Date of Award

December 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education


Catherine Engstrom


college, identity, intersectionality, religion, rural, spirituality

Subject Categories




This dissertation examined how students of diverse spiritual or religious beliefs or worldviews at a rural, public college interpreted, made meaning of, and drew upon their spirituality in relation to other aspects of their identity (e.g., race, gender, sexual identity), focusing particularly on the intersections of students' multiple marginalized identities. It was a single-site, qualitative study involving 20 participants attending a rural, mid-sized, predominantly-White northeastern public university. The researcher used semi-structured, in-person interviews, gathering and analyzing data using symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969) with the critical stance possible from applying the lens of the Reconceptualized Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Abes, Jones, & McEwen, 2007). The study provided evidence of the considerable influence of context, in this case geography (rural setting).

Results produced five findings of note which serve to enhance educators' understanding of rural, public college students' spiritual identity development. One, those students identifying with a faith tradition ascribed a great deal of importance to the possibility for affiliation with others of like beliefs at college. For some, affiliation concerns affected both their choice of college and their spiritual identity exploration while attending college. Two, the students did not look to the College to provide venues for spiritual expression, largely navigating their exploration without reinforcement from student affairs, faculty, or other arm of the college. Three, some students, seeking connection, community, predictability, and identity with others sharing a common history, culture, and/or set of beliefs (i.e., intersection of similar multiple categories), formed their own organizations such as gospel choir or chapter of Hillel. Particularly, Jewish respondents did not perceive the College or surrounding area as offering a culturally-familiar atmosphere or space within which to feel a part, and African-American participants did not perceive either as offering a culturally-familiar space within which to worship. Students identifying as gay selected places to worship based solely on those institutions' professed acceptance of the students' sexual identity.

Four, students drew on their spiritual or religious understanding to negotiate everyday college life as well as to test their beliefs and assumptions about controversial issues. They used practices such as prayer, meditation, or singing praises for comfort in negotiating everyday life and stressors. A number of Protestant students perceived that non-Christian students looked first to forms of substance abuse to cope with daily college stressors. Finally, in college classrooms, many students perceived resistance to discussion or acceptance of spirituality or religion, a hindrance that often led to increased tension rather than enhanced understanding.


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