When Chinese student Haokun Duan applied to American law schools, he discovered something at the University of Southern California (USC) he didn’t expect: an Office of Religious Life.
“This is exactly the reason I chose USC,” says Duan, 25, who went on to form a Confucius club. Now completing a master’s degree, he aims to return to China not to practice law, but to teach Confucianism.
While many private universities were once affiliated with a particular religious denomination, this is less common today. Nonetheless, many unaffiliated universities have chaplains and religious life offices open to students of all faiths — or no faith at all.
Chaplains engage students in interfaith dialogues, organize service projects, provide a friendly ear in times of personal crisis, and encourage students to think about life’s big questions.
Rabbi Dena Bodian, associate chaplain at Colgate University and president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, says, “A chaplain’s job extends far beyond their own or anyone else’s worship services.”
“We see students who are homesick, whose parents are having difficulties, who are breaking up with significant others or clashing with roommates — anything you can imagine,” says Bodian.
Imam Adeel Zeb, Muslim chaplain for the Claremont Colleges, outside Los Angeles, says: “I’m a spiritual leader at a secular institution. I utilize my Muslim faith and I find in my tradition how to show love, respect and nurturing care to people of other faiths.”
In a country with strict separation of church and state, religious offices are less common at public universities.
But Penn State University has a busy Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development, with an all-faith chapel that draws several thousand students a week.
“We have the largest multifaith center of its kind in the country,” says center director Robert Smith. “It’s rare for a public institution to have what we have.” It is funded largely by gifts, not taxpayer dollars.
“We think we’re doing it the right way by accommodating everybody, ” Smith adds. “We have an ablutionary for the Muslim students and space angled toward Mecca so they know where to pray.”
USC’s 11,000 international students “are often surprised at what we have to offer and how a chaplain can be a friend for them when they might need it most,” says Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni, the first Hindu spiritual leader of an American university.
“We sell the idea that everybody should be religiously literate,” Soni says. “It would be a tragedy if people came to a university like ours and didn’t leave knowing more about the world’s different faiths.”