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.