Meeting in the Middle: Leadership, Social Justice, and Interfaith Action

By Christina Ferrari

This semester I am working on an independent study to create an undergraduate course that I can (hopefully) implement someday in my practice. This project began as an attempt to merge my interests in student leadership, civic engagement, and interfaith cooperation. I am interested in how students make meaning of their involvement on and off-campus as it relates to their deepest values, beliefs, and self-understanding. To help articulate what I am learning, I’ll be writing several blog posts reflecting on my curriculum development process. If interfaith/civic engagement/leadership are areas that interest you, please contact me. I’d love to start a dialogue and learn from you as well.

I suppose the best way to explain this topic is to share a bit of my own story. As an undergraduate student at DePaul University, I became heavily involved in University Ministry and the Student Leadership Institute on campus. I helped start an interfaith student organization and led a variety of programs to help students articulate their values and learn about their peers’ beliefs. Through this experience I learned that when Catholics, Atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Pagans sit together bringing an open heart and mind, amazing things can happen. My perspective on the world shifted in a profound way as I gained a deeper appreciation for the glorious diversity of this world.

Beyond spiritual and values-based conversations, I also participated in leadership workshops and retreats. In these programs, I reflected on what it means to serve others, and how my talents and strengths can be cultivated to enrich the world around me. I learned that in order for the world to change, people must change. People must act and educate others on the injustices of society. I felt like giant light bulb went off and I could no longer sit in the dark, so I sprang into action. I took a bunch of service-learning and community engagement classes. I enjoyed working with and learning from the community, and this service and social justice work deepened my commitments and values to be a woman for others.

In short, by reflecting on and articulating on my spirituality, my leadership philosophy evolved and I became civically engaged. This engagement with the community broadened my perspectives and shaped my values, especially my spirituality. The cyclical process of action and reflection is something I hope to facilitate to the students I will work with, and has become professional interests that I seek to pursue for the rest of my career. Service, community empowerment, self-reflection, the social change model, and intergroup dialogue framed my college experience. In student affairs, we talk all the time about civic engagement and social responsibility. The literature is also filled with research, theories, and frameworks around student leadership development. Student spirituality and interfaith cooperation has popped up on hundreds of campuses in the last couple years. But I’m interested in where they overlap— how are student affairs encouraging students’ leadership, social responsibility, and religious or philosophical worldviews? In order to begin unpacking this question, I have interviewed a number of higher education professionals in a variety of institution types and roles.

So far based on my conversations, it seems that one experience will not (and probably should not) attempt to be an earth-shattering, life-changing experience for a student where their values, beliefs, and commitments change. Maybe, if we’re lucky, students will leave college with some of those things altered slightly. Life changes people, and we can offer ways to help students become open to that process. For example, at Moraine Valley Community College the campus organizations consist of traditional and non-traditional students. By creating opportunities for different students to work together and learn from each other, their views on what is means to be a leader change. Similarly, organic conversations often become the most powerful learning moments. For example, the Interfaith Youth Core offers materials for higher education professionals to help students talk about beliefs, values, and perspectives on different topics. Sometimes the topics of spirituality/interfaith, leadership, and civic engagement come together in interesting ways. For example, during the last couple years at DePaul University, the Student Leadership Institute has been charged with voter registration for students. At first, this might seem like a random assignment. But, consider how voting an important act of civic engagement and groups of students can influence other individuals to vote, connections to the Social Change Model of Leadership Development quickly gain strength. Another important lesson I’ve learned is that student affairs professionals’ program planning and implementation is driven by student population needs and institutional context. For example, the University of Chicago is research one institution that strives to distinguish itself from other colleges and universities. In addition, the students who attend the institution are looking for a distinct experience. Understanding theories, acquiring knowledge, and obtaining skills drives the student experience here. So, civic engagement, interfaith conversations, and leadership development programs must take a similar approach. Strengths-quest has become a popular tool on that campus to help students begin to explore their values and leadership philosophy. It is a framework used in many sectors beyond higher education, so students find it appealing and “useful”. From an educator’s point of view, it also offers opportunity to spring-board into understanding their skills so they will be able to effectively work in groups. For ambitious, career-driven students this is a tool that is relatable and relevant but also achieves some of the larger goals for leadership educators. In contrast, Valparaiso offers a service-learning class for students to fulfill an engaged learning requirement. The course takes a servant leadership approach and is built upon the institution’s mission to prepare students to lead and serve society. The institutional culture is different at Valparaiso than University of Chicago and as such, the institutions’ opportunities and approaches to leadership are as well. Professionals who hope to engage students in thinking about their values, leadership philosophy, and commitment to others must do so in a way that fits both the institution culture and the students’ needs. If we plan programs we think are great but does keep these contexts in mind, what value do they have to the students and how are these initiatives supporting students’ university experience?

My next step in the project is to survey the literature to understand the frameworks, approaches, and theories related to student leadership development, civic engagement, and interfaith cooperation. From there, I hope to synthesize all I’m learning with the various approaches and best practices in the field. There are many ways that student affairs professionals can implement leadership, civic engagement, and interfaith cooperation into their work. Hopefully we can also build bridges between these areas in order to provide students with a more enriching and holistic college experience.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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