Ellen Cooper said she believes spiritual diversity on campus is “essential” for students.
“It’s very easy to sit in your own box with the ideas you’ve been raised with,” she said. “But college isn’t about being in your comfort zone, it’s about learning and expanding your mind.”
Cooper, an intern for the Spiritual Diversity Project at the university, said the project is a product of Historic New Harmony, Office of Religious Life and Office of the Provost. Its mission is to help students live wisely in a diverse community.
Cooper said SDP hosts multiple events to get students involved and educated on spiritual diversity, however they have been poorly attended.
“It’s hard finding people who are very comfortable and happy with where they are,” she said. “People feel no need to learn something that doesn’t pertain to them especially if it’s not for class credit.”
Cooper said they mainly use social media to spread the news and are hoping to expand their means of connecting in the future as their amount of people interacting with Facebook posts increases.
“Students can expect to expand their understanding of the world through a religious lens,” she said. “Although our main goal is to create an inclusive religious environment, we also value education and understand that it is essential in creating a more tolerant campus.”
Cooper, a senior English major with a minor in gender studies and secondary education, said the campus isn’t as diverse as it could be.
“There are people with diverse religions on campus. I’ve met Mormons, Satanists, Pagans and Buddhists. Some of them have expressed they have a hard time connecting to USI and Evansville because there aren’t organizations that pertain to them,” she said. “It’s overwhelming for someone who’s not Christian because they see all the options for someone that’s not them and that’s not inclusive.”
Cooper said she knows many students are fearful of learning about new religions because they feel they are being sacrilegious, when really they are being “open-minded and educated.”
“As a college student, you look insanely ignorant if you can’t see something outside your perspective,” she said. “Students need to learn and be more compassionate.”
Cooper said she feels President Trump has had negative effects on people wanting to branch out of their comfort zones.
She said she has seen places of worship and homes in the LGBTQ community vandalized. Something that she feels the president “not only encourages but rewards.”
Cooper said she encourages people to be educated on other people’s religions and wants them to have the ability to find out what the five pillars of Islam are and learn the Buddhist and Hindu theologies and the basics of Judaism.
“If you let yourself learn something about someone’s perspective, that will make that person more human to you and when you view someone as a human you can treat them well,” she said. “It’s easy to take the face off of a religion, for instance when you hear about Muslims in the media you won’t see them as people following their god. You see people in hijabs as terrorists and it’s important to find the truth and the humanity in the religion.”
Religious Life Director Chris Hoehn said many students come to USI from communities that aren’t as diverse as the university.
“At this time 3,000 students live on campus, and they are moving out the home of origin and living with people with different values then what they have,” she said. Students are trying to figure out what is right for them.”
Hoehn said her goal is to get students to understand what Evansville has to offer in terms of diversity and to connect them with their faith. Which Hoehn believes will help them learn and understand about those that differ from them.
“I think we have a rich base in Evansville that we can educate students with to learn about the world around,” she said. “I think we need to recognize wellness. We need to recognize spiritual and intellectual wellness, and we see that as a need.”
Hoehn said the first step to get students to talk is to raise conversation and to have students say what it means to them to have hope and faith.
“Students find it intimidating because it is so personal. I have an intern who is from Sri Lanka, and when he came here he heard politics and religion are two things you shouldn’t discuss,” Hoehn said. “But if you want to talk about your values, meaning and purpose, I don’t know how you can’t talk about your spiritual beliefs.”