The students at The Evergreen State College now have access to a resource for support in an avenue they’ve never had before: spirituality. Chaplain Melissa Bennett, M. Div. (Umatilla/Nimiipuu/Sac & Fox/Anishinaabe) now holds an official position as student activities assistant director of spirituality and meaning making. She is available for one-on-one spiritual care with students navigating college life and the world at large.
Melissa emphasizes that spiritual care is for everyone, regardless of an individual’s background with religion or faith. “When I use the term ‘spirituality’ what I’m really talking about is helping students explore purpose and meaning and process emotions like joy, celebration, grief and loss,” Melissa explains. “I can help explore answers to big questions. Who am I? What am I doing here?”
She makes it clear that her role is different from the counseling and mental health services students can find at the campus wellness center. She does not offer diagnoses. She does not prescribe treatment. “I want to provide a space where students can come and talk. I am a neutral third party who can listen,” Melissa says. “A lot of times students are trying to deal with what’s happening in their lives and the world and the classroom. My role is to serve as a space to come and process all of those things.”
First-year student Michelle Pickering encountered Melissa in one of her virtual orientation sessions. Michelle was feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of information and tasks that needed to be done to be ready for the school year to start and found herself second guessing her ability to succeed at Evergreen at all. She decided to set an appointment with Melissa, and in doing so changed her whole perspective.
“As an older student coming back to school, I had a lot of fear,” Michelle explains. “I was able to talk to her and say, ‘I’m still having doubts, I’m not sure what I’m doing.’ For her to talk me through and tell me it will be okay and that I can do it was really comforting.”
Michelle founded a homeopathy nonprofit, Zuri Medicine, about six years ago. She’s at Evergreen to earn her bachelor’s degree to strengthen the foundation of her credentials and to boost her organization and operations skills in the nonprofit realm. “I definitely feel like Melissa is the kind of person I could talk to if I had other issues come up unrelated to school,” Michelle goes on. “She exudes this really warm, sensitive aura that pulls you in and makes you feel comfortable to talk.”
Dr. Jeannette Smith is Evergreen’s interim associate dean of student affairs and engagement. “There are other places on campus where students have been informally trying to fill this need,” Jeannette explains. “There have been touchpoints with faculty, staff and alumni around spirituality, answering big questions, processing hard issues and navigating life circumstances.” This made it clear that the campus was ready for a formal spiritual leader, and Melissa could not have been a better fit. The college spent 18 months in a research and assessment phase and concluded that this investment was necessary for supporting students.
Melissa is an alumna of Evergreen who graduated in 2002 with a focus on indigenous studies and creative writing. She earned a Master of Divinity degree and two graduate certificates in spiritual care and theological studies from Marylhurst University in 2012, then completed a chaplain residency in forensic mental health in 2013. She served as the senior program coordinator for the Native American Student and Community Center at Portland State University before returning to Evergreen as an employee a few years ago. Just this year, she earned a certificate in Movement Chaplaincy from Faith Matters Network, a Womanist-based organization and leader in spiritual care for people on the front lines of social movements, organizing and activism.
“This is the first time that we have identified a person who has the expertise, the experience, the skillset and the interest in being a formal touchpoint for students,” Jeannette explains. “That being said, this is not an unusual figure to have on the campus of a liberal arts college. This is standard.” She cites an article that was shared with all incoming students but notes the importance of upholding the separation of church and state at a public college while providing clear avenues for interfaith and non-faith dialogue to support student development and growth.
“Spiritual care isn’t necessarily about religion,” Melissa explains. “The word ‘chaplain’ is often associated with religion but does not always function in that capacity. Chaplains are people who care for the spiritual well-being of others. In other words, chaplains accompany people as they navigate feelings of grief and loss, their sense of purpose, feelings of belonging and becoming, their sense of identity, and the exploration of their personal values and ethics. Issues that many people wrestle with during their time in college.”
Melissa is one part of a robust network of support Evergreen offers their students. If you are a community member and you’re interested in how someone like Melissa can help you, you can visit the Faith Matters Network website.
To learn more about enrolling at Evergreen, visit their admissions page.