Amidst the sound of basketballs bouncing off the walls, students in PE teacher Kelli Murphy’s meditation group gather in a circle, with their eyes closed, trying to find a little inner peace.
For the last five years, Murphy has volunteered to facilitate the group in the Mitchell Activity Center (MAC). Although she doesn’t get paid and the participants don’t get any academic credit, this group has consistently garnered both student and fac- ulty interest, in part fueled by Murphy’s passion: “I’ve been practicing meditation for 20 years and it completely enhances my life and I just really wanted to share it with other people and I also wanted to make it free.”
The group’s success comes despite not having a truly peaceful place to meet. In fact, quiet spaces are so few and far between that students have at- tended her group not to meditate, but to take ad- vantage of having a relatively quiet space to pray. Samuel Chesneau, the Cultural Programming & Development Coordinator and faculty advisor for the Muslim Student Association, said many stu- dents come to the club precisely to ask: where can I go to pray in between classes? In the nine years he has worked at Seattle Central, the answer to that question has fluctuated greatly.
At first, Chesneau said, “There were no options, really, people would just pray wherever they could.” Students and faculty improvised by us- ing empty racquetball courts in the MAC, but as the MAC’s programming increased, that became less feasible. Then students began reserving study rooms in the back of the library.
Librarian Sharon Spence-Wilcox didn’t mind having students use the study rooms for reflection and prayer except when it interfered with other students who wanted to study. Feeling frustrat- ed and not wanting to have to “police students,” she realized: “We can’t give students what they need.” This led to an inter-departmental meeting between the library, Student Leadership and a variety of other campus faculty and staff.
One of the solutions to emerge from that meeting was the designation of BE3122 as a quiet place open to all students. However BE3122 is actually a large common area used for tutoring and surrounded by various offices that offers almost no privacy. And with no widelydisseminated publicity regarding this room—except for small signs posted in the library—the con- fusion continues. Some faculty still recommend the library while others have no idea what to say. When asked where she would send a student who wanted to meditate outside of her class, Murphy conceded, “Well, I guess [long pause] I don’t have a recommendation. Isn’t that awful? I wish I did.”
In fact, Chesneau often lets individual students use his office to avoid the confusion. But if multiple students ask, he said there is also a room in the South Annex building: SA207. “This space,” he explained, “wasn’t branded a ‘prayer space,’ it was branded a ‘reflection space,’ which is important to recognize because it’s not something that’s exclusive to just Muslims, it’s something that anybody can use if they want a space that’s quiet to reflect.”
However the South Annex building hasn’t proved to be an ideal location either, as librarian Kelley McHenry realized when her faculty learning group exploring contemplative practices found themselves without a space to meet. “We experienced the same thing the students did,” she not- ed, “because going to the South Annex seemed to be our only viable option and the South Annex is stinky…it’s a really bad place.”
In fact, the reflection room is actually on the second floor of Student Support Services and can only be reached via an exposed metal stair- case—infamously known as “the pee stairs” among students because it’s a favorite spot for public urination—or by first entering the South Annex building and then walking outside across a short platform. The room itself is large, carpet- ed and dimly-lit, outfitted only with a whiteboard and a single chair.
When asked what an ideal space would look like, most people had similar answers: a space in the Broadway Edison building that is accessible, warm, well-lit, clean and open to all students, faculty and staff looking for peace and quiet.
While everyone interviewed agreed that space was the biggest issue, Chesneau also pointed to administrative priorities: “Do I believe the ad- ministration is doing the best they can? No. But do I believe they care? Yes.”
By Alexandra Sachnoff