Places for students to pray, meditate, and reflect can be found in a myriad of sizes and formats at colleges and universities across the country, ranging from entire buildings dedicated to multi-faith practices to small, renovated offices. The development of these types of spaces has surged recently due to the diversification of our communities and the hard work of campus leaders to provide holistic support for students. Johnson and Laurence describe.
The pattern that emerges from the historical survey [of the relationship between higher education and religion in America] indicates a clear direction in the United States away from Christian sectarianism, through a recognition of more forms of Christianity, and into the realities of a multi-faith America. Our colleges and universities reflect these changes, and their religious facilities need to adopt bold new approaches to the multi-faith realities of campus life. (Johnson and Laurence, 2012)
The reality of multi-faith campus communities are becoming increasingly global with more international students, requiring us to expand our understanding of students’ spiritual needs.
Why did Portland State develop a prayer and meditation space?
Students benefit from having time and space to reflect and meditate. Astin, Astin and Lindholm determined through a study on students’ spiritual development that experiences such as self-reflection and meditation have positive effects on traditional college outcomes including academic, personal and attitudinal outcomes (Astin, Astin, and Lindholm, 2011). Furthermore, Bryant proposes “providing spiritual support mechanisms” as a best practice for a welcoming campus climate for spiritual and religious diversity. Bryant defines these “support mechanisms” as “space for students to grapple with existential questions, spiritual struggles, and stressful life experiences” (Bryant, 2008). Last, many administrators are finding that students of all different faiths and no faith are asking, even demanding, this type of space, which creates a sense of immediacy and demands action.
The Quiet Prayer and Meditation Lounge (QPML) at Portland State opened with an interfaith ceremony on May 3, 2011. The space is located in the basement of the Smith Memorial Student Union, room 047, in what used to be the location of the Campus Recreation offices before they moved to the Academic Student Recreation Center (ASRC). The planning process for the QPML began in February 2011. A diverse committee of faculty, students and staff met frequently for the 3 months leading up to the opening of the space. Even when hurdles of rallying support, finding a space, and obtaining funding were met, there were still several considerations: What will the community standards of the space be? Who will manage the space and mitigate problems? How will the space be assessed so it can be improved?
Community Standards: It is imperative to have established guidelines for the space. Developed by the committee of diverse faith traditions, these rules should are visible to all who enter. The ground rules include: please use the space for its intended purposes, treat others with respect, please be quiet, shoe removal optional, and no sleeping.
Managing the space and mitigating problems: Managing the space is a collaboration between Student Activities and Leadership Programs, the Smith Memorial Union staff and Campus Safety. These tasks include, regularly checking up on the space, unlocking and locking the space, taking inventory of items, checking the suggestion box, turning on and off soft lighting, and cleaning. Despite careful planning, many problems may arise, such as theft, inappropriate use of the space, conflict between faith groups or students not respecting the community standards. The committee and Student Activities Leadership staff are consulted to help provide solutions to the problems.
Assessment: Quantitative data is gathered by a laser people counter to measure usage. On average, 150 people enter the QPML per day. Surveys have been implemented to understand what people are using the space for, if they align with a faith tradition, and what that tradition is. During winter term 2013 the survey reported that the largest faith tradition that uses the space is Muslim at 33% followed by no religion at 22%. Other groups that use the space include: Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, multi-faith. Qualitative data is also gathered by keeping a sign-in journal at the entryway, by leaving an open space for comments on the survey, and through focus groups. This mix of methods has revealed ways to improve the space and ultimately the campus climate for religion and spirituality.
Developing, maintaining and improving a prayer and meditation space has a direct impact on many students in very tangible ways. One student who uses the Quiet Prayer and Meditation Lounge at Portland State University describes:
Thank you for this space, I just found out about it and have been coming in every day I’m on campus. It’s been really helpful thus far for managing stress in the school day as well as directly supporting my spiritual practice [and] education.
Recent additions and highlights of the QPML include a new carpet labyrinth installed during winter term 2013, zafu and zabuton cushions, a spiritual/interfaith library and individual prayer/meditation rooms. Please come by and visit the space in the basement of the Smith Memorial Student Union, room 047. It is open Monday through Friday from 9am – 8pm. For additional information please contact Rachel Samuelson, firstname.lastname@example.org or Greg King, email@example.com.
Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S.,& Lindholm, J. A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students' inner lives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bryant, A. N. (2008). Assessing Contexts and Practices for Engaging Students’ Spirituality. Journal of College and Character, 10 (2), 1-7.
Johnson, K. and Laurence, P. (2012). Multi-Faith Religious Spaces on College and University Campuses. Religion and Education, 39 (1), 48-63.