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Interfaith consultant analyzes spiritual culture at Virginia Tech

“If we can graduate a student who has no religious perspective other than their own, we should not charge them for their education,” said Kelly Shushok. “Everyone should know something about what they are not.”

Kelly Shushok

Kelly Shushok believes ideas can’t change people — only people can change people. That’s why she’s recommending an increase of frequency and intensity of opportunities to gather people with diverse views on big, defining topics at Virginia Tech to improve the interfaith environment on campus.

Shushok’s commitment to the Blacksburg community is two-fold. As the pastor of edges, a worship conversation offered by Blacksburg United Methodist Church, Shushok creates an environment for self-discovery, dialogue, and fellowship among all ages and stages in the New River Valley. Teasing out opportunities for a diverse environment with similar goals for the university, she has taken on the role of interfaith consultant at Virginia Tech the past few months.

“We have had a Virginia Tech Interfaith Council for years to construct appreciative and meaningful relationships across differences,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Patty Perillo. “Our hope is that people with different backgrounds, including faith, spirituality, religion, and ways of making meaning, will interact with greater frequency. Kelly’s work will help us do this with greater clarity and purpose, as we want to continue to foster a culture that views different traditions as channels of cooperation. We are committed to graduating global citizens, and this work helps advance this mission.”

The work and conversations surrounding an interfaith environment have been happening for years at Virginia Tech, but the effort wasn’t as defined and structured as many hoped it would be. Shushok was brought on board in her consultant role to consider opportunities to develop interfaith structures, programs, and care for the university and its students.

“My work is to figure out how we can help these interfaith interactions happen on purpose,” said Shushok. “Virginia Tech’s vision is to foster an environment where students can explore with passion everything that it is to be human and whole. Spirituality can be a big piece of finding purpose and meaning.”

Traditional college students are at the developmental age in which they’re trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. Currently, the 67 religious student organizations on GobblerConnect represent dozens of belief systems, from Christianity to freethinkers and Islam to atheists. Within the multitude of groups, many belief systems are broken down into cultural groups, special interests, and age-specific organizations. There is no shortage of opportunities for students to get plugged into religious groups on campus, but the opportunity for growth arises when looking at how those groups work together to create an inclusive environment at Virginia Tech.

Shushok has aimed much of her research at how Virginia Tech’s Aspirations for Student Learning contribute to an interfaith culture on campus. Shushok has based her consultation on an “interfaith triangle” to assess the intersections and connections that increase and enhance the opportunities for knowledge, attitudes, and relationships. She found that the current interfaith landscape at Virginia Tech is “trending toward more conversation, more relationships, more partnerships, and more understanding among people who orient around religion, spirituality, and faith differently.”

Shushok is recommending the university increase the frequency and intensity of opportunities to gather people with diverging views so that attitudes, knowledge, and relationships will grow among diverse groups of people. She plans to share her final report and specific recommendations with the university by the end of summer.

“Being ‘interfaith’ is a good idea, but ideas don’t change people — people change people,” said Shushok. “I view my work as trying to tease out and develop interfaith leaders, people who cause other people to change attitudes and actions with respect to religious diversity.”

When interfaith initiatives have been met with resistance, Shushok said it is often because of the fear of losing faith in what one currently believes. However, she has discovered that just the opposite is true — that being around people who believe differently is causing individuals to become stronger in their own faith traditions.

“Questions of breadth become questions of depth when asked with the right frequency and intensity,” said Shushok. “We’re afraid the questions won’t lead to answers, but if we don’t ask questions we don’t know the answers to, where does the growth happen?”

Shushok received her master’s of divinity from Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond in 2013. That same year she began serving as pastor of edges, a congregation that creates a unique and inviting atmosphere for both seekers and believers of the Christian faith.

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