Faith Development While Abroad Amongst African American Students
Spiritual development is an epistemological journey of seeking to make meaning of life’s activities, order, and the relationship between events (Love, 2002). This process occurs when students experience a degree of dissonance that pushes them to question what they know, how they know it, and expand their understanding based on new experiences and information learned (Bakari, 2000; Chaudhari & Pizzolato, 2008). Studying abroad provides opportunities for students to encounter disequilibrium as they interact with other cultures that cause them to consider alternative viewpoints, and enable other’s practices and beliefs to influence the formation of their own views, beliefs and practices (Chaudhari & Pizzolato, 2008).
This article utilizes Fowler’s (1981) stages of faith development to understand the meaning-making and spiritual development of study abroad participants. Multiple semi-structured interviews (pre-, during, and post-study abroad) were conducted with 25 African-American students who participated in long-term, immersive, study-abroad programs in 13 different countries on 5 different continents. During pre-study abroad interviews, three participants disclosed a faith-background and expressed intention to connect with a community of believers during their time abroad. These participants were in what Fowler would consider a synthetic-conventional stage of faith development, characterized by conventional practices influenced from home and parental influences. While abroad, five students shared that they had independently researched local churches in their host countries, and regularly attended services alone or with another study abroad participant, because they needed the support of a community of believers to empower them during their time abroad. Additionally, numerous participants addressed differences in how faith is discussed and practiced in their host country and America. One-third of participants discussed studying abroad having an impact on their faith and religious beliefs. In addition, participants discussed specific lessons and practices learned from their community of believers in their host countries, which they intended to incorporate in their faith practices and beliefs upon return to the U.S. Particularly interesting was a distinction noted between the role faith plays in the U.S. and abroad: participants described their faith communities in the U.S. placing a strong emphasis on what God can do for people, whereas in faith communities abroad, the emphasis was placed on believer’s responsibility to worship God rather than on what God does or does not provide.
Another key finding was the connection between student development stages of identity development and stages of faith development. Participants in later stages of identity development demonstrated a transition from Fowler’s synthetic-conventional stage of faith development to the individuative-reflective stage of faith development. In the individuative-reflective stage, students break free from parental and community influenced practices to explore their own thoughts and experiences of God and determine for themselves how they will practice their faith. A similar process occurs in practices and behaviors when a student explores and forms a solidified identity – they shift from parental and communal influences on identity formation to forming beliefs and actions based on personal experiences and thoughts.
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