A Q&A with Kalvin Cummings
This article is one in an occasional series about the people, offices, and services dedicated to supporting WPI students and our community.
Kalvin Cummings joined the WPI community in July as the inaugural assistant director for religion and spiritual life. This important new role within the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education (ODIME) coordinates the university’s programs and services related to meaning-making practices, the term Cummings uses to describe all things religious and spiritual, regardless of whether they align with a traditional, formalized faith or creed. In addition to overseeing the Collegiate Religious Center (CRC) and supporting student organizations focused on meaning-making practices, Cummings supervises the university chaplains and manages ODIME’s community service programs. He partners with the Center for Well-Being, the Student Development and Counseling Center (SDCC), Health Services, and Physical Education, Recreation & Athletics in addressing a holistic understanding of student well-being.
Q. Why did WPI create this position?
A. This position comes out of the initiatives of the Mental Health and Well-Being Task Force, which got WPI thinking about well-being as encompassing body, mind, and spirit, instead of only body and mind. That involves asking questions like, What does it mean to live well? And, Where are we finding meaning?
It coordinates religious advisors who act as extensions of the CRC to support students in their meaning-making practices. It also partners with student orgs and clubs that are associated with religious, spiritual, and meaning-making practices, not just so those orgs and clubs feel supported, but to ensure parity and equality among those organizations in somewhat of a pluralistic way. Our strategic plan prioritizes providing a place on campus where plurality is not just considered, but considered thoughtfully and intentionally—and contextualized for students at WPI. If everyone has a seat at the table, then we learn from everyone.
Q. Why were you drawn to this position?
A. WPI is looking to provide more community to students in response to what we have decided is a real student need, and this position sits right in the middle of it all. It coordinates resources and programming around how we rediscover and practice the sacred. It asks the community to demand a culture change. We’re starting to see that this is not one person’s space, this is everyone’s space—irrespective of tradition, but also inclusive of tradition.
I hope to represent that all paths are good paths. When a student or a chaplain or a president of an organization sees another religious practice enacted or practiced on campus and then they ask a question, they have moved from judgment to query. That is what I live for. When that happens, I think we’re making better humans. To ask questions instead of making presumptions about different cultures, different people, or different groups? That’s part of becoming a global citizen.
Q. How does your role differ from that of a chaplain?
A. The best way to think about it is, How do you become a chaplain? Chaplains are given some type of authority from a specific religious tradition. All faith traditions have different hierarchies, but chaplains are official leaders from their respective organizations, and part of their role is spiritual advisement and maintaining confidentiality.
I think students immediately think their advisor for their religious club is a religious advisor, but a club advisor is very different from a confidential resource. There’s a list of people who can provide confidentiality to students at WPI, and that list includes the counselors at the SDCC—and chaplains. I’d like to increase our university chaplains team so that students have more places for confidentiality.
In my position I also oversee chaplains’ work related to proselytizing and discerning students’ needs. Our university chaplains are unpaid, part-time volunteers, in a sense, and I’m both their supervisor and their official link to the university. Their relationships with students tend to be focused more on specific religious practices and spiritual advising. And while I do some one-on-one advising with students, I also coordinate WPI’s programming related to meaning-making practices.
Q. How are you, specifically, and the CRC, more broadly, helping the WPI community heal—and grow stronger—after last year’s student losses?
A. We’re trying to support students by paying attention to this moment of grief, to normalize that grief is a part of living and not something to “get over.” In a program the CRC put on with the Center for Well-Being earlier this fall, we asked students to consider how their expression of spirituality and meaning-making practice might help them move through a wave of grief. I also ask students to consider how broad grief can be. For example, we might grieve a routine or a place we’ve never been. We might also grieve a person.
We encourage students to notice how they move through grief, not to make a value claim on that but just to pay attention to it. Paying attention to how we move through moments of grief individually might help us all. When a student shares how they responded to a situation, another student might say, “I had the same level of anxiety, but you did that?! I might try that.” I think just tending to this atmosphere of grief helps us acknowledge that there are new ways to live with it together.
Q. How do you create a space where people from different faiths and spiritual backgrounds all feel safe and welcome, especially in our increasingly polarized world?
A. I think we’ve come to a point where civility is being rediscovered, thanks to the thing that binds us all: We all need ways to connect. Civility can be our superpower if we can come together and have conversations. I believe in the power of conversation. I believe in being heard. I believe in listening. It’s going to be messy, but it’s also good if we can stay in it.
I’m trained in a certain tradition, but my job is to think critically about who’s not part of a conversation and how parity enters into that. For example, how might we engage a new conversation around sharing space? If a group uses the lower half of the CRC, can they welcome another organization to use the top floor? That conversation may involve acknowledging that someone took up more space and figuring out how to share space in the future.
When we lead with civility and query, alongside a critique of the ways that things have always been, we can discover a new path forward together where no one is left behind. We can also learn from each other. Like, why does your tradition need a prayer mat? Or why can this space not be a Buddhist prayer space if it’s a Muslim prayer space with a god inside of it? Those kinds of nuanced conversations come out of being willing to share space, and I think having someone in the CRC to coordinate those conversations will not only provide tangible solutions but also help those problems not seem as large.
Q. Now that you’ve been at WPI for a few months, has anything surprised you?
A. What comes up most saliently is that the need is not just more than what I Imagined, it’s very present. Students are looking for community. They’re looking for permission to want the community and to find a safe space within a spiritual or meaning-making community. And so, a lot of time, my job is letting students know that they get to take up space beyond academics. I tell them, “You’re not just here to get a job. You’re also here to discover who you want to be in this world, how you want to be in this world. Taking time for that is not a distraction to your studies. It might inform your studies and your success here at WPI.”
Q. What are your goals for the WPI community for the next year or so?
A. I hope to bolster certain voices that go unrepresented and unacknowledged at times, but that are very present. For example, I want to make sure that The Pagan Circle and Muslim Students Association are as active and visible as the Catholic Newman Club.
By the end of their time at WPI, I also hope students feel plugged into the Worcester community—that they have done a service project or that they know an organization in the community, at least one. Knowing and listening to your neighbors is part of integrating well into a place. I want students to know that there are resources in the community—both on and off campus—that exist to support them and to believe that people are here for them.