The spiritual life of college students has largely been overlooked by many American colleges and universities. However, a surge of interest in college student spirituality has emerged in recent years. This interest has led to research that has attempted to define and identify aspects of spirituality, as well as determine the importance of spirituality to other areas of student development. Minimal research, however, has attempted to connect student spiritual development to collegiate experiences and influences in the campus environment.
This study attempted to reduce this gap in the professional literature by examining how traditional-aged college student involvement in community service and experiences with diverse peers impacts their spiritual quest, a concept which focuses especially on students’ search for meaning, purpose and understanding in their lives. Through a quantitative, longitudinal, national panel study, college students were surveyed in summer, 2004 and spring, 2007. The survey included items that asked students about their spiritual and religious beliefs and practices, and related experiences, goals, attitudes, and opinions. Utilizing one public research institution’s data from this national study, factor and path analyses were employed to determine if significant relationships existed between race, gender, pre-college spiritual quest, community service involvement, diversity-related experiences (defined broadly to include interactions across race/ethnicity, religion, politics, and other differences), and collegiate spiritual quest.
Results indicated significant direct effects from pre-college spiritual quest and diversity-related experiences on collegiate spiritual quest, but not for community service involvement. A strong indirect effect for community service involvement emerged however, through diversity-related experiences. Neither race nor gender exhibited significant direct or indirect effects on collegiate spiritual quest. Total effects on collegiate spiritual quest were significant for pre-college spiritual quest, community service involvement, and diversity-related experiences. The strongest direct influence among all variables existed from community service involvement towards diversity-related experience, but greatest total influence occurred from pre-college spiritual quest to collegiate spiritual quest.
Limitations of the study include a convenience sample of small size, gender imbalance, and single institution for all participants. A lengthy, self-report survey and history effect from the tragic shooting in April, 2007 at Virginia Tech also may have impacted this study.
Implications of the findings are considered finally. For developmental theory, the results suggest that spiritual quest grows and evolves during college within students’ broader spirituality, and that identity development is closely tied to the development of spiritual quest. Further research is proposed with an emphasis on in-depth qualitative study to follow up on this study’s findings, as well as replication of the study at different types of institutions to examine more thoroughly the influences found here. Outcomes regarding educational policies and developmental practices are outlined, including the addition of spiritual quest development as an explicit and anticipated outcome in institutions’ promotion to students of community service and diversity experiences. Means by which institutions can foster spiritual quest in service-learning and volunteer initiatives are offered, along with ideas for the enhancement of diversity-related programming to highlight the development of spiritual quest.