‘Is religion dead at Wheaton?’ asked the headline of the Wire on November 9, 2005 on the day that Vereene Parnell, associate dean of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility (SSSR) office signed to Wheaton. Recently, Dean of Students Kate Kenny wrote in a campus wide email that Parnell would be leaving Wheaton at the end of June. After 10 years, Parnell or ‘Dean V’ says that her time here has shown that religion and spirituality are very much alive at Wheaton.
Before joining Wheaton, Parnell had a varied career path that included a legislative assistant, instructor at the University of Denver, environmental educator and cook at the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, and professional trainer at Jersey Battered Women’s Service. “[I have] spent my whole life blending academics and social justice or direct service and spirituality. It’s fun to be able to create something where I don’t have to leave my passions at home,” Parnell said.
Parnell joined the SSSR office just as it was created and helped cultivate religious celebrations and community outreach programs in Norton and nearby areas. “She has led many students in fulfilling their passions for connecting with each other through spiritual exploration, connections with the community and development of opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others,” Kenny wrote about Parnell in her email.
One of the most well-known of these celebrations is Holi or the Hindu festival of color. This tradition started in May 2006 when a student returning after studying abroad in India convinced Parnell to celebrate it at Wheaton. The first Holi celebration drew about 20 people but it now an annual event that draws around 250-300 people. Similarly, on the Mexican Day of the Dead- students adapted the tradition and cleaned graves of veterans in nearby cemeteries.
The SSSR office in affiliation with Christian fellowship and student groups also started the New Orleans trip where students, faculty and staff visit every January to help with rebuilding efforts. Parnell said that these programs and events are especially meaningful when students claim them as their own and take the lead in planning.
Yet, this position also came with its fair share of challenges. One was changes at the administrative level that resulted in shifting priorities. The other was financial. “Not because we need a big budget but we needed a staff. The vision was that staff would grow from just one person. It quickly grew to 2 and a half staff and a vista worker but then the global financial crisis hit. It was difficult to do things well when spread so thin,” Parnell said.
As she prepares to leave, Parnell encouraged students to contact Kenny with ideas and initiatives concerning the SSSR. “Higher education is about taking the talents and privileges that you were born with and looking at the world around you. We are always stronger and smarter together than we are as individuals. I hope students think about SSSR seriously and take every opportunity to talk to her [Kenny]. She’s very smart, committed and a great advocate,” Parnell said.
Parnell says that leaving Wheaton is a leap of faith. “New England has never been the right place for a loud Southerner like me. I will move someplace where the culture is more homey, where I have old friends and family,” Parnell said. She hopes to never stop working and is curious what the future has in store for her.
As to the question of religion at Wheaton, “Quakers believe that there is god in every human being. I see students everyday here who are clearly listening to something bigger than they are and are called to engage in amazing work and make contributions,” Parnell said, “Its inspiring to me. As long as students think about what is true and good, then spirituality isn’t dead.”