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The guardians of Stanford’s spiritual life

Four associate deans in the Office for Religious & Spiritual Life foster belonging and purpose among Stanford’s diverse faith communities.

From time to time, students mistakenly exit an Old Union elevator on the third floor, only to find themselves at CIRCLE, the interfaith gathering area and student lounge. But after stumbling onto the contemplative space by accident, many find themselves part of a diverse and welcoming community with a shared curiosity about the role faith and spirituality play in a meaningful life.

Associate Deans for Religious and Spiritual Life at 2022 Baccalaureate Celebration

Associate Deans for Religious and Spiritual Life the Rev. Dr. Colleen Hallagan Preuninger, Dr. Amina Darwish, Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, and the Rev. Dr. Sakena Young-Scaggs deliver readings and prayers at the 2022 Baccalaureate Celebration. (Image credit: Don Feria)

Four associate deans – Dr. Amina Darwish, Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, the Rev. Dr. Colleen Hallagan Preuninger, and the Rev. Dr. Sakena Young-Scaggs – are at the forefront of efforts by the university’s Office for Religious & Spiritual Life (ORSL) to foster that sense of belonging and purpose.

The team welcomes, but doesn’t rely on, accidental drop-ins. More often, they connect with students through a variety of programs, observances, and courses. When they stand side by side to deliver readings and prayers during Baccalaureate and Commencement celebrations, and again in September at Convocation, the associate deans provide a visible, symbolic reminder of their unified mission.

Dean Tiffany L. Steinwert arrived at Stanford and the religious and spiritual life office in 2019, at a time of increasing political tensions around the country and globe.

“Confronting uncertainty and conflict in the world around them, while balancing the demands of campus life, strained student well-being,” Steinwert says. “We knew spirituality could play a central role in countering those challenges, fostering students’ sense of well-being, and providing tangible support. But opportunities had to be visible and available.”

Changes followed, aimed at better serving all students and making the office more meaningful and accessible to the growing, diverse religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions represented on campus. One was adding “Spirituality” to the Office for Religious Life name. Even more significantly, Steinwert recruited a team of chaplains, or associate deans, whose diversity reflects the student body they serve.

“The cultural and religious diversity on campus is a beautiful opportunity to meet someone who embodies a different tradition or approaches the same tradition with a different lens,” says Darwish, who also serves as advisor for Muslim Life. “These are conversations that can expand our own understanding of ourselves and of the human experience.”

Many traditions and a unified mission

Although the new team formed during the pandemic, counseling and working with students mostly via virtual gatherings, today face-to-face encounters are the norm.

Alina Wilson, a junior who grew up in the Protestant tradition but says she was not heavily involved in church when she enrolled at Stanford, got involved with ORSL’s Meeting the Moment program and has enjoyed connecting across traditions, both with students and with “caring, wonderful” leaders, especially Darwish and Hallagan Preuninger, the director of student engagement.

“I’ll walk into the office and find myself talking with them for an hour, everything from how I’m doing with school to staying mentally strong,” Wilson says. “There’s something about being able to touch base with a spiritual professional who cares.”

Broad involvement and, often, small settings

Throughout the year, the four deans work with the Stanford Associated Religions’ 30 groups representing eight world traditions, serve as instructors for diverse courses including Community Organizing: People, Power, and Change and Designing Your Muslim Life. They also provide confidential counseling for students and lead a variety of spiritual wellness activities throughout the year.

“Students come to campus bursting with talent and interests, and they also come with questions about who they’ve been and who they are seeking to become,” says Hahn Tapper, a Stanford alum who now serves as campus rabbi. “College can be a tumultuous time of breaking down and rebuilding identity. We support students through this process, enabling them to recognize their resources and gifts so they can figure out how they will live a life of meaning that is good for them and the world.”

The associate deans are some of the more visible faces among an 11-person staff that directs events and manages Memorial Church, CIRCLE multifaith center, and Windhover spiritual refuge. “The events and operations staff is the bedrock and foundation of all ORSL does,” Steinwert says.

Events include weekly religious services at Memorial Church, a robust organ and choral concert series, the Rathbun Program, the Heyns Lecture, and the many memorials and weddings for members of the extended campus community.

ORSL doesn’t keep official records of student religious identity, but estimates that about 15-20% of Stanford students attend services or participate in weekly activities hosted by the spiritual life office.

“Often, students have been surprised – and even strengthened – to learn that they’re part of a larger multifaith community of students,” says Hallagan Preuninger. “We try to help students connect to their peers with similar faith practices, as well as encourage them to explore other ways of deepening their faith and engaging with others across lines of religious difference.”

‘Academic and spiritual midwives’

Young-Scaggs, who serves as pastor of Memorial Church and is known by many on campus simply as “Rev. Sys,” credits her inclusive vision to the theologian Katie G. Cannon, who wrote that work of the heart and head is done “in order that we may become responsible decision-makers who envision alternatives that embrace the well-being of us all.”

“At the core of our work is the wholeness and well-being of the students and campus community, individually and collectively. So, we act as ‘academic and spiritual midwives’ to help students find their place in the world and imagine possibilities for themselves in the present and future,” she says.

The work of these deans has been crucial to building a place of belonging, exploration, and spiritual well-being for Stanford students, says Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs.

“This team of spiritual leaders contribute greatly to student life at Stanford, both on a routine, everyday basis and during moments of crisis and concern,” Brubaker-Cole says. “The associate deans have deep knowledge and experience gleaned from years of religious nurturing, spiritual care, and counseling across diverse faith traditions, and their services and events are a growing source of joy and support for our campus community.”

At Stanford, Alina Wilson says, she has found “the right spaces” for religion. Those spaces, and the people she’s come to know through them, have filled her need for community and connection. “I’ve gotten to know Buddhists, practitioners of traditional African religions, all in this beautiful place, discussing questions about God and their own practices.”