Our fathers had their dreams; we have ours; the generation that follows will have its own. Without dreams and phantoms man cannot exist.” – Olive Schreiner
We often spend much of our time listening to community elders, learning from experience and absorbing the collective knowledge of past generations. While this is time well spent, it is often at the expense of looking toward the future; toward the growing the minds that will eventually inherit our projects and cradle experience in their hands.
Part I: Community on Campus
“Being Pagan on campus feels a lot like playing Russian Roulette. Most people are simply curious, but there’s always that one person who has to “save” you once they find out about your religion’s beliefs,” says Sarah Morgan, a Druid and psychology major at the University of Georgia (UGA)Despite the presence of that “one person,” all the interviewed students reported a relatively positive and supportive environment at their schools, all of which are secular institutions that vary in size and funding. The main differences in religious support can be found in the size of the campus Pagan community and the degree of Pagan activity. As far as UGA, Morgan says, “[It] actually has a lot of people from all different backgrounds,” and one the highlights for Pagans is the very active UGA Pagan Student Association (PSA).
Pagan students groups, clubs and associations have been coming and going for the last few decades. The presence of a strong campus Pagan group can open the doorway to information and community support as students work through their experience and spiritual searching. Pagan chaplain Mary Hudson of Syracuse University says,
The students have changed little [over the years] but their access to information has. They come with more questions and more information, good and bad … Their focus is about soaking up as much information as possible but also about finding community. Many students are now coming from Pagan families but the majority of them are still trying to find a place to belong. The campus Pagan groups are often the first community that they have ever been exposed to.
The survival of such groups is wholly dependent upon the enthusiasm and dedication of its student members. Paul Blessing served two-years as president of oldest continually running college student Pagan club in the country, the Rutgers University Pagan Student Association (RUPSA). Blessing, a Visual Arts major, was introduced to his chosen practice of Omnimancy through the RUPSA. Of the campus experience, he says,
Rutgers is unique because its association has been around since 1994. Jeff Mach, one of its earliest members, said, “I think [RUPSA] has honestly persisted because stubborn survival is part of its character. It came together in the face of great opposition, and brought together a uniquely diverse, even for the Pagan community, group of people. There’s a real feeling that [PSA] has something to offer.”
I’ve heard stories from friends that dormed about disapproving roommates. [However] I did enjoy a very friendly interaction with the club’s adviser, who told me she was herself at one point Wiccan … There was even a dean at Rutgers who was himself a practicing Druid of several years.
Similar to Rutgers, Purdue University has a long-lived, active student association called PAN, or the Purdue Pagan Academic Network. Heather Sky Cybele, a former Anthropology student, says, “I moved out to Indiana and started attending Purdue for graduate school. There I found PAN and like-minded individuals. I finally learned that I am not crazy and I started to use the word ‘Pagan’ to describe myself.”Of the organization, she says, “It’s a great place for Pagans to exchange ideas and learn from each other.” She adds that “there is also a thriving Pagan community in town and a Pagan store.” Since graduating, Sky Cybele has continued to advise and assist PAN and Purdue’s Pagan students. PAN sponsors events on major Pagan holidays, has regular meetings and, over the past two years, has attended ConVocation in Detroit.
Taking support in a different direction, Syracuse University has shown institutional acceptance for its Pagan students. In 2010, Henrick’s Chapel appointed a Pagan chaplain, Mary Hudson and, then in 2013, the school allowed the installation of a dedicated ritual space on the main quad. Veloblom Vigjaldrsdottir, an Asatru practitioner and recent Syracuse graduate says, “I experienced a very open and friendly environment. [At Syracuse] people would ask about tradition. They were genuinely curious and it led to larger discussions where each of us found ourselves more comfortable and changed.”
Vigjaldrsdottir now attends graduate classes at Nazereth College in Rochester where there are no religious activities or supportive clubs. She says, “Thankfully I have kindred of my own in my hometown and through Mary Hudson I have found other like-minded Pagans in my area.” The positive support found within the university environment can carry forward after a student graduates.While most schools do not have the history of community or institutional acceptance found at Rutgers, Purdue or Syracuse, many schools do have smaller, growing Pagan student clubs that are working to serve the population. One such school is Ball State University (BSU), which houses the inclusive Society for Earth-Based Religions (SER). President Nick Nelson, a Buddhist and double major in Anthropology and Religious studies, says “there needs to be a lot more accurate discussion on what other people believe starting at an early age.” Currently SER offers open Tarot readings to any student as a part of an attempt to build a stronger campus presence. Nelson says, “outreach is a priority for the coming year.”
Jackson Eflin, a creative writing major and Heathen at BSU, says that there isn’t much community outside of SER. He adds, “There aren’t really any Heathens in the area beyond me and a few friends and we’re not really organized enough for a structured practice.” Despite the relatively small community presence, neither BSU student has experienced or witnessed any backlash due to religion. Eflin says,”No one ever seems to mind that I’m Pagan. They either don’t care, are casually interested or are approving.”Like BSU, Drexel University has a small active Pagan alliance (DUPA). President Caity Wallace says, “I try to make sure that there are enough activities on campus for fellow Pagans. I’ll admit that I don’t think we do enough, but I’m going to try to be more aggressive this coming year about programming.” Wallace admits that she often goes off campus to attend events and to experience rituals performed by those more experienced in public events.
For those attending universities without Pagan groups, the only option is to “go off-campus.” Suretha Thacker, a Wiccan and International Business major at Georgia Gwinnett College, says, “Pagans are a nonentity on campus … there are 6 organizations dedicated to Christianity and 1 to Islam … [But] I can wear a pentacle and no one really notices. My experience is that most people don’t know what Paganism is or are unable to recognize symbols of Paganism.” Suretha finds her spiritual community outside of campus life.
Whether or not there is an organized group, all of the students reported that there has been, in their experience, little to no significant backlash for Pagans on campus. While some keep their religion relatively quiet, others are more actively involved in Pagan campus activities. However, not one professes to living in the proverbial broom closet.The most common complaint from all of the students was the occasional Christian literature left in a window or Pagan group’s mailbox. Angela Riviero, a UGA student, recounted the story of Pagan student who was being harassed due to religious belief. The situation “had to be taken to the police and ended in a restraining order.” She adds, “But that has been the only problem.”
Another relatively new, but equally important, facet of the Pagan campus club is an online presence. The Internet helps keep students connected and helps them stay connected long after they have graduated. Most of the mentioned Pagan associations have, at the very least, a Facebook presence. Some, like Penn State’s Silver Circle, also maintain websites. Others have gone further. Paul Blessing made a YouTube channel and Twitter account for the RUPSA and Sky Cybele notes that PAN maintains a Yahoo mailing list.
Many more schools have student groups varying in size, type and activity. Some others are Penn State University, M.I.T., University of Texas-Austin, New Mexico State University, Eastern Illinois University, Utah Valley University, Oberlin, Appalachian State University, Georgia State University, University of Southern Maine and Eastern Michigan University.
In the second part of the series, we will focus on academic and spiritual study. What religious activities are important to Pagan students and their groups? How do they maintain their spiritual practice or education while focused on the demands of academic work? In part three, we will discuss Pagan student needs and the obstacles they do face. Do they reach out beyond the campus? And how do they envision the future of Paganism and its place in their lives?