Last fall, the Office of the Dean of Students surveyed students about their spiritual needs. The University’s Muslim students said they needed a central place to pray daily. Students of other religious affiliations sought connections with students who shared their faith and others were simply looking for a place for quiet contemplation.
To meet all of those needs, UNH is opening a Meditation and Spirituality Center in the lower level of a University apartment at 15 Ruden Street. It will feature an interfaith room that is expansive enough so students can take part in guided meditation.
“It’s a peaceful spot,” said Kara Beth Neike, coordinator of student conduct and technical applications. “Students can just stop in for a time of reflection. Or they can peruse book shelves with materials on different religions and spiritual practices.”
One of the tenets of Islam is that Muslims must pray five times daily, kneeling with their faces on the ground. Muslims also wash their face, hands and feet to be purified before praying. The Meditation and Spirituality Center features separate prayer rooms for male and female Muslim students, each with a sink and a foot-washing station.
The prayer rooms were designed with the help of Omer Bajwa, Yale University coordinator of Muslim life, to ensure that they are properly aligned with Mecca, said Rebecca Johnson, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students.
Spiritual centers – with interfaith meditation spaces and Muslim prayer rooms – are opening at colleges and universities around the country. In what was considered a ground-breaking longitudinal study by UCLA in 2008, researchers found that while undergraduates spend less time attending religious services, their overall level of spirituality has increased.
With the Muslim population growing at universities around the country and students requesting a central place to pray, public, private, Catholic universities and community colleges – including Yale, Georgetown, George Washington University and several University of California campuses – now have meditation/prayer rooms and many colleges are installing foot-baths.
UNH’s new Meditation and Spirituality Center is part of a larger mission to expand the University’s Office of Spiritual Life and Campus Ministry, Neike said. To gain insights on how best to build the program, Neike, Johnson, University Chaplain Marty O’Connor and Ira Kleinfeld, professor of engineering, met with Yale University Chaplain Sharon M.K. Kugler and Bajwa.
“They shared so many ideas and resources with us,” Neike said. “It was such a positive exchange. From the start they asked, `How can we help?’”
Neike also created a Facebook page and a Spiritual Ambassador program. The goal is for students of different faiths to act as ambassadors and share resources with other students.
“Students who have a faith question or need to find a ride to a church service in New Haven can ask one of the ambassadors or go on the Facebook page,” she said.
What Neike hopes is that the center becomes yet another place where UNH students can engage in experiential learning. A student stopping by to meditate might have a conversation with a student leaving afternoon prayer.
“And they’ll discover something from each other,” she said. “This is where building a community comes from. One day our students will leave campus and go off to their respective places of work and perhaps they will take with them an understanding of other people’s faiths.”