Spiritual Development in Student Affairs

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Note:  I originally wrote this reflection for my CSA 507 class.


Recently, I started to think about the role of spirituality in student affairs.  A few weeks ago, I told my assistantship supervisor, Philip Burlingame, that I might like to do an internship in an advocacy office.  He suggested that the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs would be an interesting place for me to explore.  My immediate reactions were surprise and doubt.  I said, "I don't think I'd be the right person in that position."  Philip asked why I thought that, and I replied, "Because I'm not religious."  He then said, "Well, do you think a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim would have an easier time?  They might actually have a more difficult time connecting with students in that capacity."  I found this to be an intriguing statement, and took it as a challenge to explore further the possibility of interning with the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs.  My role in students' spiritual development is not something I had thought about before, and it was serendipitous that we were discussing spirituality in class the next day.  I had a chance to think about spiritual development in my own life and the place of spiritual development in student affairs, and now I think about religion and spirituality on campus in a different way. 


Love (2001) writes, "Student affairs professionals need to reflect on their own spiritual development.  If spirituality and spiritual development are inherent in all people (and not just 'religious' people), then we need to consider this developmental process in our own lives" (p. 14).  Looking back on my own spiritual development, the first thing I would mention is that I was not raised to be religious.  My parents both left their religions when they were younger, and my brief experiences attending church with friends did not inspire me to seek out religion.  Therefore, spirituality for me is not expressed through religion. 


Parks (as cited in Love, 2001) differentiates between religion, spiritual development, and faith development.  Religion is a shared set of beliefs relating to the worship of a god figure, whereas spirituality and faith development encompass a search for "meaning, transcendence, wholeness, purpose" (Love, 2001, p. 8), and the process of meaning making.  This distinction between religion and spirituality is important for me to keep in mind when thinking about student spiritual development.  Cognitively, I understand that spirituality is distinct from religion and, depending on the person, may or may not include religion.  However, I sometimes emotionally connect the term religion with spirituality, because of the socially constructed nature of the term spirituality.  When Philip suggested an internship in the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs, my immediate reaction was to equate spirituality with religion.  However, the class discussion reminded me that for some people this is the case, but it is not that way for everyone.  Spirituality, to a large extent, is self-defined.  Student affairs scholars and practitioners may agree on the developmental goals of spirituality, but there is also consensus that spiritual development, like other forms of student development, is an individualized process (Astin, 2004). 


Although I am not religious, I believe my cultural background is an important part of my self-definition.  As well, some of the traditions and habits in my family stem from the religions my parents grew up practicing.  During college, I became interested in exploring these roots.  In particular, I wanted to learn more about Judaism and Jewish culture, as practiced by my father's side of the family.  I visited Israel for two weeks during my senior year of college with a group of students.  The trip focused on Israel's outdoor offerings, and we spent much time exploring the desert, mountains, gorges, and seas throughout the country.  We spent a few days in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  I had a chance to see important cultural landmarks and experience Sabbath celebrations.  The trip, in the tour guide's words, highlighted the "ish" in Jewish.  There was an emphasis on the Jewish community with a recognition that Jewish can mean many different things to different people.  I enjoyed having the chance to explore this part of my heritage, see the country and a range of different cultural traditions, and decide for myself where I felt comfortable identifying myself as Jewish.  This trip was an important part of my spiritual development in college. 


Parks (as cited in Love, 2001) notes that faith development includes cognitive, affective, and social aspects.  Love (2001) points out that spiritual development relates to traditional theories of student development, in particular cognitive-structural theories.  Both types of theories incorporate stages of development in which a person moves from dependence to independence to interdependence.  These theories focus on meaning making, or the process of making sense out of one's life experiences.  For example, self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2008) is the movement from locating meaning making ability outside the self to locating this process internally.  Love and Talbot (1999) write, "Most of our cognitive development theories focus on the process of meaning making; spirituality gives focus and direction to those processes and a context in which to apply one's love, increasing knowledge, and advanced cognitive skills" (p. 367).  Clearly, there is a link between spiritual development and general student development. 


After hearing the suggestion of an internship in the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs, I told Philip that I needed to think about this possibility, because I had not thought about it at all previously.  Initially, I assumed the spiritual center was the place for religion on campus, but I now see room for exploration, student development, meaning making, and self-authorship.  These are areas in which I am very much interested.  My assistantship allows me to explore meaning making and self-authorship development with regard to service learning.  I work with the Council of LionHearts, a group of student leaders from service organizations around campus.  One of my main goals in advising this group is to encourage students to reflect on their involvement in service.  Reflection is the key to turning community service into service learning, as "reflection is a complex and intentional intellectual activity that generates learning from experience" (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 19).  Reflection can take many forms, including conversation, journaling, and group activities.  Recently, I led a reflective activity with the Council.  I asked each student to write down three words in response to the question, "What does service mean to you?"  Students then shared their responses, which included connection, gratitude, learning, fun, and "sharing life together," among others.  Although it was a short activity, students put much thought into their answers, and it was clear that participating in service is a meaningful activity for these students.  Love (2001) writes, "We need to recognize the spiritual aspects of everyday life and not just associate spirituality with religious practice. Students' involvement in social, volunteer, leadership, and community service activity may be a manifestation of their spiritual development and quest for meaning" (p. 14).  Perhaps, for at least some of the students on Council, service in some way contributes to their spiritual development. 


For me, connection and community are important aspects of spirituality.  I find meaning in my relationships with family and friends.  As well, I have always loved the outdoors, and being in nature provides me with another, broader sense of connection.  Reflecting back on the experiences I have had over the years, I have come to define spirituality in my own unique way, as primarily relational. 


Looking at my work with the Council, my own spiritual development, and the theory behind spiritual development, I see that pursuing an internship with the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs may be helpful for my development as a student affairs practitioner.  Meaning making and self-authorship can play a large part in spiritual development, and these are major interests for me in my student affairs work.  This would be a new area for me, as I have not explicitly involved myself with a spiritual center before.  However, it is clear that student affairs practitioners must pay more attention to spiritual development, as more students actively seek out religious and spiritual experiences on campus (Astin, 2004; Love & Talbot, 1999).  According to the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs website, "Penn State recognizes that the well-being of its students, faculty, and staff--and their ability to lead healthy, fulfilling lives--is a product of their intellectual, cultural, moral and spiritual development.... [the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs] offers a welcoming, safe, inclusive environment for the Penn State community to explore a multitude of faith traditions in a compassionate, open-minded setting" (2010).  Within this setting of exploration, open-mindedness, and appreciation, I see opportunities for critical reflection, learning, and the development of self-authorship. 


When Philip initially brought up the possibility of this internship, he mentioned that a religious person could potentially have more difficulty relating to students in the process of exploring their faith than a nonreligious person.  By this, I believe he meant that the ability to work successfully with students around issues of spirituality depends on one's openness to explore beliefs different from one's own.  The self-defined nature of spirituality makes it difficult to pin down exactly what is meant by the word, as it depends on who is speaking.  However, this ambiguity allows much room for learning and development.  I would be interested to work and learn with students around issues of spirituality. 




Astin, A. W.  (2004).  Why spirituality deserves a central place in liberal education.  Liberal Education, 90(2), 32-41.


Baxter Magolda, M. B.  (2008).  Three elements of self-authorship.  Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 269-284.


Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs.  (2010).  Welcome to the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs.  Retrieved from http://studentaffairs.psu.edu/spiritual/


Love, P. G. (2001).  Spirituality and student development:  Theoretical connections.  In M. A. Jablonski (Ed.), The implications of student spirituality for student affairs practice:  New directions for student services (Vol. 95; pp. 7-16).  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass. 


Love, P. & Talbot, D.  (1999).  Defining spiritual development:  A missing consideration for student affairs.  NASPA Journal, 37(1), 361-375. 


Stevens, D. D. & Cooper, J. E.  (2009).  Journal keeping:  How to use reflective writing for learning, teaching, professional insight and positive change.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus. 

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Your discussion with Philip, and your subsequent reflection, highlights a very interesting conundrum facing student affairs professionals attempting to encourage students' spiritual development. It is essential to be spiritually self-aware (self-authored??) in order to connect with students, but can you be "religious" (if we assume "religious" means close-minded, an assumption I'm not willing to give you yet). Certainly, some religious people are close minded (as are some non-religious and liberal folks), but not all; and there are degrees of openness along the spectrum of "religious-ness."

But, what is the role of "faith" in your work with students around these issues? As Fowler (1981) defines it, faith is the "way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives" (p. 4). The assumption in his work, however, is that "religion" and "spirituality" have some role in this meaning-making. The question then becomes, is some form of "faith" required (or at least helpful) in encouraging students to develop an internal voice in meaning-making?

When working with students in a center like CERA, is "spirituality" enough...or should student affairs professionals have "faith?"

Perhaps I was unclear with my definitions or the way I posed the hypothetical situation. I did not mean to suggest that religiosity necessarily correlates with closed mindedness. Certainly, I think it is possible to be religious and open minded, and subsequently connect well with students, just as it is possible to be non-religious and open minded and connect well.

As to your question of whether “faith” is necessary to encourage students to develop an internal voice in meaning making, I would suppose so. The ability to find coherence and meaning in one’s relationships and life would be particularly helpful when working with students in a center like CERA. To work with students around issues of spirituality, I think it is necessary to have “faith” in students and believe in the work one is doing with them. With regard to faith development, Love (2001) notes that it is different from traditional cognitive development theories because “it is the activity of seeking and composing meaning involving the most comprehensive dimensions of our experience” (p. 8). This is perhaps a tall order. My question would be, with developmental theories like faith development, is it enough for the practitioner to know the process, engage in the process, and encourage the process in students, or must one feel that she has arrived at the end of the process in order to work successfully with students?

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