by Tony Moore
If you haven't met Rev. Donna Hughes, Dickinson's new director of religious life & community service, you should swing by her office. She's on the lower level of the Holland Union Building, with her books, jellybeans and a gurgling Mr. Potato Head fish tank. She's easy to talk to, easy to get laughing, and she'd love to discuss a few things.
"Students have said, 'We're diverse about everything on campus, but not in talking about religion,' " says Hughes, who comes to Dickinson from Cleveland. "Even student leaders in religious life say it. So we'd like to see religion as another aspect of diversity. I'd like it to become a part of common life at the college, so students feel comfortable exploring some kind of faith."
Casting religion through the diversity lens could place it right in Dickinson's wheelhouse, and the approach will be multi-pronged: through education ("What do different world faiths looks like, and what do they believe?"), on-campus support and exploration, which Hughes sees as discussing "life purpose and meaning—and looking at them through ethics and moral development."
And as Hughes sees it, most students are ready to embrace this approach.
"It's who people are," she says, noting that many students she's spoken with claim to be spiritual but not religious—not part of a recognized religion, but they think there is something bigger out there, something more important than themselves. "So what does that look like? What's the framework for how you live? There is a spiritual component to us, and we want to make it as accessible as community service."
The Office of Community Service already has several programs that get students out into the community—Montgomery Service Leaders, Neighbors to Neighbors and CommServ, to name a few—but Hughes hopes to change the message on a philosophical level.
"We're trying to make it more of a social-justice focus," she says. "Besides community service being a good thing to do, you'll do it to learn about the issues, about the need for community service and what you can do to change the need. This is what changes the world." And Hughes actually makes changing the world seem possible.
"It's great to serve the poor, to serve a meal, to work with the homeless," she says, "but we also should look at why we have a homeless population in Carlisle, why we have poverty, why we have racism. My goal is not just for students to serve but to ask, 'How can I change the culture, change the law, so the need for a lot of these services no longer exists?' "
With ample opportunities for community service available, Hughes says she'd love to see every student experience a program each year.
"I think it's life-changing to get out and do something for and with other people," she says, and the way she says it, the way she thinks, makes you want to get out there and see if she's right.
Dickinson's Office of Community Service
Dickinson's Office of Religious Life
Published Oct. 3, 2013