written by: Kevin Glover, M.A, Ricardo Montelongo, Ph.D
Critical thinking about spirituality allows higher education scholars to focus on students’ meaning making process found within student development theories centering student identity development. Where higher education scholars engage in thinking critically about spirituality as a path for the collaborative journey to occur as a result intertwining personal stories where students and faculty begin to form concepts of unexplained knowledge held inside every one of us. This knowledge can only be discovered through a contemplative process (Rendon, 2009) where the teacher becomes the student, and the student becomes the teacher. In this essay, I and Dr. Ricardo (Ric) Montelongo took just this kind of journey.
We created critical reflections on our spirituality to, as e.e. cummings (1940) and Br. David Steindl-Rast (2017) wrote, make us understand each other as “i am through you so i.” We use this poetic line from e.e. cummings’ (1940) and Steindl-Rast (2017) to help us describe our student and faculty relationship. We believe learning is influenced by a relationship that is built with shared reasoning and experiences. Much like the poems from e.e. cummings, we kept this line in our essay title without capital letters to represent our equal levels of spiritual development despite our different roles in our graduate program.
As we think about this idea of “i am through you so i,” I (Kevin) began reflecting on what spirituality is within higher education. As Dr. Ric and I began talking about spirituality, we started noticing in our conversations how spirituality and our love for higher educational cultures were viewed through a holistic approach. Our conversations included self-reflective thoughts from our lives that were personal, communal, and private. We recognized that we had shared experiences in our spiritual journeys. We created spaces and places for mindful contemplation. The idea of “i am through you so i” focuses on remembering and sharing our memories to create thoughts about our present realities and future dreams. Our shared stories began to intersect and form a common theme acknowledging that our shared experiences created knowledge. This theme, we felt, was a common denominator of student development. We understood our individual meaning making processes and lived experiences (i.e., “i am”), as interpreted and received by the other (“through you”), helped us in our own further development (“so i”). When we look at these lived experiences, we learn that it incorporates students and faculty coming together from different backgrounds to find common ground.
i am – Kevin
As the student voice in this essay, my journey on this spiritual path began when I was twelve years old. At this time, I noticed a common thread embedded in diverse cultures, societies, and religious beliefs; I began to feel that this commonality was of a spiritual nature. The question I asked myself back then was, “What is the thread that binds humanity together?” As I thought about this question, I began my search at the public library. There I would pour over vast amounts of books covering topics from philosophy, religion, psychology, and new age material. I was looking for a deeper connection to my question; to help me understand the common threads that connect us all.
After years of searching for an answer I would graduate high school and enlist in the United States Army where my identity would further developed and change. During this time as I traveled in the military to places such as Germany, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kansas, and Iraq I started to have profound feelings that a spiritual connection existed within all humanity. There I started to notice that different communities all held similar ideas of creating a collective good within society with underlying aspects of spirituality that included relationship building, personal and professional values, along with creating value from lived experiences.
I also began to notice this unifying force during good times and bad times when I observed the collective sadness of watching the Challenger explode on television, the twin towers falling on 9/11, and the devastation the Iraq war would bring to American veterans and Iraqi citizens. After years of being on my spiritual path, this would come full circle. When once again, I was offered an opportunity to explore spirituality with Dr. Ricardo (Ric) Montelongo, there we would unpack what spirituality means for higher education professionals and how it influences student identity development.
i am – Dr. Ric
As the faculty voice in this essay, I found that mentoring and conversing with Kevin allowed me to reflect on how my own graduate preparation program and professional experience addressed the spirituality needs of my students. I realize that higher education graduate programs need to address the importance of spirituality in professional practice. Squire and Nicolazzo (2019) provided an honest critique of our profession which has drifted far from valuing the development of our colleagues, especially with our new professionals entering the field. With a sense of urgency, they implored us to transform “the field to a humanizing place” where recent graduates were not seen “as laborers and production tools”, but as individuals worthy of holistic development (Squire & Nicolazzo, 2019, p.4).
As a faculty member, I realize through my personal conversations with some students that the culture existing within higher education is overwhelming and at times, void of compassion. In my conversations with Kevin and subsequent search for resources to assist him in his journey, I noticed that spirituality within professional and personal development is, as Love and Talbot noted (1999), “conspicuously absent.” For over 20 years since the publication of their article, we are still in dire need of discussions on this topic in higher education. While scholarship on spirituality is growing, the dissemination of this work through our graduate preparation programs remains “conspicuously absent [and]… ignored by many student affairs professionals” in the field (Love & Talbot, 1999, p. 615).
My conversations with Kevin aim to bring awareness on the importance of bringing spirituality into discussions of professional and personal growth for student affairs professionals. Our time to converse about a course on spirituality in higher education being taught in our graduate preparation program for Fall 2022 allowed us to reflect, contemplate, and provide intellectual curiosity and personal growth within the topic.
In this essay, we use a duoethnographic style (Sawyer & Norris, 2012) in presenting our conversations through the “i am through you so i” lens. This writing style helped us understand our emergent relationship as faculty and student learning about spirituality in higher education. We believe this learning should be complemented by deep reflection and listening with our “ear of the heart” (Benedict & De Waal, 1990), where we truly listen with understanding without judgement.
This essay describes how I, Kevin (a graduate student), respond to Dr. Ric (my professor) and vice versa when discussing spirituality within higher education. Our conversations occurred during the Spring 2022 semester during the development of a special topics course on spirituality in higher education. A total of five conversations occurred. Each conversation was recorded as an artifact of our meeting.
After each conversation, we shared with each other written reflections on what we discussed to continue our understanding of evolving topics. Due to space, this essay provides excerpts from three of our five conversation reflections. The common thread between a graduate student and faculty member when discussing spirituality is a unifying force to form a collective identity to unite humanity in our differences, or “i am through you so i.”(Steindl-Rast, 2017).
Conversation #1: Space, Place, and Difficult Conversations
Dr. Ric: You need to center yourself to get in the right space for talking on the topic of spirituality. Spirituality cannot be rushed Kevin. Conversing with another on spirituality requires the right moment.
Kevin’s Response: I recall during this chat having a literal opportunity to pause and center our thoughts on creating a definition of spirituality. Right at the beginning your recorder did not cooperate and start, which made you very frustrated. Later, you reflected that this frustration and minor difficulty was a good thing because it allowed space where our initial conversation was not rushed. You explained to me this could be viewed as an example of the importance of pausing which provides an opportunity to center ourselves and our minds. It was after this pause that we discussed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and this idea that Maslow and other theorists all hint at spirituality (Fernando, M., 2013); even higher education student development theories seem to have a spiritual lens that addresses how students come to understand there environment and lived experiences when approached holistically. As we think about holistic approaches; pausing and centering our thoughts seem to help settle the mind in order to take a moment for reflection to find common threads and intersectionality’s between the many different theories.
Dr. Ric: Both of us noticed how important it was to note that difficulty, major life challenges, and threats to humanity marked our spiritual development and challenged us to connect with spirituality.
Kevin’s Response: We discussed how difficult moments seem to help develop spirituality; as we look outside ourselves during significant life challenges or threats to our humanity, we begin to ask why. For myself, my witnessing war as a military member made me more aware of my spiritual nature, and for you gaining tenure during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought questions of life’s meaning and purpose. I found this interesting because tough times helped create our sense of spirituality.
I realize that life’s difficulty is much like studying. In his pedagogical creed, John Dewey (1897) hinted that education is not preparation for life but life itself. If we keep this in mind, we begin to see how lived experiences around the topic of spirituality and complex significant life events or threats to our humanity can indeed provide an opportunity to study and grow to understand how spirituality operates within our lived experiences. As Leigh Patel (2021) said in her book No Study Without Struggle; “studying, in fact, often includes struggle, grappling with ideas and practices in the pursuit of freedom” (p. 33-34). Similarly, we began our conversations with difficult questions and technical difficulties, but these difficulties did not define us or our future discussions. Instead, we would push onward with our spiritual journey and dive deeper into critical areas for future talks.
Conversation #2: Pausing, Finding Peace, and Being Alive
Kevin: You said finding peace has to be intentional and mindful. Cultivating more of what you value and intentionally setting aside time to focus your attention and action on saying no to the world around you and looking inward to find common connections and peace allows you to persevere in difficult moments.
Dr. Ric’s Response: I recall in this chat our shared exhaustion early in the semester. We both had an emergent sense of feeling overwhelmed with all our tasks. We were dealing with a great number of issues on top of our usual daily lives. During times like these, we find it hard to just pause in higher education environments. There is so much to discuss, too much to think, and not enough time to process.
We talked about what it means to pause. We both agreed that we need to not always constantly “go”. We need to value our pauses. You reminded me that there are times when saying “no” to the world is alright and we felt a sense of shared validation that you as a student and I as a faculty member need to support our pauses. If we value our work in higher education student affairs, we should also value the times we are not at work. This idea reminds me of the motto of Benedictine monks, “pray and work” (Benedict & De Waal, 1990). We should aspire to a culture where reflection and contemplation reminds us of the work of our professions. In these “pauses”, we connect to what is truly valued in our lives and thus, our work benefits from holding a strong sense of inner peace.
Kevin: If spirituality unites us Dr. Ric, then we must realize that spirituality is being able to identify our authentic selves in many different moments in time and place.
Dr. Ric’s Response: In this conversation, you helped me to understand that spirituality is encountered and understood in different ways. While I was confused on why some would state they were “non-spiritual,” our conversation helped sort out my thoughts on how to respond to students when I teach my spirituality in higher education special topics class. It is possible someone enrolls in the class to understand what it means to be spiritual in higher education administration.
Unfortunately, our field hesitates to discuss this as part of our overall professional development despite being part of the student development theory literature. In our graduate preparation programs, we spend little time addressing how spiritual aspects are reflected in organizational behavior, policy and law, resource management, history, and even leadership. As an entry-level administrator, students possibly see themselves as “non-spiritual” in their professional identity. In our faculty-student relationships, we should strive to understand how our emerging professionals define their professional identities through their authentic selves.
Conversation #3: Rocks, Meaning, and Finding Ourselves
Kevin: We wondered what rocks mean to the person on a spiritual journey.
Dr. Ric’s Response: You came into these conversations through your work with me for your master’s practicum experience. I was looking for a student who could assist me in finding literature for my research on spirituality in higher education and developing a special topics course on the topic. One of the first tasks you completed for me for the special topics course was creating promotional materials. I gave you creative freedom in creating these materials with the only directive to refrain from overtly religious imagery since spirituality is not necessarily always connected to religion (Love & Talbot, 1999). In the images you selected for my approval, I was immediately drawn to the image of a stack of rocks against a sunset setting.
Image: stock image of stack of rocks on beach against sunrise/sunset
Kevin: I wonder what unique place stones have in our life. Could stones represent the difficulty of the journey or the immovable aspects of life’ or is it a way to help us remember that space and place are all aspects of time, past, present, and future that hold memories, dreams, and prayers?
Dr. Ric’s Response: Rocks play an important role in a future pilgrimage I will be making in 2023 on the Camino de Santiago traversing Spain ending at the Santiago de Compostela. The route I will take has a location where pilgrims place a rock at the base of an iron cross. From what I am told, pilgrims carry a rock with them on their journey and at this location, they leave their rock behind. Rocks placed at this location can represent a prayer, a personal challenge they faced, or a memory of a loved one. Each rock is personal to that pilgrim.
Our conversation revealed the importance of metaphor in spirituality development. For example, rocks represent more than just a place from where they originate, they represent a space where spiritual develop occurs and, at times, is even challenged. My future pilgrimage to the ancient road of The Way will challenge me in ways I will never imagine, but I also know that the path will provide me moments of wonderment, humility, and surprise. I shared with you my plans and educated you that the stone I will eventually carry with me on my journey will represent my spiritual journey since becoming a faculty member. The rock will quite literally carry my memories, dreams, and prayers that will mark a significant space in my spiritual development.
Our Final Reflections: Transformations and Journeys
We initiated our conversations as part of a required practicum experience for our Higher Education Administration master’s degree. As mentioned earlier, the practicum involved work to develop a special topics course on spirituality in higher education. Once ended, we concluded our conversations. We agreed that our written reflections needed to be revisited to further understand common topics and themes addressed in our conversations. We wrote an additional reflection providing cumulative thought on our experience. We also reviewed our previous reflections to mutually agree on issues we felt captured the “i am through you so i” idea. Concluding these tasks, one final “conversation” summarized how we viewed our continued development and our understanding of spirituality.
Dr. Ric. I found it fascinating as I read our chat reflections how conversations of spirituality occur in an organic way. We were always curious. Spirituality is abstract and theoretical at times and when it comes to lessons, often it is described in metaphor or analogy. Critical and complex thinking will be a necessity in my special topics course. A certain degree of friction or opposing forces will likely happen based on challenging student’s ideas of what they believe spirituality may be for the course. You mentioned that “if you are alive, you are spiritual” and I love that statement.
I think as I write this essay, a deeper question is how do we understand what “alive” is as human beings? Our conversations provided interesting questions that you and I need to address in our continual professional development in higher education. What are the “rocks” we identify that remind us exactly where we are at this moment? Where will we be next semester? Next year? I think a course like ours will help students find their “rock”—their place and space—that will help them understand how the topic impacts their space in higher education administration.
As you now know, this journey will culminate with my planned pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. I think our course is part of the Creator’s plan for me to practice not only what I preach, but also teach! Our conversations were just one small part of this transformation and I appreciate your contribution to this journey. Let’s make our spirituality in higher education a valuable and impactful learning experience.
Kevin: I found it fascinating as I read our chat reflections that neither myself nor you took this journey alone. Our humanity accompanied us to discuss spirituality from a higher educational lens, just as other researchers had before creating embodied knowledge. We discussed our understanding of how spirituality pertained to a student’s sense of belonging and the meaning-making process. We began to realize that to understand spirituality fully, we must stop, pause, and reflect upon our journey.
This journey creates space and place for spirituality to be centered for mindful discussions on the topic. When spirituality is grounded, it becomes rooted in diversity by incorporating a person’s story to form connections, relationships, and a community whereby lived experiences will allow the students to see the bigger picture, which is always greater than themselves. Maslow seems to agree when he stated that “religious or spiritual values are not the exclusive property of any one religion or group. Self-actualizers show themselves to be religious in their character, attitudes, and behavior. Reality is discovered, under the aspect of being, as wondrous, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and a privilege to behold” (Maslow, 1979, as cited by Fernando, M., 2013).
This spiritual journey always incorporates aspects of a persons’ individual identity, whereby higher education is only a small context or experience. The more profound meanings of a student’s life can be akin to the personal journeys found within student development theories. This kind of journey changes students and faculty alike, both who are journeying to becoming. Helping them come full circle and realizing that spirituality cannot be rushed; it needs the right moment to create the ability to be present and “here” and is a much-needed aspect of higher education and to understand “i am through you so i”.
- How do you converse with your graduate students on how spirituality is present in the space of your graduate preparation program? How do you converse with your program faculty on how to include spirituality in your graduate preparation?
- In what ways does spirituality matter in overall higher education administration and functional area leadership?
- How do you develop organizational shifts and cultural transformations centered on welcoming and receptive environments where spirituality is present in your practice within higher education?
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Kevin Glover, M.A (He, Him, His, Himself) is a dedicated professional with over two decades of military service and a decade of government experience working within the bounds of the federal, state, and local governments. He is a graduate of the Higher Education Administration Program at Sam Houston State University. His areas of interest include higher education administration, leadership, religion and spirituality to include how spirituality is perceived within higher education and the world at large. It is his goal to explore the common threads that connect us instead of divide us and to create a more diverse world.
Ricardo Montelongo, Ph.D. (He Him His El) is Associate Professor of Higher Education Administration at Sam Houston State University. He received his Ph.D. in Higher Education from Indiana University and a M.S. in Student Affairs Administration and B.S. in Psychology both from Texas A&M University. His primary research interests include college student involvement, diversity issues in higher education administration, online teaching and learning, and spirituality in higher education. He has thirty years professional administrative experience in higher education and served as co-chair of ACPA College Student Educators International Latinx Network from 2011-2013.