Students explore interfaith interests on Office of Religious Life trips

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Princeton students on one recent Office of Religious Life trip visited an Islamic community center in Dubrovnik, Croatia. (Photo: Courtesy Zach Beecher ’13)

Just as the University is encouraging students to go abroad, the Office of Religious Life is pursuing its interfaith agenda on a global scale, according to ORL Dean Alison Boden, who has organized and led five trips since coming to Princeton seven years ago. “We are growing the number of trips,” she said. “It’s complementary to the institution’s overall emphasis on more international experiences for students.”

In June five students will go to Ghana to examine the role of religion in its society by meeting with leaders of civil and religious communities there. Later, 10 students will spend two weeks in Thailand with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists — an organization that integrates the practice of Buddhism with social action — to learn about INEB’s leadership training for social-justice projects, and then travel to Myanmar (formerly Burma) to see how its work is put into action.

Under Boden, the ORL also has expanded its international focus through partnerships with the United Nations Population Council and the Social Science Research Council, a think tank in Brooklyn, N.Y., and last summer the ORL co-sponsored a conference in London that brought together about 25 faith-based and humanitarian-aid organizations to demonstrate how working together can increase their effectiveness.

Although the international trips are “very much interfaith in focus,” Boden said students go for a variety of nonreligious reasons. Some are interested in the environmental issues of the countries being visited. Others may have family that came from the region. Many simply appreciate the opportunity to get a “window into issues in a totally different part of the world,” Boden said. 

No more than 20 students are accepted per trip. Financial aid is available.

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From left, Mandy Coston ’13, Jen Kim ’14, and Shirley Gao ’13 at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. (Photo: Courtesy Shirley Gao ’13)

Shirley Gao ’13 participated in the ORL’s 2011 trip to study human trafficking in Cambodia and last summer’s trip to the former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia). A Woodrow Wilson School major who also is earning a certificate in global health, Gao said her interest in post-conflict reconciliation and community building motivated her to go to Yugoslavia.

Zach Beecher ’13, also a Wilson School major, said his ORL trips to Central America, Cambodia, and Yugoslavia showed him “how people respond to conflict, how they make peace, and how they overcome incredibly difficult circumstances.” An Army officer next year, Beecher believes his ORL experiences will help him be a better leader and be more attuned to the needs of the communities he may serve abroad.

Teaching students to be citizens of the world is integral to ORL’s focus, Boden said. “We can teach them things here at Princeton, but they can see things in a wholly different way from the International Network of Engaged Buddhists,” she explained.

Gao said traveling to the former Yugoslavia lent a human aspect to what she was learning in the classroom and “put a face on what had been intangible issues. The trip increased my passion and commitment to peace-building and reconciliation efforts in the future. If anything, I am driven to learn more.”

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