Interfaith Leadership on Campus, By Megan Hughes

Posted on February 23rd, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, On Campus

America is the most religiously diverse society in human history and the most religiously devout society in the Western world in an era of global religious violence. University campuses in the U.S. frequently serve as the backdrop for episodes of religious conflict as Jewish and Muslim students face off over Israel/Palestine and evangelical Christians battle with atheist students over Christmas decorations in the student center. The global becomes local as violence abroad translates into accusatory flyers posted in residence halls and protest signs waved in the quad.

It is individual student leaders who will guide their diverse campus communities from conflict or apathy towards cooperation. Michael Walzer, American political philosopher, writes that the challenge facing a diverse society is to embrace its diversity while maintaining a common life together. An interfaith leader creates a culture of religious pluralism on campus such that when violence erupts in Kashmir, the Muslim and Hindu students do not spew hateful rhetoric at one another, but maintain their commitment to living side-by-side in harmony.

Religious pluralism has three parts. The first is respect for religious identity. On a campus level, this means that students of all religious and non-religious backgrounds have the same right to celebrate their festivals and holidays in public spaces, to wear a yarmulke, a bindi, or a hijab to class, and to aspire to become student body president. The second piece of religious pluralism is the existence of mutually inspiring relationships between diverse communities. Jews and Buddhists and Agnostics and Catholics share meals in the cafeteria, serve together on committees, and attend one another’s events where they walk away with new insights about themselves and the world. The third part of religious pluralism is a commitment to the common good. This is when diverse religious and non-religious student groups partner together to make their library more environmentally friendly, to lobby the administration to create a hate crime response team, or to tutor children at the drop-in center near campus.

The Interfaith Youth Core launched the Fellows Alliance in Fall 2007 to give young interfaith leaders the framework, knowledge base and skill set to advance religious pluralism on campus and in the world around them. Every year, IFYC trains, networks, and resources 20 undergraduate Fellows from diverse religious and philosophical backgrounds on college and university campuses across the United States. Fellows design interfaith service projects that unite diverse groups on campus around their shared values; present a new way to think about religion through presentations, workshops and articles in the campus newspaper; and mobilize their peers, faculty and administrators to campaign for an institutional shift in the way their campus approaches religious diversity.

IFYC staff train the Fellows in the IFYC shared values methodology, best practices, and advanced theory. Fellows receive formal and informal support as they plan events and develop their own interfaith leadership skills. This includes a personal stipend as well as funding to support program costs, a site visit by IFYC staff, media and networking opportunities, professional development, and mentorship. 

Each Fellow begins the year by completing a Campus Assessment using a tool designed by IFYC to identify the assets and resources available on campus to support interfaith work. Drawing from IFYC’s “Hallmarks of a Model Interfaith Campus,” the tool allows Fellows to identify in what aspects their campus is embracing religious pluralism and where their campus needs additional attention. Most importantly, it urges Fellows to seek out and create a network of like-minded students and faculty at the outset of the year who will serve as partners for their interfaith efforts. 

The Fellows convene monthly via conference call to explore one theme related to the field of interfaith work. Experts on religion in America, religious leaders, conflict resolution professionals, and other relevant leaders join the conversations and share their insight and wisdom with the Fellows. The calls include a conversation with the guest speaker, time for Fellows to interview one another about their interfaith journey and inspiration, and time for the Fellows to share the latest successes and challenges to their interfaith work on campus.  IFYC Fellows are also tasked with writing one reflection piece, persuasive essay, or op-ed style article every month addressing an aspect of their campus organizing work and responding to the theme of that month’s conference call and related readings. These assignments are in response to a specific prompt and focus on story-telling, a core feature of IFYC’s methodology.

The Fellows are making a significant impact on their campuses and in their local communities. Rachel and Nadeem, IFYC Fellows at Wesleyan University, organized their student, faculty and community allies around an Interfaith Fast-a-thon during Ramadan last fall. Over 25% of the Wesleyan student body gave up their meals for one day in solidarity with Muslim students fasting during Ramadan and attended an evening event celebrating the ritual of fasting in diverse religious traditions. The unused meal points and other donations amounted to over $11,000, which was given to a local food pantry.  Another example of interfaith leadership on campus is the story of Moustafa, IFYC Fellow at the University of Michigan. As a pre-med student doing an internship at a local hospital in Ann Arbor, Moustafa noticed that surplus medical supplies were routinely destroyed once new replacements were delivered. Instead of letting these supplies go to waste, he and several Muslim, Jewish and Christian pre-med students formed a campus organization called Children of Abraham in order to collect surplus supplies from hospitals around the city, sort them with the help of volunteers from diverse faith congregations, and ship them to communities in need. Children of Abraham has shipped hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of supplies around the world.

Amidst very real theological and political tensions, interfaith leaders are mobilizing religious groups on campus to partner with one another to build a better world. These young leaders, and many like them, are creating a new identity for themselves as “interfaith activists.” It is their leadership that will continue to catalyze and sustain a movement of religious pluralism both on campus and beyond.



meganMegan Hughes is the Leadership Director of the Interfaith Youth Core. Prior to her work with the IFYC, Megan spent four years working for the conflict resolution organization, Seeds of Peace, both in New York and in Jerusalem. While there, she launched the Seeds Advisory Council and directed the graduate program. She is completing an M.A. in Religious Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. At the Interfaith Youth Core, Megan directs the Leadership Program where she nurtures and networks emerging interfaith leaders.





See Michael Walzer, What it Means to be an American (New York: Marsilio, 1996).

One Response to “Interfaith Leadership on Campus, By Megan Hughes”

  1. AKGURTOO says:

    ‘”America is the most religiously diverse society in human history and the most religiously devout society in the Western world in an era of global religious violence””