Last month, the Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Managers deliberated the state of on-campus religious and spiritual life, and the importance of enhancing it. Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development Lili Rodriguez, Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor Joyce Tompkins, and Interim Muslim Student Advisor Ailya Vajid presented on the benefits and limitations of Swarthmore religious and spiritual life to the committee.
“We presented in three general areas: what we are currently doing, challenges of the current model, and statistics that point to the need for both support for students’ religious/spiritual practices and greater religious literacy for the broader campus,” said Tompkins.
The discussion comes at the suggestion of Dean of Students Liz Braun. The exact impetus for this suggestion was not explicitly expressed, although there are speculations that it was due to the increase in challenges faced by religious groups, as such challenges formed the core of the committee’s discussion.
Rodriguez stated that groups face several challenges on campus, such as dietary needs, limited space for worship, and religious holiday accommodations.
“Some of these challenges have grown as our diversity in religious traditions on campus has grown,” said Rodriguez. “That growth is a wonderful thing and finding ways to increase support is important as we diversify in all areas.”
Tompkins also outlined her main concerns during the presentation, which included the small size of the budget for religious life programming and the lack of college-funded religious life staff positions — all religious life staff who currently work at the college are paid by outside sources.
Certain religious groups explained that the impetus of such a meeting lay in the increase in challenges that they are facing across the board.
“This year especially, Muslim students on campus have come across negative and generally misinformed views of Islam and have stemmed from the increasingly complicated global political climate,” said Asma Noray ’17, co-president of the Muslim Students Association.
Zachary Arestad ’17, a member of Swarthmore Progressive Christians and an interfaith intern, feels similarly.
“The religious traditions that are supported on campus are basically all Abrahamic more specifically, Judeo-Christian,” he said. “Outside of those three closely-related faith traditions there is basically no institutional support. We know based on the numbers we get at the beginning of the year that there are many more traditions represented at the college than have group support.”
Kelilah Miller, Swarthmore’s Jewish adviser, thinks that the Jewish community faces many shortcomings on campus as well.
“I do think that the lack of kosher dining on campus, and the consequent effective absence of traditionally observant Jewish students on campus, reduces the diversity of Jewish expression … and deprives students of the opportunity to encounter and engage with more traditional religious perspectives among their peers,” she said.
What will come of the meeting is not entirely clear yet, partially because the information was only recently presented to part of the administration.
“I can’t say what the outcome will be, if any — that is up to the Board, the deans and the new president. I will say that the Board members seemed engaged and receptive during our presentation,” said Tompkins.
It seems that before any concrete action is taken, the college intends on collecting more data and holding similar meetings to gain a better understanding of the status quo.
“We are in the middle of a major Swarthmore Self-Study that will give us a sense of how faculty, staff, and students experience the college environment based on the identities they carry,” Rodriguez said. “While this study focuses on a variety of social identities, religion and spirituality are a part of that investigation.”
One thing is clear, though — the college and religious leaders on campus agree that enhancing religious and spiritual life on campus is valuable and necessary.
“With all the challenge of religious and cultural diversity in the larger world, it seems crucial that Swarthmore recognize the importance of this area of student life as part of our initiatives toward greater diversity and inclusion,” Tompkins said.
“I have found that the presence of religious and spiritual life on campus challenges and empowers students to engage their whole selves in the experience of living and learning on campus, ” she said.
Arestad thinks that having a more nuanced understanding of religion will benefit the entire campus.
“In the wider world, religion is a huge factor that is mobilized for all sorts of different reasons, and individual’s analyses will be improved by including a practical knowledge of world religions into their work,” he said.