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Despite What Rick Santorum Tells You, Higher Education Still Matters

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Why is higher education in Rick Santorum's doghouse lately? In the past few weeks Rick Santorum has made a number of incendiary comments about higher education as an institution, ranging from calling President Obama a snob for promoting it, to claiming that 60 percent of students who enter college committed to a faith leave without it.

I am not sure what colleges and universities Mr. Santorum is visiting, or where he is getting his facts, but my experiences as a college student, and now as someone who works closely with the sector of higher education, tell a much different story.

According to the extensive research of Christian Smith, author of "Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Life of Emerging Adults," more than 60 percent of emerging adults identify as religious. A few years ago, the Higher Education Research Institute out of UCLA surveyed over 112,000 college students at 236 campuses, and discovered that two-thirds of undergraduate students believe that it is essential or very important for their college or university to play a substantial role in their emotional and spiritual development.

In her book, "Big Questions, Worthy Dreams," Dr. Sharon Daloz Parks' research backs up her claim that "the promise and vulnerability of young adulthood lies in the experience of the birth of critical awareness and dissolution and re-composition of the meaning of self, other, world, and God." Daloz Parks believes that "young adulthood is rightfully a time of asking big questions and discovering worthy dreams."

The college experience is meant to be a time for students to ask big questions, challenge the status quo, and develop a stronger sense of identity in preparation for adulthood. My experience as an undergraduate mirrors the research of Daloz Parks.

I grew up attending a Catholic church in a rather homogenous area of northeastern Pennsylvania. I was mostly ambivalent about my religious experience as a kid, going to church because my parents insisted but never really connecting with God in a personal way. As I moved through my time as an undergraduate student at Gettysburg College, I had experiences that forced me to engage with others who were not like me for the first time in my life. Through challenging classes, a variety of extra-curricular activities, study abroad, spring break service immersion trips, and meaningful friendships, I started to connect more deeply with my faith and realized that it was in fact an important part of my identity. College helped me realize that my faith felt most alive through service and meaningful relationships with people from all different types of backgrounds. I started college without a strong connection to my faith, and left knowing Christ in ways that I could have never expected.

College served as a springboard that set me up to pursue a number of incredible experiences following graduation. Currently, I work for a non-profit organization in Chicago called Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) that aspires to make interfaith cooperation a social norm in society. We work with colleges and universities all over the country to engage religious diversity in positive ways, in order to make interfaith cooperation a priority on campuses.

IFYC intentionally partners with higher education for this work because of the historical track record of colleges and universities to lead successful social movements. During the 1960s, college students from all over the country joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, college students were at the center of the Vietnam War protests and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. More recently, college students have played an integral role in the movement for environmental sustainability. Higher education has proven time and time again that it is not afraid to challenge inequality and injustice.

At IFYC, we are able to see firsthand the next big thing coming out of colleges and universities: the movement for interfaith cooperation. This year over 250 college campuses are participating in the President's Interfaith and Community Service Challenge. 100 campuses are participating in the Better Together Campaign, which provides college students a framework for interfaith action, in order to engage their campuses and their communities in building interfaith cooperation.

There are many great stories of students coming together from different faith and secular backgrounds to improve their communities that have come out of these initiatives. A few weeks ago, thousands of students from different religious traditions at Georgetown and Syracuse University teamed up to raise $2,500 and donate 1,370 pounds of food to the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, DC during a college basketball game. Earlier this year, students at Harvard University from different faith and secular traditions also gathered together and packaged 10,000 meals for low-income families in Boston.

Students at Georgetown, Syracuse, Harvard, and hundreds of other campuses throughout the country are recognizing their beliefs as something important. Despite what Mr. Santorum would like us to believe, students are telling the rest of the country that religion does matter, it can make a difference in the world, and colleges and universities are providing the necessary tools to help them build bridges of interfaith cooperation to model for the rest of society.

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