Clearinghouse is pleased to announce that Eric Lovik has won the Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Dissertation Award. This award goes to the author of an outstanding doctoral dissertation relevant to the field of college student character and values development.
Congratulations, Eric, from all of us at the Character Clearinghouse!
Contact Mackenzie Streit at email@example.com for more information on the 2012 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Dissertation Award. Go to studentvalues.fsu.edu for future updates on the 2012 award application process.
Director of Institutional Effectiveness
College of The Albemarle
I remember being interested in religion and spirituality as early as my childhood because my parents were very influential in my character development and faith formation. I had anticipated studying at a conservative evangelical college, and I attended Bob Jones University for a bachelor’s degree in humanities. Then I earned a master of divinity at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary. Following seminary I wanted to focus specifically on the study of higher education, so I attended Temple University where I completed a master of education in educational administration (with a higher ed concentration). Last year I earned my Ph.D. in higher education at Penn State University with a minor in religious studies.
For six years I worked full-time at Penn State in the dean’s office in the College of Health and Human Development as an assistant to the associate dean for research and graduate education. After I completed my coursework for my doctoral program in the College of Education, I left Penn State to become the director of institutional research at Clearwater Christian College, a nondenominational evangelical liberal arts college in Florida. Then at the beginning of 2011, I accepted a new position as director of institutional effectiveness at College of The Albemarle, a public community college in northeastern North Carolina.
The purpose of my study was to analyze the impact of organizational features and student experiences on spiritual development among first-year students attending four-year institutions in the United States. This study was an exploration of the characteristics of colleges and universities along with an examination of students’ activities and behaviors in relation to spiritual gains.
With the growing interest in college student spirituality, thanks in large part to our colleagues at UCLA, higher ed researchers, faculty, and administrators have been reconsidering the place of spirituality on campus. I have seen firsthand that college can be a venue and time in which students learn more about themselves and become more sensitive to their inner development. My background early in life, both at home and in school, provided me with opportunities and support to examine my spirituality. During grad school as I read the literature about the general decline of religious commitment throughout the undergraduate years, I found myself wondering if perhaps there is more to college than a secularizing effect. When HERI’s Spirituality Project led to deeper and broader understanding of college students’ beliefs and values, I thought this is definitely an ideal time to conduct a study on spiritual development.
There is a critical need for American campuses to intentionally designate time and space for self-reflection. We have seen large groups of college students spontaneously gather at a common lawn area for peer support, prayer vigils, and self-reflection immediately following moments of crisis such as the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, and the Texas A&M bonfire accident. Despite differences in the substance of students’ beliefs and values, there is no doubt that moments of crisis cause collegians to join together and reflect on meaning and purpose in life. Most religious institutions and an increasing number of secular colleges and universities provide some kind of a designated place or entity for students’ religious or spiritual activities like a religious affairs center or campus chaplain. These efforts should continue, yet institutions should not take a passive role after they create the place and time. Colleges should frequently remind students of the availability of designated space for individual and peer reflection.
Several types of self-reflection are most beneficial. In my view, one of the most powerful elements of the chapel service that exerts such a strong influence on spiritual development is that it occurs within the context of a student’s peer environment. One of the most beneficial aspects of self-reflection involves students engaging in self-reflection with peers. Another helpful form of reflection is in a place—private or public—that displays relevant symbols and artifacts. College students, religious and secular, would benefit by reflection in a location which maintains peace and tranquility, and displays visual images that stimulate introspection.
There are some ways that colleges can provide these conditions. Many religious colleges whose missions are committed to denominational or theological orthodoxy have been providing conditions that foster self-reflection on spirituality. For example, evangelical colleges schedule small group meetings during the evening for students living in residence halls to participate in a short time of prayer, Bible reading, and spiritually focused conversations. In light of the powerful effect of faculty-student relationships, religious institutions should also arrange opportunities for faculty and students to engage in spiritual activities and times of reflection. At secular campuses, while they would not endorse a particular religion, they could invite speakers from various backgrounds to discuss matters of meaning, purpose, and well being in life. Students at public campuses should feel safe and welcome to express their spiritual identity. Another way is for colleges to evaluate their general education curriculum, and to offer coursework in spirituality. These courses should urge students to write reflective journals in response to specific issues of meaning and purpose in life. Taking it one step further, students in these courses should be asked to share their reflections with their peers in class.
No, my study did not consider technology. While the NSSE survey (2004) asked a couple questions about students’ use of computers and information technology, I did not include those items in my analysis.
I think that emerging technology has the potential to be used in a positive manner to impact college students’ spirituality through online learning and social networking. Last year Inside Higher Ed ran an article about the enrollment boom in online education at Christian universities. There is concern at these institutions that their online students might not receive the same opportunities for spiritual support as their resident students. Some of the largest online Christian providers have developed web based resources for students’ spiritual development. Grand Canyon University sponsors Bible studies online, Liberty University offers an online ministry with a wide range of spiritually enhancing content, Indiana Wesleyan University provides links to websites that offer spiritual support, and Regent University recently developed a spirituality matrix to help both resident and online students measure progress in their faith. Many evangelical institutions stream live or post downloadable videos of their chapel services. However, if college students do not have access to, or, more importantly, if they choose not to engage in these activities—whether the spiritual enhancing activities occur online or on campus—then the college impact will be minimized. Secular institutions could also use online media to broadcast special speakers, events, and other opportunities for their students to reflect on their identity and spirituality without promoting a particular religious cause.
Social networking may be helpful, too; however it depends on how an institution uses the technology. Many evangelical institutions’ Facebook sites include discussion threads for students, employees, and alumni to express their faith and spirituality via posting of personal testimonies and prayer requests. Their discussions may cover topics that encourage self-reflection and lively debate about what the Bible says on a given topic. The positive effect of one’s peers can be quite powerful on a college student’s inner development, and social interaction through today’s technology is one way to cultivate a spiritual quest. On the other hand, the amount of time that young adults are known for spending on social networking sites can be a detriment to their spirituality if they use their time for spiritually hindering activities. Religious and secular institutions can encourage their students to express their beliefs and values and reflect on their issues of identity and meaning through discussions on social networking sites.
The findings seemed unusual at first. What I found, confirming prior research, is that encounters with difference in the classroom relate positively with students’ reported gains in spirituality. However, encounters with difference in any non-required situation were found to be nonsignificant. There may be several reasons for this. First, it may be the sample itself because I did not have access to the full database of NSSE responders. Second, and what may be a better explanation, is that we are examining first-year students’ practices. My sense is that discussions in formal classroom settings made a significant and positive impact because students were required to engage in conversation with others from backgrounds that are different from their own. On the other hand, I believe that the personal conversations with diverse peers (both in viewpoints and in race/ethnicity) did not make a difference because when the NSSE survey was administered for this study (spring), first-year students were still relatively new to their postsecondary experience. They still prefer to associate with peers who are more similar to them than different, and thus they might not have realized the value of breaking outside of one’s homogeneous group of friends. On the other hand, I think if I had examined the NSSE results for these measurements for seniors, the findings would be much different.
I found that institutional support for students’ social and nonacademic needs during the first year of college relates positively to students’ developing a deepened sense of spirituality. In fact, this measurement yielded the most powerful influence on students’ reported gains in spirituality. There is something about college support for student life beyond the academic that fosters growth in the whole person. To be sure, secular colleges and universities do not typically overtly promote faith formation and spiritual inquisitiveness, yet their support for students’ personal well being does make a difference. College students are interested in learning more about themselves and discovering meaning and purpose in life, so faculty and student affairs practitioners should be prepared to answer students’ tough questions. Unfortunately, faculty and student affairs administrators at secular institutions may be uncomfortable or reluctant to encourage students to reflect on spirituality. Regardless of institutional type and control, first-year students who report a deepened sense of spirituality due to their college experience also point out that their college supports their social and nonacademic development.
In my study, which was based on a portion of the 2004 NSSE survey data, being a varsity athlete had no significant association with developing a deepened sense of spirituality. Perhaps the nonsignificance was due to the sample; I used data for first-year students only, and there were relatively few student athletes in my sample.
Kuh and Gonyea’s (2005) study, based on the entire 2004 NSSE dataset, found that participation in varsity athletics is unrelated to spirituality, but their follow-up report one year later with some different variables discovered a small negative association (Gonyea & Kuh, 2006). Pascarella and Terenzini’s (2005) review of the literature on the impact of college on students did not find studies relating participation in sports to spiritual development, but the authors did cite a few studies linking varsity athletics to moral reasoning and behavior. Research by Baldizan and Frey (1995), Beller, Stoll, Burwell, and Cole (1996), Nixon (1997), and McCabe and Trevino (1997) suggests that there is very little connection, if any, between intercollegiate athletics and moral development.
As a personal observation, though, it is not uncommon to watch college athletes during postgame press conferences and interviews acknowledge their faith or give credit to God (e.g., Tim Tebow). For these student athletes whose spirituality matters to them, it appears that they use the sports venue as an opportunity to publicly announce their inner identity.
These findings seemed a little unusual at first because in my research no other fields of study related to spirituality. My sense is that these findings are reflective of students’ precollege traits more so than a change in spirituality as a direct result of their college experience. Generally, first year students at four-year institutions are taking general education classes and are most likely not taking courses in their major. So, I don’t believe that first-year biology or business majors are impacted spiritually because of coursework in their respective programs. However, I do believe that these findings may be descriptive of students’ predispositions toward or away from matters of spirituality and faith. A well known generalization about people who study or work in the hard sciences is that they tend to be more rational and empirical in their worldviews and skeptical of anything supernatural or divine. I think that first-year biology students enter college with a generally negative view of religion and spirituality, thus the findings from my study. I’m uncertain why business majors related positively while no others did. Perhaps this was due to the sample, but I cannot say for sure.
If the critical years of undergraduate education, particularly the first-year experience, are so important to helping students better understand themselves, then faculty and student affairs practitioners should be prepared to deal with the interior aspects of students’ lives. Professional development and other training opportunities for faculty and administrators would enable them to more effectively aid students regarding spiritual matters.
Another implication is that faculty and administrators might better appreciate the diversity and intensity of students’ religious and spiritual values. Students in American postsecondary institutions vary widely in their religious and spiritual backgrounds, and we are seeing more “minority religions” on campus, as well as students who are atheistic or agnostic. Students from different kinds of institutions have various perceptions of the impact of their first year of college on their spirituality, and these first-year students interpreted their experiences from many different perspectives.
All institutions, secular or religious, might benefit by evaluating their core curricula to determine whether coursework in religion or theology would add to the value of their general education outcomes and individual student development. Courses may be more effective in helping students develop spiritually if they include reflections on personal experiences rather than treating religion, theology, and related domains of values and beliefs as “content” to be learned.
Further, all institutions should evaluate, from their students’ perspectives, how well the campus personnel and services provide support for students to help them thrive socially and cope with their nonacademic responsibilities and growth.
I’m also very interested in the tracking and assessment of voluntary community service. College students are involved in helping people and giving back to society much more than we realize, but we don’t always keep an eye on the good things our students are doing. Even if colleges do not have planning software to track student participation in volunteer activities, they can measure community service simply through an Excel spreadsheet. An institution’s student affairs or institutional research officer should contact the Greek organizations, academic and social clubs, and athletics teams for any information about special activities that they have done voluntarily to serve. Another simple data collection tool is to invite student organizations to submit their own activity information via a free online form through Google Docs. It’s one thing for us to discuss what we think students should be doing, but it’s another thing to know exactly what they are doing in terms of their voluntary community service.
College student affairs administrators who are interested in providing some kind of moral and civic development learning experience should consider looking to their nearby peer institutions for opportunities. It may be that your college does not currently have the organizational support, resources, or personnel with experience to provide an activity or program, but maybe a nearby college or university does. Contact the other institution and express your interest in working with them on the initiative, and together you can serve students in both of your institutions.
One more thought is, institutions should do everything they can to advertise to students all the opportunities for service around them. Even those that are not college-sponsored, there may be Special Olympics, ESL programs, Big Brother/Big Sister, and other organizations in town that students might be interested in helping. Promote any opportunity for students to look beyond their immediate day-to-day world and help others.