All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come- Victor Hugo
In the fall of 2011, fresh out of seminary in Washington D.C., I walked onto the campus of the University of Minnesota full of energy. I had recently accepted a position as the Director of the Wesley Foundation, a United Methodist affiliated campus ministry, and I began my tenure sure of my place in the world of campus ministry and clear-minded about the progressive Christian values I would bring to a campus was badly in need of an alternative to the evangelical Christianity which was dominant. Above all else, I was sure I would spend my life as a United Methodist Campus Minister. And then, something happened.
Well, a lot of somethings happened. First, I realized there were 70 religiously-affiliated student groups at the University of Minnesota and that these groups didn’t really have access to administration, especially the religious staff, who seemed to have almost no ability to even meet with administrators regarding concerns of needs of their students. I then realized that I could become the advocate for all of these students and professionals. And I did, setting up an immediate meeting with with the Vice Provost for Student Affairs. With this meeting, it became almost immediately clear that the Vice Provost was not sure how to handle this area of diversity work on what remains as one of the largest public universities in America. But his natural inclination to give space to consider the work and to hear out my ideas became profoundly impactful and within a year, several initiatives had been moved forward by a coalition of professionals.
To support this work, I wrote a grant to study how universities supported what at the time I called “multifaith.” The grant, supported by the Louisville Institute, was intriguing to the Vice Provost and he surprised me by offering to double the grant, should I receive it. On November 1, 2012, I was called and told that I had indeed received the $15,000, now doubled to $30,000 grant, which would support what would become a 25 school research study in the U.S. and Canada. The research would eventually confirm many of the hypotheses that I had considered over the past few years regarding “Multifaith” and the methods employed to create more hospitable campus environments.
We began by interviewing students regarding their experience and found repeatedly that there was a profound interest from students for work related to this area, but also that students reported being at odds with university administration. Students expressed challenges in regards to being able to convince administration that their identities were important to consider, and often felt as if they lacked the tools to change the minds of administration. Conversations regarding prayers spaces on campus, kosher and halal options in dining centers, considerations within the campus calendar of religious holidays, among others often fell silent. Students were attempting to shift their institutions to inact policy or practice changes, but often times were told it simply wasn’t possible or were simply ignored by administration. Some students went as far to tell us that administration were openly hostile toward their needs, citing separation of Church and State as a reason they couldn’t support their requests.
This was reinforced in our interviews with administration, who often were highly resistant to change. For those who were willing to move forward in supporting religious, secular, and spiritual identities, the lack of knowledge as to what or how to support these students became apparent. Everywhere we went; public, private, or Canadian (because they are honestly so different that they deserve their own category), these administrators, the ones who wielded the power to shift the climates, were at a loss for words or their words were a demonstration of resistance toward institutional buy-in.
And this is where Convergence was born. If an institution lacks the support of administration, but they are the ones that can move forward large-scale and dynamic shifts, then first and foremost we must build awareness and collaboration. Religious professionals often have felt marginalized from campus, but they themselves are unable to properly explain to the university what values they bring to the table. Don’t get me wrong, they do bring value, but it is often the packaging of it that remains a challenge and in turn, higher education professionals are thus not hearing how they impact their key institutional strategic markers. By building awareness around what each entity brings, and by shifting the conversation to the overall campus climate (away from the individual student but to the whole of the student experience), the awareness “checkbox” can be filled in.
What we also realized was that if we were to really create change, it had to come from campus professionals and so those professionals became the focus of our work. Not that the students were not, but rather we as professionals saw the need for our voices to be at the forefront of work on campus. It became through the student experience and the shifts in the way students perceived their “safety” in expressing their religious, secular, and spiritual beliefs that we began to benchmark success. We were shifting the paradigm, and that’s what we wish to bring about with Convergence.
Convergence will be an organization completely dedicated to creating a movement in higher education that lives up to previous organizational movements in higher education, such as women’s center and LGBTQIA centers. Our goal is to shift the culture of the campus, and to do so through administrative professionals who utilize the research about students and transform the campus through policy and practice. And if we transform one campus as a whole, we transform the experience for every single student in that institution. And that shift is one to which Convergence is dedicated.
Convergence will be working in a variety of ways to provide resources to professionals around North America with the tools necessary for this work. From blogs to webinars, a magazine highlighting successes of individuals and campuses, to training for professionals that are accessible and within driving distance, Convergence will build up efforts over the next several years and will seek to amplify voices of those working so hard to bring about these changes. We wish to partner with you, the professional, and learn more about your current environments and efforts on campus and ways in which we might partner.
For myself, this is as Victor Hugo might say, an idea whose time has come. Over the past few years, I’ve served in various roles revising CAS Standards, working for a short while with NASPA, and consulting on my own with universities around the country. But now, Convergence is the ultimate dream, one in which our entire team; staff and board, intend to fulfill. And for that I’m grateful.
For those of you reading this, thank you. The dreams of the University of Minnesota students I worked with for six years and the dreams of so many of our students across North America have led to this moment: one in which the higher education professionals themselves are encouraged and empowered to bring about the change necessary to support all members of the campus community regardless of their religious, secular, and spiritual beliefs and practices.
Cody Nielsen, Founder, Convergence