Spirituality Matters

College life is a critical time of spiritual revelation, a recent study shows. This can be particularly evident during the religious practices students are exposed to over the course of December's holiday season. According to a long-term investigation conducted by Alexander Astin, Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and Organized Change at UCLA, college provides an environment where many students are exposed to a reexamination of their individual spiritual beliefs for the first time.

The study finds that when a student enters the independent lifestyle of college – where many young adults are separated from the supportive religious community in which they were raised for the first time – the experience causes these people to take a deeper look into the spiritual views they long held.

After surveying 112,000 American college freshmen at universities and colleges across the country in 2003, Astin found that numerous students struggled with their religious beliefs when forced to examine them on their own. Along with co-authors Helen Astin and Jennifer Lindholm, surveys were conducted on 14,000 of these students years after completing their junior years to see how their spirituality was effected by exposure to higher education.

While social pressure impacted the change in perspective for many students, educational studies also resulted in a deeper analysis of one's personal beliefs, often shattering (but sometime reinforcing) the certainty with which they maintained certain religious views.

"I definitely think you're faced with more truths when you enter college. It makes you question things," said SMC student Kevin McCorkle during a group discussion Tuesday.

McCorkle confesses that he wasn't devoutly religious before college, but that studies involving cognitive analysis – like his psychology class – force students into some "really deep thinking, things you never thought to question when you were growing up."

During this time of year, many religious students are preparing for a cornucopia of "Happy Holidays" from Christmas to Chanukah, traditional celebrations that have been passed down for generations.

Student Natalie Weiser finds the holidays to hold the most apparent display of religion. "Maybe you pray before a test or whatever. If you're anything but Christian, pretty much our entire country revolves around that, you're going to be effected."

But according to Astin's study, which was published last month in the book "Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives," many college students, exposed to these religious holidays for the first time outside of conventional expectations, question the "reason for the season."

"As long as it's celebrated to bring good unto the world, the more good in the world the better," said Rabbi Eli Levitansky. "That's what Chanukah is all about: to bring more light into people's homes and the streets – that's why we have the public menorahs," he said referring to those displayed across campus.

Whether they are boycotting the spirituality of the holiday season, or protesting the commercialization of these rituals – "If God exists, He's not at Target," said one student – college students increasingly explore secular pop culture alternatives.

As part of what Astin calls a young adult's "spiritual growth," college students participate in satirical mockeries like Festivus, multi-cultural portmanteaus like Chrismahanukwanzadan, and completely superficial inventions like Grinchmas.

Despite these increasingly popular holiday substitutes, many SMC students agree with Astin's findings, affirming that while higher education may inspire purely academic introspection, the individual struggles and stresses of college life also cultivate one's spirituality.

"If you're strong in it, and believe, and ask the right questions, college education can actually reinforce your beliefs and make you stronger," said McCorkle.