According to a University of California in Los Angeles study, spirituality is "essential" to students' academic careers. Due to the findings, researchers are advocating for professors in higher education to play a part in student spiritual development.
The report, Spirituality in Higher Education, used an extensive long-term study of over 14,000 students across 136 colleges. The researchers divided spirituality into five aspects: finding meaning and calmness in times of stress; searching and questioning life's big mysteries and assumptions; caring and compassion towards others; engaging in the community and charity work; and having a worldview past considering themselves.
Researchers found developing student spiritual qualities through experiences like studying abroad, interdisciplinary courses and community work, student academic progress improved. The findings led researchers to advocate professors to encourage critical thinking about meaning and purpose in student lives.
"There's a real call for a more holistic way of knowing and being," said University of Calgary education professor Janet Groen.
Groen's doctorate research centred on spirituality in the workplace, but she has since focused on spirituality as a teaching and research tool.
According to Groen, interest in the relationship of spirituality and coursework has increased in recent years.
"This study shows that students are asking for a space for discussion in education and they're not necessarily getting it," she said.
The discussion students want, Groen said, is to understand their meaning and purpose with help from the education system.
Reverend Paul Verhoef of the Multi-faith Chaplain Centre was not surprised about students wanting a course load integrated with such critical thinking.
"There's this question now whether spirituality is private or public," Verhoef said. "Spirituality isn't private though, it's personal."
Verhoef said that while many people would like to see their spiritual passion and education connected, spirituality isn't always welcomed in the classroom.
"There are people who pursue what they pursue because it's spiritually meaningful to them and it helps them answer the big questions of life," said Verhoef. "Life is meant to be whole and complete, to go everywhere as your whole self."
According to Chaplain Centre Imam Fayaz Tilly, Muslim students have achieved that integration of education and faith.
"We feel that a person who's spiritual, he is pursuing his education in a manner that also serves the higher purpose," Tilly said. "They are serving the call of God by educating themselves."
Tilly said that in an age where academic stress causes high suicide rates in parts of the world, having a strong support foundation could help students manage their workload and keep them grounded. The Canadian Mental Health Association lists suicide as the second leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 24.
But, according to the U of C Freethinkers club, the study's aspects of spirituality are not only relevant to those with religious backgrounds.
The club is a social group where students can gather to discuss life's big questions. While many members consider themselves materialists or atheists, they still agree that universities should develop critical thinking about meaning and purpose.
"I can't imagine someone being considered mentally well-balanced who didn't have those qualities," said Freethinkers club executive Ben Keller.
"If university is only teaching us to deal with problems that don't affect our deepest held beliefs, that don't affect our politics or religion, all it's doing then is becoming a four-year job training program rather than something for producing enlightened, intelligent citizens," Keller said.
Keller said professors are facing a difficult problem in trying to teach "cognitive tools" in students, something fellow Freethinkers club executive Patrick King also acknowledged.
"I think that in Canadian society, we don't like to push and prod at each other's beliefs very much you don't want to be getting into proselytizing."
Groen recognized this difficulty in her research of spirituality as a teaching focus. She said the key is having an open space where students and professors alike can discuss open-ended questions and taking knowledge out of the "third-person narrative."
"There's such a fear of bringing spirituality into the discourse because it's supposed to be straight secular," said Groen. "If you're a first- or second-year student, you're not going to ask those questions unless there's space, but that doesn't mean you don't have those questions."
Verhoef and Tilly agreed developing spirituality is based on student engagement and involvement.
"If professors could find ways to articulate the 'whys' behind what they do in an open way, that would be an invitation for others," said Verhoef. "If professors can bring their whole self to a classroom, they'll open the path for students to bring their whole self to the classroom."