The students in Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program (RPLP) are a diverse group. Some are religiously devout, and some are skeptical. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, represent many different areas of study and have distinct future plans. But all of the students share a drive to learn how to conduct rigorous research, construct high-quality surveys and thrive in professional settings.
“Rice University students are emerging leaders,” says Elaine Howard Ecklund, founding director of RPLP and the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences. “Through RPLP, students gain tools to study how religion plays a role in society, and they also develop excellent research skills and gain other knowledge, like how to direct public outreach efforts, deliver formal presentations and support the program’s daily operations.”
The skills that the students develop through the program’s strong student–mentor relationships are transferable beyond the academic realm. For example, one of the program’s alumni, who is now a medical student, plans to supplement his current training with the understanding he has gained of how spirituality and coping with illness are interconnected. “His experience with our program will enable him to ask his patients helpful questions and ultimately to be a better physician,” Ecklund says.
“RPLP gave me my first and most important introduction to conducting team-based, project-based, highly rigorous research. It also gave me one of my most valued mentors, Dr. Ecklund. I cannot imagine being where I am without the deep support she gave me.”
— Lilly Yu ’14
Rice University is known for providing top-tier educational opportunities that will serve students throughout their careers and lives. In the case of RPLP, Ecklund stresses the importance of bringing an academic voice to the public conversation. “Rice students are very interested in doing good in the world, and they genuinely want to understand religion as a societal force,” she says. “Their efforts through the RPLP certainly support dialogue on campus, but much more broadly, they also have the capacity to fundamentally change the way people treat one another.”
Since the RPLP was established in 2010, it has grown to include as many as 30 participants at a time, from full-time staff to postbaccalaureate and postdoctoral fellows. Ecklund counts the more than 70 undergraduate students she has mentored over the past five years to be among her proudest achievements.
"Most undergraduates can discuss sociological work, but I pretty much lived it for three years. And the best thing about this team is the group of people involved. I have learned so much from them and have thoroughly enjoyed my experience.”
— Jacob Hernandez ’15
Soon she’ll have the chance to do even more. In 2016, the RPLP will expand to become a designated research center, supported by increased funding and a university-wide commitment to addressing topics of importance within the community, nation and world.
“We are living in fraught times,” says Ecklund of the widespread discord about religious issues like evolution and immigrant rights. “From the pundits’ perspective, everything is black and white, but nuanced and intelligent dialogue is needed to bridge that division. And we do not want just dialogue. We also want to train students to use research to bring about social change, and the RPLP is poised to help make that possible.”