STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/05/2012

Questing: Do Recent Grads Keep the Faith? Students and Faculty Team up to Find out

Kaye Cook and students

“Formation is a lifelong process. I have seen students grow and change. I have plumbed the limits of their contributions and found them eager to do even more. In the process, I too have learned a lot—about hope, persistence, student abilities, and wonderful individuals.”—Kaye Cook, Ph. D., professor of psychology

In his wide-ranging survey of “emerging adults” in their late teens and 20s, Dr. Christian Smith ’83 argues that they sometimes develop weaker, shallower faith than that of their parents.

Is Gordon College accomplishing its stated mission of graduating “men and women distinguished by intellectual maturity and Christian character”? To find out, Gordon and Wheaton College psychologists teamed up with researchers from several other institutions to interview almost 1000 alumni and 60 undergraduates over several years about their faith commitment, stress levels, relationships, and sense of identity and wellbeing. They inquired also about “questing”—that is, viewing religious exploration from within a strong faith tradition as a positive experience.

In addition to confirming that peer friendships help young adults cope with college and the years just after graduation, the study revealed that although Gordon students grapple with the hard issues of faith, Gordon seniors describe themselves as just as religious as Gordon first-year students. More seniors than first-years view religious questing as positive.

The survey results showed Gordon students and recent graduates experiencing several types of “questing.” Some regarded it as being ready to face complex existential questions. Others spoke of self-examination and honest introspection about their own spiritual doubts. Still others regard openness to change as a positive way to deepen faith.

Few of them change denominations or come to view God as distant and impersonal during their years at Gordon. Another interesting finding: recent Gordon and Wheaton alumni spoke more of their trust in God and “ownership” of their faith than did Gordon first-years or seniors. “Undergraduates ask questions about their faith while at Gordon, questions that are also explored in the classroom and dorm rooms—and, within the right context, lead to stronger development of faith,” Landon Ranck ’12 and Claire Lawes ’11 wrote in their report on this project, in which they were among the research assistants to Gordon psychology professor Kaye Cook. “All students struggle with the hard issues of faith, and they need to come to better understand what it means to serve God in the unpredictable world they will soon face. We are gratified to find that students explore, but that core beliefs remain unchanged.”

Dr. Cook has taught in Gordon’s Psychology Department for 34 years. “I came to Gordon fresh from graduate school in North Carolina,” she says. “Three decades of living in New England have taught me to sound more like a native and to get through New England winters, but they have not dimmed my interests in moral and faith development and formation.”

In addition to Cook and her student research assistants at Gordon (including, pictured with Dr. Cook, Tor Ekstrom ’12 and Faith Clasby ’13), the research team included Dr. Kathleen Leonard ’01 of the University of Massachusetts–Lowell; Drs. Cynthia Kimball and Kelly Flanagan of Wheaton College; and Dr. Chris Boyatzis of Bucknell University. Study participants were 60 Gordon undergraduates, and nearly 1000 recent graduates of Gordon College and Wheaton College.

NEXT: Deep Church Author Jim Belcher Addresses Emerging Adulthood