RIT’s Dept. 42 offers a place for ‘non-religious’ students to find answers

Pop culture games help students begin deep, existential discussions

Josie Zhou

Students, including “Team Cockroach,” participate in a pop culture game about ‘The Good Place’ at a recent Dept. 42 event meant to create deep discussions about existential existence.

Sometimes the answer lies within. In an effort to engage the more than 35 percent of undergraduate students who consider themselves “non-religious,” a new, somewhat nebulous group has formed at Rochester Institute of Technology to help them find secular answers for themselves.

Dept. 42, which got its name from the answer to the ultimate question of life in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is holding its third monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in the conference room at Kate Gleason Hall (KGH A-055).

The meetings begin with games involving pop culture including The Good Place, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as a jumping off point to questions such as “What does it mean to be good?” “How do we deal with death?” and “What’s the nature of evil?”

“We’re using pop culture to have deep conversations,” said the Rev. Monica Sanford, assistant director for Spirituality and Religious Life. “These students have important existential concerns, are undergoing a life transition and often experience tremendous spiritual growth in college, regardless of whether they see themselves as hardcore atheists or religiously fluid and spiritually questing. They have clear existential needs because they are human.”

Dept. 42 is RIT’s attempt to help students find those answers.

“There’s no one else here looking after their existential needs,” Sanford said. “Other colleges are struggling with this. Religious life staff has been scratching our collective heads for 10 years on how we can serve their needs without proselytizing. It’s an experiment, and so far, we think it’s going well.”

Sanford expects to hold seven meetings this academic year, with future themes from The Avengers (What is a hero?), Stranger Things (What is a friend?) and E.T. – “where they will discuss ‘What is home?’ because homesickness is something all of our students can identify with,” she said.

The meetings have been promoted with posted fliers, on social media and by contacting other clubs, such as Dumbledore’s Army, Quidditch, Psychology and Fantasy clubs. Dept. 42 is listed as a Campus Group and has a Facebook page. They’ve also handed out red towels with only “Dept. 42. Life. The Universe. Everything” and their website printed on them.

“The reason this program works well is that RIT is such a geeky campus,” said Sanford, a self-described geek.

Most of the students don’t know who hosts the Dept. 42 meetings.

“Part of our marketing strategy has been to keep it a little mysterious in order to elicit curiosity,” Sanford said. “We don’t hide the fact that we’re sponsoring it, but we don’t make it explicit. Some students wouldn’t be caught dead at an event sponsored by Spirituality and Religious Life, so we intentionally don’t use our logo.”

Spirituality and Religious Life is part of the Center for Campus Life in the division of Student Affairs.

Sanford said participants can answer surveys about their experience to help them decide whether to continue or change the current format.

 “I enjoy deep thought and discussion, and so I enjoyed the event,” said a cybersecurity major who didn’t want to be identified. “I hope to be able to come to more.”

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