Georgia State University (GSU)’s diverse student body (the tenth most in the United States) means that any class I teach likely includes Buddhists, Wiccans, Muslims, atheists, Jews, Christians, secular-humanists, and spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) self-identifiers. Whether they are longtime residents of the rural South or refugees from Sudan, many of our undergraduates are career-focused first-generation college students. On this majority-minority campus, diversities abound, and so when my colleagues and I talk about the world’s religions—or any other kind of diversity—they are present in the room.
Recently, my concern with how we can prepare students to work meaningfully in the world met with alumni involvement in our programs, and a partnership emerged with Compassion House for Living and Dying. A newly formed non-medicalized hospice cofounded by alum Justin Howell and Dr. Tom Comstock, Compassion House is “an interfaith organization that respects and honors each person’s choices about spirituality.” In our partnership, my students and I offer subject-area expertise in exchange for an opportunity to design an online orientation for Compassion House’s volunteer death doulas.
When I met with Tom and Justin in early August 2018, they talked about how their experiences as Buddhist practitioners and their careers in education, medicine, and nonprofit organizations prompted them to found Compassion House. In a country where more and more people die alone, they want to build a home where anyone—and they mean anyone—can receive compassionate end-of-life care. As we considered what the students’ online orientations could cover, they talked about wanting to serve guests who might not feel welcome elsewhere: indigent folks, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of various faiths.
Compassion House wants to serve the city’s deeply diverse citizens, and my GSU students were game to help. Working in small groups, students in my seminar developed online volunteer trainings that focus on religious literacy, American Buddhism, Islam, and SBNR.1 My seminar students included one undergraduate from our dual-degree program and about a dozen first- or second-year MA students. GSU’s Department of Religious Studies is one of a number of standalone MA programs in the country, and we offer traditional thesis-track training along with the MA with Concentrations in Nonprofit Management (in collaboration with colleagues in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies) and in Religion and Aging (in collaboration with colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences Gerontology Institute). Our intention is to prepare Compassion House’s death doulas to engage in informed conversations about spirituality with their guests.
In the past few months, I have watched learning in community partnership focus my students: their research has a defined audience, and that audience has a particular responsibility in the partner organization. As they research and plan their orientations, they imagine doulas working with Muslim or American Buddhist or trans and SBNR guests, and at the same time, they confront deep diversity in their own complicated lives and identities. They acquire pedagogical dexterity and technical expertise by designing and building their online orientations. In short, they learn about religious literacy and world religions, weather interpersonal conflict, and acquire skills that may help them succeed in the long-term.
My students know their work will contribute to improving the quality of end-of-life care for people in our city. Each step in the process was deeply academic and personal and professional. Our applied approach connected the dots between academic research, alumni relationships, and nonprofit community service. My students’ projects demonstrate that what we do does not need to be at a remove from “the real world.” After all, we aren’t.