Last month, the White House launched the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, an initiative inviting institutions of higher education to commit to a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming on campus. President Obama called the initiative an important way to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.
He could have been describing the efforts of Clark senior Tanya D’Lima.
Last fall, D’Lima was selected by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) to be a member of the Fellows Alliance, an intensive one-year leadership program that trains and mentors a select group of America’s finest college students to advance interfaith cooperation and build religious pluralism on their college campuses and beyond.
“I wrote my college essay on religious conflict and came to Clark with a desire to change the story surrounding faith and how we choose to talk about it,” D’Lima said.
“During my time at Clark I had been looking for an outlet that combined my interest in having a dialogue about faith with my academic interest on religious violence. It almost seemed like the fellowship had been tailored to my interests.”
Although D’Lima found a faith community at St. Peter’s Church in Worcester and through various groups at Clark, she still yearned for a dialogue with people across faith traditions.
“At Clark, I think we value respectful dialogue, curious questioning and constant learning and it would be great to extend that to talking about faith,” she said.
Having seen religious conflict first-hand in her home country of India, and seeing how divisive religion can be in multicultural societies, D’Lima has always wanted to be a voice for unity.
One of D’Lima’s first Fellowship responsibilities was to host a “What If” speak-in event, in conjunction with the Difficult Dialogues program at Clark. In December, she brought together 90 members of the Clark community and showcased four Clark students whose different religious experiences inspired a thought-provoking discussion about faith.
“Students from different faith traditions sat in circles and had a dialogue and shared stories about what faith meant to them,” said D’Lima. “It was a very personal and moving experience.”
Hillel Director David Coyne said of the event, “In my fourteen years here I’ve never seen this kind of conversation among students.”
D’Lima and approximately 15 other undergraduates then formed Clark’s Interfaith Action Group. The group has officially achieved “club” status and will receive a budget this fall. The organization’s executive board members comprise a variety of different faith and cultural traditions.
This spring, D’Lima and other Interfaith Youth Core Fellows — 19 chosen this year, and Fellows from past years — implemented a “Better Together” Interfaith Leadership Campaign on 72 campuses nationwide. The campaign aims to give students the resources to speak out about the importance of interfaith cooperation in the world and on their campus, mobilizes their peers to participate in interfaith action on a chosen social issue, and makes efforts to sustain these efforts on campus.
While some of this year’s Fellows selected causes that were in close proximity to their campus, D’Lima — in true Clarkie fashion — looked globally and within the Clark network to seek out a cause that needed attention. She stumbled upon the Energy for Education Project, started by a Clark alumnus Anuj Adhikary ’10 last year with funding from the Davis Project for Peace initiative.
Adhikary works in Nepal for a non-governmental organization named Dharapani, and remains involved with “Renovations for Peace,” his humanitarian aid project that provides the Shanker Primary School in Gorkha, Nepal, with classroom furniture and sustainable technology. D’Lima has been raising money to equip the Shanker Primary School with furniture primarily through donations from friends, raffles, sales of cookies at the International Gala, and community service projects with groups including Clark’s Outing Club, Worcester’s Earn-a-Bike and St. Peter’s Church. A year-end celebration organized by D’Lima, the Clark Campus Ministry, the Newman Association, Hillel and Interfaith Action — a “Better Together Bash” — where every dollar donated went to support the Energy for Education Project, was particularly successful.
“The entire process of doing community service and creating a space for students of different faiths to come together has been amazing and rewarding,” said D’Lima. “What is inspiring is the number of first-year students interested in taking the club forward to the next level. They are amazing and inspired leaders dedicated to interfaith leadership.”