News / USA

    Hindu Lawyer, Religion Scholar Oversees Religious Life at USC

    As American universities become increasingly diverse, the job of supporting the spiritual life of students has become more complex.  Many universities have chaplains and faith-based clubs, often overseen by a school official called the dean of religious life.  The man who fills that post at the University of Southern California is Indian-born lawyer and religion scholar Varun Soni, who says he relishes the challenge.  

    Varun Soni coordinates the USC chaplain corps of 50 clergymen and women of various faiths, who offer counseling and conduct religious services.  Yet he is not ordained himself.  He is a lawyer, religion scholar, and entrepreneur who once ran an India-based business that did legal work for American high tech firms.  He’s also Hindu.

    “It is unusual for someone like me to be in a position like this.  I’m the first Hindu in American history to be the chief religious or spiritual leader of a university.  I’m the only non-Christian currently serving in this capacity," he said.

    Soni admits that, like many of his friends of other faiths, he grew up in the United States somewhat disconnected from his religious heritage.  His family did celebrate Hindu holidays. “Theologically or scripturally, we didn't know much about our own tradition.  And in fact, it wasn't until I got to college that I really began to study Hinduism and Buddhism, that I really began to learn about my own [religious] traditions," he said.

    He studied Buddhism in Bodhgaya, India, the place where the Buddha was said to have been enlightened.  Soni would later complete a doctorate in religious studies.

    He taught law for a time, but since his appointment as USC’s primary spiritual leader three years ago, Soni says, he enjoys the chance to interact with students on a more personal level. “When I look and reflect upon my own college career, I realize that the transformative moments in my life that really shaped the trajectory of my life often happened outside the classroom.  They happened in conversations with friends, they happen for our students through their fraternity or sorority experiences, through their study abroad experiences, though athletics, through community service," he said.

    He says community service projects in low-income neighborhoods bring together students from many religious backgrounds. “What we see is that our generation of students [is] less interested in traditional religious service and doctrine, and more interested in community service and religious experience and engagement and conversation," he said.

    He notes that many students today say that they are spiritual, but not religious, and that college chaplains have adapted to the change. “And the way we've addressed this is that we've oriented our office not around God, but around meaning and purpose, and the ultimate questions that students and in fact all of us ask; the questions that connect us as humans: why am I here, what is my purpose, what does it all mean?”

    What it means, he suggests, is that members of this so-called Millennial Generation want to find fulfilling work. “Our students aren't just interested in being physicians.  They want to be global health practitioners.  They're not just interested in being business people.  They want to be social entrepreneurs," he said.

    Varun Soni says Indian Americans are branching out beyond such professions as medicine, law and engineering. “Now Indian Americans and Hindu Americans who grew up in the United States have so many prominent role models in the public sphere.  There are governors and writers and actors and innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as physicians and lawyers and engineers.  So I think for Indian Americans growing up today, they can do more things because there’s a path," he said.

    He says some may even, like him, aspire to become the dean of religion on a university campus.

    You May Like

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora