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Meaning Making as a Pathway to Thriving

I am captivated by the powerful role of meaning making and spirituality in the lives of students on campus. This sense of reliance on a higher power when life is difficult was a predictor of thriving for all students in my dissertation study but was especially powerful in predicting thriving among the minority student groups I explored. I feel it imperative that campuses adopt practices that foster spirituality and meaning making among students as it is such an important aspect in the lives of students.


Students in college seek a meaning to live for and ask their own existential questions along the journey. The search for meaning is powerful. Nash and Murray (2010) contended:

Meaning therefore helps us to make cosmos out of chaos; it gives us choice in place of chance. Most of all, it gets us out of bed in the morning and off to face life’s inevitable daily mixtures of pleasure and pain. (p. xxi)

Campus student affairs practitioners, faculty, and administrators who are able to reconceptualize how they engage this vital spiritual part of the student may create new pathways for students to thrive on campus – particularly among students of color. Campuses can begin by affirming the importance of the spiritual self and move toward fostering the spiritual side of the student throughout the college years.


While creating opportunities for students to explore meaning making, self-purpose, and spirituality, it is important to distinguish between the spirituality as we conceptualize it in our ongoing work on student thriving, and religiosity. Although spirituality and religiosity are seemingly overlapping constructs, they have distinct meanings. Religiosity, like spirituality, often includes a belief in some higher power outside of oneself when life is difficult. However, religiosity also includes integration of belief into one’s daily habits as expressed through commitment toward, and a living out of, a particular belief system. In my work examining student thriving, I have not examined religious commitment and its connection to thriving.


Although many may believe that faith-based campuses in America are adequately addressing the spiritual needs of students. However, some are meeting the spiritual needs, and many are addressing the religious needs. The perspective of spirituality explored in my dissertation study seems to precede many religious practices by first asking the question: Is there a power inside or outside this world that is greater than me?


Our team’s ongoing work examining student thriving is collecting items associated with religiosity, such as lifestyle, and organizational affiliation as they connect to student thriving; however that research is ongoing.


For all students, but especially for students of color on college campuses, the campus must embrace a culture that is not hostile to the exploration of spirituality. Only then will the creation and flourishing of smaller affinity groups safeguard the kind of safe spaces students need to explore deep meaning in life. Whether such groups are formed in the context of living spaces, such as residence halls, social gatherings, and student groups or clubs; through the work of student affairs professionals; or by the invitation of faculty, campus opportunities designed to engage the spiritual side of students must be as diverse as the student population on campus. To maximize opportunity, effort and energy should be most directed at fostering a campus culture that positively affirms the exploration of the spiritual self and then offers specific contexts in which students can explore their spirituality and meaning-making.


This call to action is particularly acute for both non-faith-based colleges and universities, and private faith-oriented campuses. On non-faith campuses, there has traditionally been a distance between the meaning-making experiences of students, staff, and faculty and the roles they play on campus. This duality has become increasingly criticized in recent years given the high proportion of campus community members who consider themselves ‘spiritual,’ yet struggle to integrate their meaning making experiences with their campus experiences. Therefore, I believe we can continue to welcome the lived experiences of meaning making into our campus communities that we may enrich the learning experiences of all by cultivating spirituality and meaning making as a vital component of the human experience. At Canadian postsecondary institutions, the active integration of indigenous practices is providing a space for students from indigenous backgrounds a space on campus. The curation and provision of space intended to connect aboriginal learners with a space for meaning making and life purpose provides not only a space for those students to thrive, but also to demonstrate to their peers the importance of cultivating a healthy spiritual self.


Similarly, I believe campuses with a faith tradition also must make a space at the table. Too often, religiously-affiliated colleges and universities have a particularly defined ‘way of knowing truth’ insofar as religious practice, dogma, and expressions of spirituality that hamper the lived experiences of students from outside that particular faith tradition, denomination, or practice. I appreciate the metaphor of expanding the tent to include and embrace the multitude of meaning making experiences that connect to students who are on campus. This call to action may be particularly unsettling for some faith-oriented institutions, however I will argue that uncomfortability is part of learning and embracing your students where they are and how they experience life is much more important the religious dogma.


If we fundamentally believe that curating environments where students can thrive on campus is important, then we must be willing to examine the barriers in place preventing our students from thriving. Given the important pathway to thriving presented by student spirituality and meaning making, it remains an underutilized pathway to this important outcome of student success. For our students of color in particular, we can demonstrate our care and commitment to them by not only providing space for their meaning making experiences, but encouraging them along their own trajectory of meaning making on the path to personal thriving.