On a college campus where there is always an assignment to submit or a meeting to catch, it’s refreshing to have an opportunity to stop, slow down and connect with community. Open-armed, the Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices (RSLCP) office at Vassar works to provide those kinds of spaces for students.
The RSLCP website accurately describes the office as “difficult to pigeonhole.” As an umbrella office for religious and spiritual organizations on campus, RSLCP gives opportunities for students to participate in religious and spiritual practices, services and holiday events. It is a place for students to connect with their peers, along with religious and spiritual mentors. Through this fostering of connection and community, RSLCP offers genuine emotional support surrounding religion and spirituality.
RSLCP Intern Christian Wilson ’23 mentioned that some students experience a religious and spiritual “culture shock” when transitioning to life in college. “Coming to Vassar might be the first time you’re in…a place where not a lot of people have the same religious beliefs as you, or there might be some discomfort with how you feel about your religion, and [you may be] questioning your beliefs,” he said. “[RSLCP] can…help people process those emotions and feel more comfortable with their spiritual life on campus,” he added.
However, Intern Eleanor Levinson-Muth ’23 explained that, although a big part of RSLCP is holding space for students’ religious needs, the office does not only exist for students involved in religion. “We exist to…create community and a sense of belonging and spiritual meaning for all students, not just religious students,” she said. Pia Behmuaras ’23, another intern, agreed that RSLCP is a place for everyone to learn more about themselves and others. “[It] is an open space to find out who you are, who you want to be and learn about [the] religious, spiritual and contemplative practices that other people have on campus,” she said. RSLCP offers programs that are not specific or exclusive to any religion, such as virtual spaces for grief and loss support, special talks and seminars, their Mindful and Reflective Moments podcast and the ground-breaking Spring Festival that happened in April.
The RSLCP’s Spring Festival was held on Sunday, April 18 on Library Lawn. Students strolled among booths manned by Vassar faculty and religious organizations, where they were encouraged to participate in activities and learn information about the different groups. There was food, live music and even a virtual reality meditation booth. Led by Behmuaras, the booth allowed students to transport themselves into a nature scene for a 360-degree virtual reality experience with guided or self-led meditation.
Intern Pierangelis Valerio ’23 emphasized that providing authentic experiences was important to RSLCP. “All the organizations were given the chance to decide what they thought was important to be showcased in their booths,” she reflected. “There was a lot of liberty in terms of what they wanted people to know, even down to what kind of food they wanted to bring. I think that kind of authenticity…definitely brought people in,” Valerio stated.
Participants were given Spring Festival Passports and received a sticker for each booth they interacted with. Those who completed the sticker chart received gift cards to local shops. What Valerio found particularly special was that, even after the gift cards ran out, students continued engaging with the booths and completing the passports—not for a prize, but out of genuine interest.
The birth of the Spring Festival exemplified the student-led nature of RSLCP. First, the student interns held “discovery interviews” with members of the general student body—people not involved with RSLCP. Levinson-Muth elaborated on the discovery interview process: “We would ask [students] questions like, ‘How have you been finding connection this semester?’…[The student] would answer, and then we’d ask a question about their answer, and we would end up somewhere totally different, but with very meaningful content.” The interns then discussed the common themes that emerged from the interviews—social isolation, holistic approaches to wellness and the need for integrated cultural, religious and spiritual support—and designed the Spring Festival to address those concerns. The student interns came up with the idea of the Spring Festival all on their own, without the presence of staff leaders Rev. Samuel Speers, Rabbi Bryan Mann, Nora Zaki and Annie Sampugnaro, who oversee the office and its programs.
Although the festival was the first of its kind for the RSLCP, it will serve as a precedent for many years to come. Intern Milla Durfee ’24 explained: “At least once a year, we’d like to do the same kind of thing…and interview students to see what they need at that time. This year the Spring Festival was what catered most to people’s desires, but next year it could be something different.” While the RSLCP student interns have a big say in programming, even the general student body has a voice in the kinds of events RSLCP puts on.
This student-leadership is one of intern Evelyn Lucero-Herrera’s ’24 favorite things about working for RSLCP. “[The staff leaders] encourage you to plan these events and everything, but they won’t leave you on your own to do it,” she mentioned. “So you can be in these positions and lead these different things, knowing that you have this support system behind you.”
The RSLCP office does not only offer a safe space to the general student body, but it also fosters a warm community for the students who work there. Intern Chelsea Zak ’23 didn’t know what to expect when she signed up to work at RSLCP, but she is immensely glad at where she has wound up. “I met all these incredible people that I never would’ve otherwise had the experience [of working] with if I hadn’t stumbled upon RSLCP. And I’m so grateful that I found them,” she said. Intern Daniela Mujica ’24 agreed, mentioning how her job at RSLCP became a refuge for her, especially when navigating college life as a first-year. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” she admitted. “I didn’t realize that I was going to find this amazing community of…wonderful people with so much talent and so much to put on the table. It became kind of like a family,” she shared.
Intern Sarah McCawley ’23 shared similar sentiments: “I love working with RSLCP. Every single time that I come into a space with these people, I’m always accepted for my full self…I feel like RSLCP really provided a safe space for me to navigate my feelings and beliefs surrounding [religion]…And I’m just lucky I get to work [here] also.”
In the future, the office plans to explore restorative circle practice and move into their new center, Pratt House. They welcome ideas from the student body on ways to use and gather in their new physical space. In the meantime, the office is holding an end-of-year bonfire on Friday, May 14 on Joss Beach. It’s the perfect opportunity for students to experience the spirit of community and togetherness that the RSLCP office yearns to provide—all while munching on s’mores.