President Obama’s “Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge” is drawing participation from leading campuses around the United States, and Oregon State University is among them. OSU will send three delegates to the White House in early August for the initiative’s national kick-off event.
The challenge is an initiative inviting institutions of higher education to commit to a year of interfaith and community service programming on campus. Since his inauguration, President Obama has emphasized interfaith cooperation and community service – “interfaith service” for short – as an important way to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.
The White House is encouraging institutions of higher education to make the vision for interfaith cooperation a reality on campuses across the country through this program, which was launched this spring. The White House will recognize those colleges and universities who create and implement the best plans in summer 2012.
OSU Dean of Students Mamta Accapadi, who will be taking graduate student Nicolas Martin and coordinator of the Human Services Resource Center Clare Cady with her to Washington D.C. for the kick-off ceremony, said she was excited to apply for the campus challenge because it coincided perfectly with her determination to creative a more supportive environment for students exploring their spirituality. She said that too often, universities focus on academic and social support, but may not nurture and encourage students who come from various faith traditions, or who are exploring a spiritual path.
“Students are coming to campus seeking a sense of purpose, and for some students, that sense of purpose comes from their faith. If we are not encouraging students to examine the foundations that shape their sense of purpose, then we may not be fully serving our students,” she said.
Accapadi is careful to explain that the interfaith and service initiative does not simply support students who practice organized religion, but all types of spiritual development, even that which does not come from belief in a deity or external source of goodness. Agnostics, atheists, secular humanists and others are included in that definition.
Ali Godil, president of the Muslim Students’ Association, is a member of the student leadership team helping to implement the program. He said he hopes to build strong communal ties among different religious groups, and stand up for justice regardless of background.
“I believe that creating interfaith dialogue makes the community stronger,” he said, “and builds a bridge of cooperation between religious organizations and groups in the area. It’s a better way for us to all understand each other, no matter what religious doctrine we adhere to.”
Before learning about the President’s challenge, Accapadi had already started working closely with the campus religious advisors association and was examining ways to encourage students of different faith to begin communicating with others. The challenge gave Accapadi a chance to focus her ideas into a clear plan of action with the help of a team of students and staff who worked together to apply for the challenge.
Each campus must select a thematic priority for the challenge, and OSU has selected domestic poverty as the ‘service’ element of the challenge, which Accapadi says aligns closely with the university’s land grant mission. The Human Services Resource Center, which offers housing and food support for students in need, will be a strong component of the project.
Accapadi hopes that the large scale service project that will take place this year on campus to address local poverty will be student created and driven, and as part of the project has assembled a team of students of different faiths and backgrounds to work together on creating and implementing the project.
Additionally, there will be an interfaith conference this winter, and a fall speaker’s series addressing different faith communities, and many other opportunities for students, faculty and staff to discuss and learn about other faiths and traditions, and how each spiritual practice brings with it a sense of purpose in service.
“We all ponder why we are here, and what we are doing,” Accapadi said.
Godil said as a student, working on the project has opened his eyes to new possibilities on campus.
“I’ve learned the beauty and gracefulness of many of the leaders in this campus, how many are so willing to work together and promote diversity through peacefulness, that it turns OSU into a safe environment of understanding where any human being feels at home,” he said.
For students to function well once they graduate, Accapadi said it’s crucial for them to understand and navigate a world of diverse communities, and one element of that includes understanding faith traditions.
“We don’t have to agree or embrace other spiritual traditions, but that knowledge helps us to live in the world. I want students to be able to understand other people. We owe them that.”