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Spiritual revival on campus

When junior Sara Jacobsen came to Mills, she felt like something was missing. She had met many Jewish students like herself while touring the school, but once she got here, she felt there wasn't a place for her and her friends to share their cultural experiences. Because of this dilemma, Jacobsen revived the Jewish Student Union in order to bring the hidden Jewish culture at Mills to light.

Jacobsen is not the only spiritual student at Mills to feel left out.

Mills students and staff are coming together to make spiritual and religious understanding a priority in the aftermath of ranking 11th on Princeton Review's category "Students Ignore God on a Regular Basis."

Student leaders and new Dean of Student Life Joanna Iwata created the Interfaith Council, a new coalition of religious groups, to supplement the current absence of a campus chaplain.

"The fact that the administration takes time every Friday to talk to students about religious life is a huge step in the right direction," Jacobsen said, referring to the Council's weekly meeting and Iwata's involvement.

Former chaplain Maud Steyaert left Mills because her interim contract was not renewed, Iwata said. Mills is looking for a chaplain who is much more active, has more credentials and could work full-time, according to Iwata. She and a "search team" of students, faculty and staff are hoping to have a new chaplain in the community who will meet those standards by January.

The administration is also offering two new courses in the spring and are organizing religion courses to be offered on a more regular basis for future semesters. These classes are "Women and Islam" and "World Religions West," both taught by professor Judith Bishop who has her Ph.D. in Graduate Theology Union, according to Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Andy Workman.

The weekly "Nourishing the Spirit" series has returned to the Mills chapel, and each month will have a theme to encourage community dialogue and reflection, particularly on issues of social justice. October's focus is "Shelters for the Spirit," a program held in honor of Hurricane Katrina's victims for students to engage in silent reflection and candle-lighting, as well as talk about issues like social justice and how this relates to spirituality, said Student Programming Assistant Erin Latimer. Guests from the campus and local community invited to share their perspectives include professor Deborah Berman-Santana and local Quakers.

"Historically, the Quakers have always been very socially active in non-violent ways," said Iwata. "I think they bring a very unique flavor to their social justice perspective; they're another interesting community to expose students to."

Some students have attributed the previous lack of spiritual activity on campus to a fear of organized religion, something campus spiritual leaders are trying to address.

"Feeling like you are not a spiritual person is a spiritual issue itself … A lot of people don't know what the chapel is, and are concerned about words like 'chapel,' 'chaplain,' and 'faith,'" said Latimer. "I think a lot of people are scared of organized religion."

Some students attribute the fear of organized religion to a fear of conservatism.

"I think people who are spiritual tend to keep it to themselves because of this negative connotation of religious people being conservative," said junior Shannon Van Meir.

Iwata said she hopes these programs will have a positive effect on the students, whether or not they consider themselves "religious" or "spiritual."

"The word that we look at is spiritual 'enrichment'-what creates meaning, what brings value to our lives … so that when we leave Mills we can leave with a better understanding of ourselves and our community, and be open to different perspectives," Iwata said.