Learning experiences

Here we are again, another month under our belts and rapidly approaching the end of what has been a truly fulfilling year. Before I begin, let me wish you and yours a belated happy Thanksgiving, and send best wishes to you as you embark on the Christmas season with your families. 

My trip home to spend this time with my family is only one of the many things I have to be thankful for and I hope that you are all able to take some time this time of year to reflect on all that you have surrounding you that adds such immense joy to your life. Though it may be obvious from my previous articles, I’ve been extremely blessed to be a part of my graduate program and most recently it provided me with yet another learning experience for which to be thankful.

Before returning home, my semester started to wind down in a unique way. As part of one of my courses, our cohort was required to attend the Virginia Student Services Conference — an opportunity for us to attend workshops, network with other student affairs professionals, and get our sea legs when it comes to navigating such professional development opportunities. On the final day of the conference I had a choice between five workshops to attend, and one seemed to stand out among the rest. Entitled, “The Rise of the Nones,” the workshop aimed to address the rise of atheists on campuses and their needs as a unique population.

 To begin the session we participated in a snowball activity, where everyone writes down a question or comment they might have on the subject, then they roll it up and throw it around the room for someone else to pick up and read aloud, to protect anonymity. My snowball basically shared that I had never considered this group of students as a population that might have unique needs and so I would be interested in learning more about the topic. And learn I did. 

The presenter spoke about many things, including how to move away from atheism as the defined term of non-religious because so many students actually feel they exist on a spectrum. While they may not have a belief in a god or God, many still live by moral philosophies. For others, thoughts of faith versus science basically evade their everyday lives. 

Ultimately, the conversation focused on how not one student who feels they fall under the umbrella term of atheism is the same as the next, yet despite this, there is a lack of support for them on campuses to connect and discuss what they do find value in. 

There was no animosity, there were no fighting words, and there was simply an open forum for an exchange of information and thoughts for the future. It humbled me, as a student who does identify as religious. How often do we get the opportunity to participate in a conversation with someone who doesn’t share our faith and have it remain just that, a conversation? How often do we have the chance to have an open dialogue with someone who is willing to talk faith but also reason and we neglect that chance because it’s uncomfortable? I know for myself, I always reflect fondly on the memories I have from my time at Bishop Stang High School, formative years in my own faith development. And it always warms my heart when I’m in community with those who have the same morals and values as me.

However, on the campus of a public school, I’m exposed to conversations and individuals who I’m also learning so much from and who are also warming my heart. They’re opening my eyes to a multitude of perspectives and personal philosophies and I’m learning how to participate in that dialogue. As Christmas approaches, a time when many of us will re-focus on our faith in an intimate way, I ask that you also focus on growing in acceptance of those who live lives by their own faith or philosophies, no matter the differences. 

Have a blessed Christmas season and may your lives be enriched by all those you encounter.

Anchor columnist Renee Bernier is a graduate student in the College Student Personnel Program at James Madison University in Harrison, Va.

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