The Path to Spirituality
Hindu scholar Varun Soni (A'96) discusses his recent appointment as the University of Southern California's dean of religious life and how his Tufts experience prepared him for his new role.
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.24.08] On July 1, Varun Soni (A'96) will make history, becoming the first Hindu spiritual leader of an American university. Soni says his appointment as dean of religious life at the University of Southern California (USC) is historic on a symbolic level.
"I didn't get this position because I am Hindu, nor are my responsibilities going to change because of my background," says Soni, a native of India raised in California who previously taught in the school's Law and Society Program. "The historic aspect behind my hire is that it is symbolic of the new geo-religious landscape that we are seeing not just in the United States, but that has specifically increased on college campuses."
Looking back at his career, Soni says the time he spent as a religion major at Tufts played a major role in placing him on his current path.
Arriving at Tufts, Soni says he was originally leaning toward international relations, having been attracted in particular to the offerings of The Fletcher School. Once at Tufts, he soon met two people who changed his life-Howard Hunter, emeritus professor of religion, and former University Chaplain William "Scotty" McLennan.
Hunter, who was the only full-time faculty member of the school's religious department in the 1990s, played a role in turning him on to religion and philosophy, specifically Asian religious traditions, such as Buddhism and even his own faith of Hinduism.
"For me growing up as a Hindu in the U.S., this was the first real opportunity I had to explore what it even meant to be Hindu-what it even meant to be Indian. I was raised culturally in one way, but to study it in a scholarly way, this was the first opportunity that I had."
With such a small department, Soni says he received a lot of attention in his work as well as a number of varying opportunities, such as becoming a teaching assistant, teaching an Experimental College course on reggae and Rastafarianism and the encouragement to do an undergraduate thesis.
As the advisor for Soni's thesis, McLennan provided the Tufts graduate with spiritual guidance about Soni's desire to reconcile his spirituality and his desire for service work. Soni says over the years he has unintentionally followed McLennan's career path, having traveled through South Asia after graduation and going to both law and divinity schools as McLennan did.
"He is now the dean of religious life at Stanford, so I have gone from being his mentee to being his colleague," Soni says. "So there is this full circle of events that really started at Tufts."
In addition to meeting his mentors, Soni says one of the most important events to happen to him at Tufts was during his junior year, when he spent a semester abroad in Bodh Gaya, India, living as a Buddhist monk in a Burmese monastery. The program, offered through Antioch University, is what Soni says set him on a course toward the professional study of religion.
With these experiences behind him, the Tufts graduate says he is ready and honored to take on his new position at USC, which he hails as a leader in embracing religious pluralism. The school was also the first college in the U.S. to appoint a non-Christian religious official-Soni's predecessor, Rabbi Susan Laemmle-as dean of religious life.
"What I like about this position is that it is not just religious life, it is also spiritual life," Soni says. "There are a lot of religious students on campus, but there is also this idea of spirituality which implicates the entire student population. For me, spirituality is the search for meaning, it is the search for self, the search for value in your life and for purpose, and that is integral to the college experience."
Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications