BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — Dozens of university students in southern Florida in the United States recently spent two weeks — the beginning weeks of their summer holidays — in what might be regarded as an unusual way. They have been focused intensively on studying and consulting about social transformation. They have been thinking about their part, individually and collectively, in the emergence of a peaceful and just global civilization.
In the next six months, groups like this will gather in many regions throughout the world. Thousands of university students, from North, Central, and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australasia, will immerse themselves in similarly intensive learning environments. They will do this without the traditional incentives of grades, certificates or diplomas, or a pathway to a job.
“We talk a lot about how youth have capacity and want to bring about change. But then, I think, in this space you actually get a glimpse of what they are capable of and the idealism within them to transform society. You catch a glimpse of how, if youth have an opportunity to participate in an educational program that assists them to pursue their intellectual and spiritual growth and to develop their capacity to contribute to the transformation of society, they can become such a profound source of change,” explains Arash Fazli, who has worked with this program in Asia for many years.
“For me personally,” continues Dr. Fazli, “seeing the sincerity of some of these participants, the way they respond to concepts in the material, the kind of attraction that they have for these ideas, for a vision of nobility that is expressed in the materials, that helps dispel a lot of the cynicism that unfortunately young people absorb from society.” The program is offered by the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity (ISGP). Founded in 1999, ISGP is a non-profit research and educational organization inspired by the Baha’i teachings. One of the purposes of ISGP is to explore, with others, the complementary roles that science and religion — as evolving systems of knowledge and practice — can play in the advancement of civilization. As part of its efforts to build capacity in individuals and to create spaces for learning about the betterment of society, ISGP offers a sequence of four annual seminars.
Just over a decade ago, 30 participants attended the very first ISGP seminar for undergraduate students, which was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Since then, the program has reached over 5,000 students from 103 countries.
Among the aims of these seminars is to assist participants to see their university education as integral to their efforts to contribute to the transformation of society. The seminars seek to strengthen their aspirations for a more just and unified world by giving them an opportunity to reflect on the nature of profound change — on what it requires and how it might occur.
“Many students come to the seminars understanding that youth have a very particular role to play in processes of social transformation,” explains Talia Melic, who is part of the ISGP coordinating team in France. “They want to be able to lead lives of service and to contribute to humanity in all aspects of their lives. They come in with some practical questions, which are a source of motivation for them to learn more, for example, ‘How can I put my studies and future profession to the benefit of humanity?’”
“The students ask very serious and conscientious questions about their future and how to make these kinds of decisions in an integral way,” Ms. Melic says. “One thing that I’ve heard from participants that really resonates with them is the understanding that the university space has intrinsic value: it’s a space where they can serve as well as build capacity to serve. And this occurs through the knowledge they’re acquiring or through the opportunities that are open to them to converse with their peers and professors or through exploring how Baha’i principles apply in their fields.”
“The seminars help them explore religion not only in terms of their personal lives but also how it relates to civilization building. They explore how spiritual principles relate to the issues that humanity is grappling with, like climate change, racism, and economic inequality,” she continues.
Students are also assisted to think beyond superficial or simplistic conceptions of change. At the same time, the seminars aim to buffer participants from the cynicism that seems to set in as young people pass through tertiary education and enter the work force—a cynicism that stems from disillusionment about whether their own contributions can make a difference and more generally whether the world can really change for the better.
The content studied over the four years of the seminars helps them see their education as more than merely a path to a job or a vehicle for the advancement of an individual career; it helps them to see how their fields of study can be highly valuable to their ability to contribute to society’s movement in a positive direction, toward unity, justice, and the realization of the oneness of humankind.
“They explore how spiritual principles relate to the issues that humanity is grappling with, like climate change, racism, and economic inequality.”
– Talia Melic
Over the course of the four years, students explore a range of subjects, such as the relationship between science and religion, in which they contemplate the importance of developing scientific capabilities. They learn to analyze social forces and consider how they can channel their energies most effectively for the benefit of society. In addition, they also have the opportunity to explore how the spiritual and material dimensions of life reinforce each other, especially at that important juncture of their lives as they choose their professions and determine a path for their future.
“University students have to navigate very difficult challenges during their undergraduate years. They are bombarded by so many messages about what the purpose of life is, what is success, what is happiness, what is a good life, and how important it is that you fight to achieve that life for yourself,” reflects Aaron Yates, who is part of a coordinating team for the seminars in North America.
Mr. Yates discusses how contemporary education often does not provide students with an understanding of the complexity of society. “A lot of educational programs do not assist students to have a grasp of society as something more than a collection of individuals. Even the idea of institutions is not something that is often explored in depth. So attention is not given to understanding what an institution is or the ways that institutions actually give structure to our society. That limits our ability to think about what it means to contribute to the betterment of the world beyond the individual level.”
“What appears to motivate many of the participants who attend the seminars is that they see in Baha’u’llah’s Revelation a vision of a better world, and the seminars represent an opportunity for them to come together with others who are like them—who are facing similar challenges, who are in a similar stage of life,” Mr. Yates explains. “This is actually a really critical moment in their lives when they’re making decisions about their futures and the direction that they are going to take, and the seminars are an opportunity for them to think very carefully, very deeply about how they can translate the vision in Baha’u’llah’s Writings into practice in their lives in order to contribute to the betterment of the world that we all have to live in.”
“The space that the seminars offer for young people to explore these kinds of questions is not very easy to find anywhere else,” he says.
Linnet Sifuna, who coordinates the seminars in Kenya, reflects on the growth of the program there over the past several years. “In the first year of the seminars, we had a small group which we had gathered through various outreach efforts. But after that first year, the youth who participated went back to their homes and shared with the rest, so the numbers we received the next year were very high, much higher than the first year.”
“At first we thought maybe it’s just the excitement of youth coming together, but later we came to understand that they’re gaining a lot from the seminars. It is helping them to think about their university education in new ways and inspiring them to learn and to be of service in their communities,” continues Ms. Sifuna. The unfoldment of the seminars over the past decade is an inspiring story. At its heart is the conviction that young people have a fundamental role to play in the transformation of society and in the progress of an ever-advancing, global civilization.
“The seminars help them explore religion not only in terms of their personal lives but also how it relates to civilization building. They explore how spiritual principles relate to the issues that humanity is grappling with, like climate change, racism, and economic inequality.” Reminds me of Abdu’l-Baha’s comment about “walking the spiritual path with practical feet.”