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Spirituality and Student Life

Spirituality and Student Life in an Urban Atmosphere 8 June 2006 by Froukien Smit - paper given at the conference of European University chaplains Germany 2006


Richard Hartmann. the previous speaker, ended by stating that we have to reflect upon our pastoral practice. And that is exactly what I am going to do now. My contribution springs from my day-to-day experience as a chaplain. For the last nine years I have been working as chaplain at the Radboud university in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The  university has around 17.000 students; it is Roman-catholic in origin, but now has a wide range of students. Like most Dutch chaplaincies, our chaplaincy is an ecumenical Christian chaplaincy. My personal background is Protestant, and I have two catholic colleagues. In our daily work and contact with students, our denominational backgrounds play a minor role.

I will reflect on the kind of students we meet in our chaplaincy. First I will give a more general impression of the current attitude to life of many students, as I experience it in my day-to-day work. In the second part of my contribution I will describe in a more specific sense the different types or groups of students I encounter, and the challenge they pose to us as chaplaincy.


Attitudes to life and religion

What are some striking characteristics of the present-day generation of students? I would like to mention some of their life-attitudes and the way these affect their attitudes to religion and spirituality as I encounter them. I expect many of you will recognise what I am going to say, even though, because of time-limitations, it is going to be quite schematic.

1. “We are all individuals”:

for many students it is important ‘to be yourself’, a unique individual that creates his or her own life. With regard to spirituality this means for many not tradition, or belonging to an established faith community is important. Rather, many students are ‘putting together’ their own, unique spirituality. In this, they draw from different sources.

2. “What’s in it for me?”:

personal growth is an important value for many students. On many occasions, also in participating in our chaplaincy’s activities, they tend to ask: what’s in it for me? I know that in some chaplaincies students are more inclined to participate in activities if they get study points for it, or if it looks good on their c.v.

3. “Give me a break”:

for many students life is hectic. They juggle – some happily, others with more difficulty - to combine study, a job, friends, relationship, free time activities, family. With their mobile phones they have to be constantly available for friends, which can cause a feeling of unrest. In this respect, it is striking that our most popular activity at the moment is our meditation-course. A recent survey at our university indicated many students long for rest and relaxation. And I know from my colleagues in Eindhoven they successfully organised some evenings “where you don’t have to do anything”, a sort of organised empty time. Something we as chaplains might call ‘sacred space’.

4.”Help, I don’t want to be a loser”:

an element that adds to stress in student life is that they have to perform to their best all the time. There is growing pressure from government and universities to study fast, efficient, long hours. There is also pressure from peers and society at large to do well and not be seen as a failure. I encounter ‘hidden loneliness’ and a tendency towards extreme perfectionism as a result from this. What students like about the chaplaincy is an atmosphere of acceptance without the need to perform. It’s a relief to come to someone or some place where one can be, rather than achieve.

5. “I must create my own destiny”:

many students feel a pressure to make choices constantly. There is an expectation that you can ‘make your own life’ and if your life is not as happy as others (and yourself) expect it to be, you fail. The choices are many and most of them no longer belong to communities that prescribe certain choices. So, they feel that all choices they make are their own responsibility. Also, I notice less sense of contingency, of things just happening, and of difficult things being part of life. Instead, the underlying feeling is: I myself have to create my own destiny. This creates added burdens for students with problems, eg. around health, death, study, relationships. For example: a psychologist told me that a student came to her a few months after his father died. He wanted to check with her if he was doing his mourning process correctly, and if he should not be over it yet. We try to offer a different perspective. Sometimes students tell me or my colleagues how wholesome it is for them to talk to someone with life-experience and a more relaxed attitude towards the contingency of life.

6. “Always on the move”:

compared to when I was young, many students travel a lot, either as part of their studies, or in their spare time. In some fields of study there is even pressure on them to study abroad for some time, even if they do not really want to. On the one hand travelling broadens their view and makes them more independent. On the other hand this can make it difficult for them to feel rooted somewhere. In our chaplaincy I recently organised a meeting with students who had studied abroad. It appeared they had had little opportunity to reflect on what this experience meant to them personally, and share this with others. They felt it was very helpful we gave them that opportunity.

7. “There must be more to life….”:

in the survey at our university that I already mentioned, students (both active and non-active in our chaplaincy) indicated a need for more depth. They ask questions like: who am I, what do I want in life, what do I believe in and stand for? In a recent survey among adolescents in the Netherlands, one of the findings was that 80% of them reflect on these questions by themselves, as some form of prayer or meditation. In our own survey many  indicated a need for a safe place to discuss these questions with others. They are hesitant to share them with their peers in day-to-day life. Participants of our activities frequently say: I did not know so many others are dealing with the same issues!

8.”Community is a feeling, not an institution”:

in my experience students do long for some kind of community. But they are not looking for commitment to a long-term, or lifelong community. They are rather looking for what I would call ‘floating communities’. For them a one-evening group discussion can be a satisfying community experience. Traditional communities and institutions, like the church, are less attractive. Many feel happy to float from one community to another, depending on their spiritual need of that moment.

9.”A better world starts  with me”:

in preparing this panel discussion we were also interested in the question of spirituality and justice. In my experience students are concerned with issues of justice, but in a different way than in my time as a student. The 1980s were the years of the great ideals, liberation theology, feminism and the peace-movement. Now students have a more practical, personal engagement, in concrete projects; in a sense, they are beyond the great ideals. Often their project, their commitment is based on personal contacts through visits to Third World countries. They may invest quite a lot of time and energy in these project, but usually for a short time. In our chaplaincy students indicated they are willing to commit themselves to social justice projects, but not much longer than for 3 months at a time.


Types of students’ spirituality

I want to move from these more general characteristics to a more specific description of certain types of students, as far as religion and spirituality is concerned. Without wanting to label or unjustly categorise, I find it helpful to make clear what the broad range of students is, with whom we are in contact in our chaplaincy. I believe each group poses its own challenges to us as chaplains, and distinguishing between these groups helps us to develop different approaches.

A. Open minded and committed (students with a church background; practising Christians of a more liberal kind).

This group used to be the main participants in university chaplaincies. They are more or less active believers, ecumenically minded, and open to social justice issues. In recent years, however, this group has become much smaller. In our chaplaincy they are no longer the majority.

I notice these students often feel a tension between their secular, academic surroundings, and  their Christian identity. Also, they often feel unsure about the actual contents of their faith. They may say: ‘I am a Christian, but please help me to explore what that means.’ At the same time they somehow feel a positive connection to faith - and often also the church-community - as source of inspiration. For them, this does not exclude having other inspirational sources (e.g. quite a few believe in reincarnation).

Our challenge as a chaplaincy:

- supporting them in developing their own ways of being connected to the Christian faith and tradition. This can be done by exploring together the meaning of the bible and the Christian faith against the background of the world of science, secularism and religious diversity. Forms in which we do this: small discussion groups, interfaith meetings, lectures, new ways of worship, visits to monasteries, pilgrimages, and social justice activities.

- to find ways of bridging the gap that often exists between our chaplaincies and the wider church; a gap which makes it often difficult for students who leave university to adjust in an ‘ordinary’ church.

B. the interested (students, who are interested in religion or spirituality, without being affiliated to any church or faith).

In a survey at our university  41% of students counted themselves in this category (whereas 10 % indicated they were practising Christians). In our chaplaincy in Nijmegen, these ‘interested’ students now form the largest group of participants.

They are concerned with spiritual questions, but are not interested in ‘the’ Christian faith or ‘the’ church as such. Many believe ‘there must be something’, without specifying what this something might be (a Dutch theologian invented a new term for this kind of people: ‘the somethingers’). These students tend to gather together their own spirituality from many different sources. An example is the overwhelming interest in a course in our chaplaincy where we visit places of worship of different faiths and talk with the believers there. The students are interested in these faiths, not only to enlarge their knowledge, but first and foremost to reflect on their own spiritual questions.

Challenges I see for the chaplaincy:

- to formulate our own spirituality in a language that can inspire these students; this means using words and images that have meaning to them; to be ‘transparent’ and willing to challenge and be challenged

- to bring them in contact with different kinds of spirituality, e.g. by visiting monasteries,  yoga, meditation

- to create opportunities where they give words to their spiritual intuitions, and test their views and experiences, by questioning them and sharing them with other students; to create together with them new ‘rituals’ that give meaning to their lives.

- another challenge is: getting across to these students that we have something to offer them. They often think we are only for Christian, Churchgoing students. Some Dutch chaplaincies have changed their name in order to overcome this problem, e.g. the chaplaincy in Delft is now called Motiv. Others, like us in Nijmegen, stick to the old name, but we try to get across in our publicity that we are not only for Churchgoers.

C. the ‘non-believers’.

32 % of the students in our university survey indicated this category. A small number of them comes to our chaplaincy for personal counselling (e.g. in our bereavement groups), for meditation, for social activities like meals, or for lectures about issues that are not religious, but more political, ethical or philosophical. We also meet them as partners in social action (refugee, environment, poverty - issues ).

Our challenges:

- to show that we as a chaplaincy are interested in them, by being present where students are, in stead of expecting them to come to us. E.g. by taking part in symposia organised by others, visit student organisations, organise activities jointly with secular student groups

- to listen to their life-stories and hear their expectations of us and act accordingly

- to find better ways of communicating (see above)

D. the conservative and evangelical Christian students.

This is a small, but active group. They are organised in Christian student clubs, which meet at least once a week, for bible study and socialising. They are regular church-goers, and are not shy to talk about their Christian faith. Their group-identity gives many of them a feeling of security, of something to hold onto in the non-Christian surroundings. Very few of them participate in our chaplaincy; some feel we are too liberal.

Our challenges:

- to develop mutual trust and respect; to accept their faith as authentic, and find ways in which they might accept other ways of believing as authentic Christianity as well;

- to encourage them to be more open, therefore challenging their ‘closed theology’ when necessary; whilst we as a chaplaincy are welcoming to those individuals who no longer feel at home in these circles, e.g. because they are gay or lesbian, or their faith becomes more open-minded.

E. Muslim students and students of other faiths.

In our university there is a small, but growing population of Muslim students (only 1 % in our university survey) and a handful of Buddhists, and hardly any Jews or Hindus. The Buddhists use our building for meditation. We have a separate Muslim prayer room in our (Christian) chaplaincy building on campus. This leads to automatic daily contact with practising Muslim students. We also actively pursue contacts through the Muslim Student Organisation. Occasionally Muslim students come to us for pastoral counselling.

Many of the  Muslim students I meet, are quite well able to articulate their faith – like the evangelical Christians -, and are proud to be Muslim. Some of them suffer from the recent negative attitude towards Muslims in Dutch society. Like many Christian students they have a feeling of being – as believers - ‘strangers’ in their secular surroundings.

Our challenges:

- the underlying challenge is to bridge the thinking in  ‘them and us’, on both sides, and to create a feeling of real respect and positive attentiveness and acceptance of each other, rather than living side by side without real contact; in practice we try:

- to be in touch, as chaplains, with Muslim students, e.g. by visiting their iftars (Ramadan meal), and organise joint events

- to encourage contacts between Muslims and other students .Some examples: after the recent tension around Muslims in Dutch society, we started informal meals for Muslims and others. And we had meetings between conservative, evangelical Christians and Muslims: e.g. a bible study for them lead by me and a Muslim. A comment of one of the Christian students about this Muslim: “if he didn’t believe in the wrong God, he would be a good Christian“.

F. Students from abroad.

This is a small, but growing group in our university. Of course they form a very wide range regarding spirituality, falling in all categories mentioned. An extra need of this group are activities in English, where they can meet Dutch students – which does not always happen naturally - and other international students, such as meals, English language church services, cultural evenings, discussions.


These were my impressions and views of current student attitudes to life and spirituality. I hope you recognise at least some of it. And I hope they will contribute to further discussions at our conference.