During my year of service as a VISTA at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), I served in the Multicultural Initiatives department. We have offices on two of the thirteen Salt Lake Community College campuses. Recently we had an encounter in which we were confronted by the need for religious accommodations for our students.
A staff member from a department on the other side of the building brought a student to our office. The young man had a request. He wanted to know if there was a place where he could pray on campus. The coordinator in our office first did not quite understand the request. Was he allowed to pray on campus? Well, yes of course, you can pray here. Where can I pray? You can pray anywhere you’d like; no one will stop you or get in your way. Was there a room, on campus, where I can do my prayers? Oh, no, the coordinator shook their head. There was not a room for that. But, you could use my office! The staff member instinctively knew that something was wrong with the lack of facilities, and tried their best to make up for what they knew was a problem. The student was not offended. He had the look on his face that said, yeah, I didn’t really think there would be a space, but it never hurts to ask, right? He was looking for a designated prayer room.
I recounted this story to an administrator at SLCC. She, like the staff member, did not understand. Her questions came in rapid fire secession after my very short introduction to the story. What is a prayer room? Could the student have used another room on campus? How often do they need the space? What else did he need, just the room? I must confess, instead of answering the questions, I countered with:
“This is the perfect example of the lack of appreciative knowledge we have about the religious identities of our students.”
Our students have needs that are not being met, much less validated, by our institutions. We cannot begin to meet those needs until we take the time to understand the religious and philosophic demographics of our universities and colleges. This knowledge is especially relevant at community colleges, where the student body tends to be diverse and have a richer refugee community, and subsequently a more religiously diverse population. We should also be mindful of the staff and faculty that have similar requirements. I take responsibility for the fact that I knew the answers to her questions and did not answer them. I promised that I would send her an email soon remedying my mistake, but what I hope I accomplished was a subtle way to speak truth to power.
The student was looking for an institution that understands that students have physical needs, so they build cafeterias and gyms. They even create childcare and food pantry programs. Institutions know students have social needs so they build student clubs and leadership opportunities on student senates. Students have emotional needs, so campuses across the United States employee professional counselors and set up mentorship programs. Too often educational institutions forget that students have spiritual needs as well.
The requirements for students who follow the tenets of a faith in which one must pray throughout the school day, or a faith that requires a quite meditative place, or a philosophy that compels its adherents to intentionally learn and work with individuals of another belief system are ignored by our institutions of higher education. The community college I am serving in this year is still on the fence about whether it can prioritize interfaith understanding and cooperation. I have high hopes, and see a great potential in the organization. Did your school provide a prayer/meditation space? Did you utilize that space or would you have if it would have been available? Did your college or university have interfaith programming? Did you ever participate in the interfaith activities? How might these types of accommodations enhance your education?
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.