College is a time for growth. Students learn how to live independently, explore their passions and interests, and discover what kind of person they want to become.

And while external opportunities for growth are abundant through organizations and activities, internal growth is also important in college, in careers, and in life. Such exploration of purpose and meaning-making is being fostered by the Interfaith Program, a new initiative within the Dean of Students office.

The Interfaith Program at Virginia Tech provides space and resources for students, faculty, and staff from different belief systems and worldviews to build relationships, engage in constructive dialogue, reflect on values and practices, and partake in common action in the community around matters of shared concern. The program, led by director Najla Mouchrek, is currently in its first year at Virginia Tech. But despite its youth, the program has already garnered interest from community members from myriad backgrounds.

“I was drawn to Interfaith when I was talking with Najla, our program director, about our beliefs on life and our ideas regarding the concept of Interfaith,” said Alyssa Jorgensen, a sophomore English major in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I believe that it is necessary for people of different faiths to be able to work together and coexist together.”

 

Black and white photo of Najla Mouchrek.

Black and white photo of Najla Mouchrek.
Najla Mouchrek during the 2020 Interfaith Dinner. Photo by Christina Franusich.

The initiative was started with the help of a grant from the Interfaith Youth Core in conjunction with a generous donation from the Hokie Annual Family Fund. The donations allowed for the development of Common Ground, an Interfaith Leadership Training program for undergraduate and graduate students.

In February, the program hosted its first Interfaith Together Dinner, where more than 80 students, faculty, staff, and community members shared a multicultural meal, participated in interfaith dialogues, and worked to visually represent their worldviews. During the 2019-20 school year, the program also hosted brown bag lunches, evening dialogues, and dinners to foster conversations about various topics relating to worldviews. Currently, the program is hosting virtual summer Interfaith dialogues, in which participants present about their diverse worldviews. 

Pictures drawn by Interfaith dinner attendees are then put together on a white posterboard.

Attendees drew pictures of their worldview. Pictures were then put together on a white posterboard
Attendees of the Interfaith Together dinner in February ended the night by drawing pictures that represent their worldview. Participants then placed their pictures together on a posterboard. Photo by Christina Franusich.

Mouchrek joined the dean of students team in 2019 with the goal of creating meaningful experiences for students, with a focus on interfaith engagement and purpose-driven exploration. Mouchrek interviewed for her current position just days before defending her Ph.D. dissertation. Upon her graduation from Virginia Tech in May 2019, she began a job that not only allowed her to continue practicing her professional skills, but also provided fulfillment in her personal and spiritual life. In her role as program director for the Interfaith Program, Mouchrek is working to create conversations and relationships that have lasting impacts.

“We are creating this program from the bottom-up, in collaboration with the university community. There is no reason to make this a formal or rigid experience, because interfaith engagement is something you do freely — because it is meaningful to you,” said Mouchrek.

The interfaith community thrives on the collaboration of people from various worldviews. In coming together to learn more about different religions in a safe and nurturing environment, members are able not only to grow within themselves, but also to learn more about the world and worldviews around them.

“Our meetings are a place for anyone to explore existential questions and learn with one another how to co-create things and help the community,” said Mouchrek. “It seems that when people of different worldviews are engaged in something practical, like volunteer work, in their shared community, they are able to create and activate interfaith bridges, and understand each other on a whole new level.”

That’s why the initiative, though centered on reflection and dialogue, gears itself toward helping others and finding projects to collaborate on within the community.

“Students will choose and design the interfaith service project themselves. I will guide them through the project using the framework provided by the Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations, but ultimately they are the ones who will be leading the service projects.”

The model for the Interfaith Program at Virginia Tech follows the framework of Interfaith Youth Core, a national nonprofit organization that supports universities to advance interfaith engagement. Their mission “helps rising leaders learn to engage difference positively, lead fearlessly, and connect to thousands of peers who have a vision for a diverse yet indivisible future,” according to their website.

While it’s already made strides in its first year, this is just the beginning for Interfaith at VT. Mouchrek and her team will continue to host brown bag lunches and evening dialogues over Zoom, with hopes to continue in-person and online events in the fall semester. Mouchrek has also created  the Interfaith Advisory Council, formed in 2018 to develop a plan for interfaith engagement.

During the 2020 school year, with an extended membership bringing perspectives from several diverse worldviews and increased participation of students, the council offered continuous support for the implementation of the Interfaith Program. The council involves students, staff, faculty, and community members.

Mouchrek’s dreams for the growth of the program in the years to come are big. “We want to jump start it now with the hopes that students will end up leading it,” said Mouchrek, with plans for more training for leaders, longer events that allow for deeper conversation, professional development for faculty and staff, and developing curriculum in partnership with academic departments.

“At the end of the day we spend the biggest part of our lives working and studying,” said Mouchrek, “so if you have to wait to be yourself in your free time, when will you have the time to develop your inner-self? The aspiration is that college will be an increasingly welcoming environment for people’s whole selves, inclusive of their diverse religious and nonreligious identities, and nurturing their inner development and well-being.”

Written by Madison Sweezy