Pagans on Campus 2014, part 2

Heather Greene —  July 9, 2014 — 3 Comments

To remember what it was like to be young and questioning and full of excitement. I think that is one of the greatest things we can learn – Chaplain Mary Hudson, Syracuse University.

In Part 1 of “Pagans on Campus 2014,” we looked very generally at the Pagan student experience on American college campuses, as well as the role played by Pagan student associations. While opportunities for positive community building are increasing, students do not attend college to simply engage in religious seeking. Campus life revolves around scholarly pursuits, most of which are very demanding on a student’s time.Today we look at how students balance or integrate their spiritual work into their busy academic careers, and where they find guidance and resources.

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

Do you feel your chosen spiritual path is an integral part of your academic studies, or is it entirely separate?

The answer to this question varies greatly and is dependent, in part, on a student’s course of study. For example, Caity Wallace, a math major at Drexel University says, “I don’t find [that my major] integrates well with my religious life. That combined with my fear of losing respect for my faith (or having faith – STEM fields tend to favor Atheism in my experience) means I take care to keep those parts of my life distinct.”

On the other hand, Angela Riveiro, a Horticulture major at the University of Georgia (UGA), says, “While I did not intend it, my … major does fit into my focus on Nature. Learning to be a steward of the land and how to grow plants fits nicely with my spiritual beliefs.”

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Similarly, fellow UGA student Sarah Morgan sees a definite connection between her education and her Pagan practice. Morgan says, “Psychology is really making strides in the more holistic ways of healing. We are learning a lot about meditation, visualization and… their benefits to mental health.”

Several of the interviewed students acknowledged only “tangential” connections between their spiritual beliefs and their studies. Jackson Elfin, for example, is a creative writing major at Ball State University (BSU). He notes that his Heathen practice is “handy for providing subject matter,” and that he often “prays to Bragi, Lord of the Poets” while writing.

Rachel Tyburski, president of Penn State’s Silver Circle, says, ” I do not try to keep my studies and faith separate, though they often seem to be … I let faith and school fall in place where they decide.”

Finally, for some students the boundaries between religious life and academics don’t exist exist at all. Jessica Dinsmore, a biochemistry and molecular biology major at UGA, says, “I’ve never seen my religion and my studies as two separate entities, because both are an important part of who I am.”

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson, a double major in Religion and Anthropology at BSU agrees, saying, “Religion is one of my passions.During class, I study religion as a cultural phenomenon; privately I explore religion in a more spiritual sense. It fascinates me from each angle.”

Veloblom Vigjaldrsdottir, a graduate student at Nazareth College says:

I would say faith is incorporated into every way you walk. I may not directly relate each piece of paper I write on or each lecture I sit through as word from the gods. However, I believe that the Asatru path … is one where you are meant to be the best you can in everything you do and honor the ancestors that have fallen before you by continuing the tradition of determination and strength. That is how I carry my faith and that is how I honor my gods and ancestors.

When you do find time to practice or study your religion, what is your focus? To whom or what do you turn?

Dr. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a Polytheist, blogger and adjunct history instructor, acts as adviser to the Pagan Student Union at Skagit Valley College, Whidby Island Campus. Lupus observes:

Given the demands of college life, and of community colleges in particular … there is often neither as much time nor opportunity to engage in some of what [students] would like to with Paganism as they might wish. As a result, this creates an intensification of some experiences when they can happen … [It] causes the occasions to be “more special” because of their much-appreciated rarity.

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

All of the interviewed students did admit to either having limited time to practice or limited access to resources. Suretha Thacker, a Wiccan practitioner at Georgia Gwinnett College, says, “I have an altar and make an effort to celebrate Sabbats. I would like to be more involved, but I don’t have the time yet.” Dinsmore, who is exploring Shamanism, admitted that she often askes “ancestral spirits for guidance and teachings” because she doesn’t have access to relevant books, and has “yet to find a Shaman on a similar path.”

Despite any imposed limitations, most students are, in fact, engaging in some form of religious work. Wallace says, “I’m almost always studying my path. That’s one of my hobbies, … I get most of my teachings from books, the Internet and podcasts. I just downloaded 30 episodes of Selena Fox’ Circle Cast.”

In many cases, the campus-based Pagan student organizations are able to assist with resources and spiritual education. For example, UGA’s Pagan Student Association (PSA) holds weekly workshops that explore different Pagan paths and practices. In the past, subjects have included herbs, crystals, energy healing, shielding, Magick 101 and holiday lore. PSA has also invited practitioners from other religions to promote interfaith education and tolerance.

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

In doing this work, a Pagan student organization becomes more than a community center. It can be an informal coven or religious study group. Like UGA, the Rutgers University Pagan Student Association (RUPSA) holds a variety of events to enhance Pagan student practice. Recent graduate Paul Blessing found his path, Omnimancy, through an RUPSA forum event. Blessing is now an active practitioner and attends weekly meetings with a local Omnimancy group in New Jersey.

While Blessing eventually found and chose a structured Pagan tradition, most of the students said that they were more or less self-taught. Elfin, a practicing Heathen, finds his best resources online, saying “[On the Internet] there are people with similar faiths that I can learn a bit from, pick up tips or ideas for liturgy.”

Due to its near universal availability, the Internet is filling gaps when local resources and connectivity are lacking, or when free time is scarce. Students can download podcasts, read blogs or communicate over social media at any time and across space. Heather Sky Cybele, a Purdue University graduate, believes the Internet is “the biggest asset” for young Pagan students today.

What role does the Internet play in your religious education and spiritual growth?

Sarah Morgan, UGA [Photo credit: S. Morgan]

Sarah Morgan, UGA [Photo credit: S. Morgan]

Without a doubt, Facebook is the single biggest player in helping young Pagans stay up-to-date and connected to other students and friends. Morgan says, “Social media … keeps me informed about upcoming meetings, lets me meet new people and also allows me to learn a lot more than I ever could have on my own.”

Outside of Facebook, the most common sites used were Tumblr, Twitter, Yahoo Groups, Meetup.com and YouTube. Blessing says that YouTube “provided a tone of informative videos on practically every topic under the sun.”  Wallace called Meetup.com a “low-investment way to meet local Pagans” when she was visiting Maryland.

Students also look to religion-specific sites for information and connectivity. Vigjaldrsdottir visits Slavorum.com in order to stay in touch with “some of the Slavic faith individuals so that [she] can compare traditions and see the evolution of [her] own.” Similarly, Sky Cybele uses the popular Pagan information site, Witchvox.com, to connect with Pagans around the country, specifically when traveling.

What about traditional media resources? All of the students said that they do not read print magazines, for enrichment or entertainment. Wallace explains, “The cost coupled with the frequency of moving makes reading them difficult.”

Heather Sky Cybele [Photo Credit: H. Sky Cybele]

Heather Sky Cybele [Photo Credit: H. Sky Cybele]

In place of print magazines, young Pagans are turning to blogs and other digital publications for their Pagan or religious reading material. Sky Cybele regularly reads the blogs on the Pagan Channel at Patheos. Elfin says that he also enjoys reading blogs like Raise the Horns, but he doesn’t have as much time as he would like.

Riveira currently follows over 10 different Pagan blogs and websites, adding, “It was through various websites that I found my local groups and information … Young people can learn about their chosen paths without having to put themselves at risk or at a disadvantage of those around them.”

What disadvange? Is it one of age or experience? Do young Pagans feel lost in the greater community or ignored by older generations? In the third and final part of this series, we will examine the relationship between elders and this younger generation. We will also look forward into tomorrow to see how they envision the future.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She has served as Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • TadhgMor

    Thinking about the relation between my religion and my academic studies has always been a chicken and egg issue for me. I liked history before I became a Gaelic polytheist, and I still read pretty widely, but my focus in Irish studies is probably directly related. Of course maybe that’s what brought me to the path in the first place?

    I will say I definitely try and maintain a professional distance during research and when I try and explain things to people. I’ve found excited and often well meaning people will tend to…soften the hard edges sometimes. But life is about hard edges and all, both in scholarship and in religion I think.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    I am really enjoying this series. Haven’t been inside a college classroom in 20 years, and haven’t been an undergrad for 36 years, but some things never seem to change. For example, the feeling that there’s never enough time to do everything. On the other hand, it’s quite a change to read that these students do not read print magazines.

    • Earthriver

      Some of us do, but usually we are getting them second hand from a relative. But since we move constantly, it’s kind of hard to keep everything up to date. And why spend money you don’t have when you can get an out of date magazine from your grandparents? I love when I get the Scientific American and Popular Mechanics when I visit. But yeah, never enough time, yet still some time to be lazy. We need those lazy moments to keep from going insane though.