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What to Expect From Course GRS 300 – Beyond Tolerance: Interfaith and Secular Engagement

n his GSR 300: Beyond Tolerance: Interfaith and Secular Engagement course, Dr. Kirk VanGilder wants students to create engagement by increasing campus dialogue and conducting service related to religious and secular diversity. His students have bought into this approach and gained national recognition from the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization promoting respect for religious diversity and developing relationships among people of different backgrounds.

During the 2014-15 school year, GSR 300 students became involved in a number of community initiatives. Three students attended President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campaign Challenge’s annual meeting.  The class connected with the English Language Institute (ELI), working with international students to decrease social isolation. They worked with the Gallaudet Rainbow Society and the LGBTQA Center to create open discussions on civil rights and religious (and non-religious) identities. They attended a local vigil to honor three slain Muslim students from North Carolina.  And, their efforts led to the addition of Chris Stedman’s book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious to the Multicultural Student Program’s Turn-a-Page-Together book group.

The class formed the Gallaudet Interfaith and Non-religious Network (GaIN) to foster interfaith. GaIN sponsored “Better Together Day” on April 14, a one-hour event to encourage participants to openly talk about their religious or non-religious identities, and interact with one another.

Encouraged by the class, VanGilder submitted their campaign to the IFYC’s Better Together Rookie of the Year award category and earned an honorable mention, along with this response from the award committee: “We couldn’t let the excellence of your work this year go unrecognized…we’ll definitely continue to have our eye on Gallaudet University next year since we have a hunch that you’ll be unstoppable.”

William Campbell, director of campus mobilizing for IFYC, recognized the course’s impact. “We were impressed with the thoughtfulness toward their structure,” said Campbell. “There is an assumption that a student club is needed to go forward with interfaith issues. Gallaudet’s structure was centered within their classes. Over the course of the year, we could tell they made a splash on campus. That leads towards sustainability. At the end of the day, that is what matters.”

Through this course, VanGilder wanted to tackle what he refers to as a “strange silence” regarding religious diversity on campus, and put into action a pluralistic approach, defined by IFYC as respect for diverse religious and non-religious identities that develops mutually inspiring relationships between people of various backgrounds, and engages them in common action for common good.

“There’s a lot of research that shows when people of various backgrounds, experiences, languages, and cultures gather for a common goal to do community service, they not only do some good in the community, but they also develop side by side relationships that lead to friendships and understanding that doesn’t always materialize in formal dialogue processes.”  

Ana Daku and her classmates bought into VanGilder’s approach. “We were forward-thinking students,” said Daku. “We wanted to enhance the class by giving something to the community and spread awareness of interfaith and secular cooperation that we learned from class, our campus community, our visits in D.C., and from news around the nation and the world. My experience in the course was so valuable because it gave me an opportunity to understand personal responsibility and ethics.”

Student Paige Foreman was greatly influenced by the class. “I had interest in interfaith engagement for some time, but I was told that it was a silly idea because I am a humanist,” said Foreman. She explained that the course, and especially the reading of Stedman’s book, allowed her to find strength in her identity. “I’m now looking at seminaries for graduate school because I have realized this is what I want to do with my life.”

Foreman, along with Rhiannon Le Livre, and Meagan Sietsema, and accompanied by Carl Pramuk, associate dean of the Student Center, attended the IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago in August.   
“It was a great experience,” said Foreman.  “The training workshops helped strengthen my skills in interfaith dialogue, mindfulness, and leadership. My group also identified the next steps that we want to take at Gallaudet, and we’re looking forward to using the tools we gained at the conference and making our ideas a reality. We also learned a lot from students at other universities. I enjoyed picking their brains on student organizing, interfaith work at small campuses, and addressing proselytizing.”

During the 2015-16 school year, the class will help promote a multi-campus, longitudinal study, IDEALS, a first at Gallaudet. This study, sponsored by a North Carolina State University research team and conducted by IFYC, will provide data on interfaith attitudes and experiences among Gallaudet students, and will be administered in the fall and spring. VanGilder, Daku, Wyatt Scott, and Melissa Adams attended the 2015 President’s Interfaith Community Service Campus Challenge, and on September 27, students planned to participate in the Interfaith 9-11 Walk, an event beginning at the Washington Hebrew Congregation synagogue in Cleveland Park and continuing through Embassy Row, where several houses of worship are visited before concluding the walk at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue.  

VanGilder saw 2014-15 as a “breakout year” for promoting interfaith at Gallaudet and is excited to see interfaith become part of the campus culture. “There are hundreds of campuses around the country involved with IFYC, and for IFYC to take notice of our work is exciting,” said VanGilder.  “We bring awareness of Deaf Culture and accessibility practices to IFYC. I had a very dedicated and hard working group of students get behind this goal and really create some great energy on campus.”  

Of the 198 colleges involved with the Better Together Campaign, 83 were eligible for the award. North Carolina’s High Point University won the award; Gallaudet was the sole honorable mention recipient.

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