.  Many associated religion with judgmentality, exclusivity, and hypocrisy. Religious institutions did not seem to be a place where students could turn as they processed their spiritual struggles. This fits with studies finding that young adults are increasingly unaffiliated with religious institutions and consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious.  However, it troubles me because I then wonder where young adults can go to nurture and develop their spirituality if they feel they cannot rely on religious institutions. This, of course, means students in this generation may have greater expectations of higher education institutions to fill this gap and provide opportunities for spiritual reflection and development—which makes it even more important to understand how this might be done effectively through service learning experiences.

Please describe the implications of your research as they relate to the moral development of college students.

One of the spirituality scales in the study investigated one’s belief in the interconnectedness of humanity and a related desire to be of service to others.  The specific variables in this scale directly relate to moral questions of how one interacts with others and engages with societal issues. For example, variables measured ideas such as one’s desire to “reduce pain and suffering in the world;” Improve the human condition” “Try to change things that are unfair in the world” and “help others who are in difficulty.” Mean scores on all of these individual variables changes in statistically significant ways from the beginning to the end of the year and this scale had the most significant change (among all of the spirituality scales) between the beginning and the end of PULSE.

The 2016 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values’ theme discussed how student activism and advocacy plays a role in higher education. When relating the theme to social injustices that have sparked social movements (i.e. Ferguson, Claremont McKenna College, University of Missouri, or the bombings in South Carolina) are there any particular instances that impacted the dialogue in the Boston College PULSE program?

My time working with the PULSE Program as an administrator and then as a scholar actually preceded the recent social movements that we have recently seen.  The most significant national and global event that impacted classroom dialogue during my time was the Iraq War.  There were many student-led protests of the war and some PULSE “alumni” were highly involved in leading those movements.

As I mentioned near the beginning of this interview PULSE actually began as an on-campus social movement related to student desire to be engaged with larger societal issues. So, the history of PULSE is intertwined with social action and student activism.  While not all students who enter PULSE are interested in social action—in fact, many take the course simply because they are disinterested or afraid of philosophy and theology and think that combining it with service will make it more palatable-many students are transformed by the experience and subsequently become interested in social action.  A few of the questions asked in my dissertation research relate to this including the question of student desire to influence the political structure, student desire to help promote racial understanding, and student desire to become a community leader.  Each of these variables changed in a statistically significant way between the beginning of the PULSE experience and the end of the experience.

Where do you go from here with your research?

I currently have two different manuscripts and am trying to get the research published in journals.  However, I’m finding it’s not easy to transform nearly 300 pages into about 10% of that for journal articles and still have the level of detail necessary.

I’d next like to investigate the experiences of non-white students participating in service-learning at predominantly white institutions.