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Spiders at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (2023)
UR students and faculty visited Mammoth Hot Springs during a pilgrimage to Yellowstone National Park in 2023

Embarking on a Spiritual Journey

January 25, 2024

Pilgrimages help students grow in faith through community

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Santiago, Spain (2023)

In many religions, a pilgrimage is a spiritual journey undertaken for the purpose of personal transformation. This concept is taken seriously at UR’s Office of the Chaplaincy, which hosts a Pilgrimage international travel program that aims to help students grow in their faith and learn from others in communities around the world while deepening religious life on campus.

“Pilgrimages are short-term study abroad experiences, but they come with a great deal of intentionality,” said Rev. Dr. Craig Kocher, University chaplain and Jessie Ball duPont Chair of the Chaplaincy. “We visit a place in the world that has religious significance, and we teach students of different backgrounds to learn from that place and from one another. We are not just going as tourists – we give our mind, body, and soul to this experience.”

Since the program’s establishment in 2011, there have been more than 30 week-long pilgrimages to five U.S. states and 12 countries. During a 2019 spring break trip to Spain, Kocher and Bryn Bagby Taylor, associate university chaplain, led eight students in a walking pilgrimage along the last 100 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago, beginning on the Portuguese border and finishing in Santiago. The Camino is one of the most famous pilgrimages in the Western World.

“It dates back to the Middle Ages,” Kocher said. “You’re walking every day and you’re walking with other pilgrims, so you get to meet people from all over the world. It’s an intensely spiritual experience because you’re literally walking in the footsteps of a 1,500-year-old tradition.”

Isabelle Drayer, ’22, who majored in Latin American, Latino, and Iberian Studies, applied for the program to further her knowledge and understanding of Spanish culture. But she ended up gaining much more.

“It’s honestly hard to describe because it was such an incredible experience,” she said. “I loved connecting with the other students on the trip. One of the people I met, Ally, is still a good friend today. We reflect a lot on our time on the Camino – it gave us a broadened perspective.”

Drayer enjoyed the experience so much that she moved to Spain for a year after graduation. As a Fulbright Scholar, she continued her studies in Galicia, Spain, while teaching English and environmental science to high school students. Her friend, Ally Osterberg, ’22, received a scholarship from the Jepson Scholars program to pursue an M.S. in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, which she obtained in June.

Kocher and Taylor led students along the Camino again in spring 2023 and will do a fourth trip in March 2024. Building on the success of the Berlin pilgrimage last year, Josh Jeffreys, Jewish chaplain and director of religious life, will lead students in Germany this spring. In January, Jeffreys led a joint travel experience with Spider Athletics to visit Greece with a group of student-athletes. 

“At UR, we talk a lot about student well-being and belonging,” Kocher said. “In a time of incredible discord and an increasing awareness of social injustice, the pilgrimage program creates an environment of trust and learning where genuine and meaningful engagement across difference can happen.”

Donor support plays a major role in providing funding for the program, which, in 2019, was bolstered by a generous endowed gift from the Weinstein and Jecklin families. 

“I really think that the pilgrimage program is one of the most unique experiences offered at the University,” Drayer said. “It’s rare for [donors] to make these international opportunities accessible to students who wouldn’t have them otherwise. I think that’s what I appreciate the most – they’re giving blindly to help students they’ve never met before.”