Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Education/Higher Education PhD

First Advisor

Dwight E. Giles, Jr.

Second Advisor

John Saltmarsh

Third Advisor

Alyssa B. Rockenbach


By integrating spiritual development theories with Sanford's theory of challenge and support and study findings, this mixed methods study examines how spiritual development may be occurring through service-learning. The relationship between service-learning participation and spiritual growth is analyzed by addressing the following research questions: 1) Does spiritual growth occur among undergraduates participating in service-learning? 2) Which aspects of the service-learning experience relate to the occurrence of spiritual growth? 3) What role do "challenge" and "support" play in the process of spiritual growth?

The 272 study participants are drawn from the Boston College PULSE Program, a service-learning program that requires 10-12 hours of weekly service for the full academic year while students simultaneously take an interdisciplinary philosophy and theology course entitled, Person and Social Responsibility. The quantitative strand of this study sought to objectively understand the components of the PULSE program that may relate to spiritual development among undergraduates through a pre-test/post-test survey adapted from the College Student Beliefs and Values instrument created by Astin, Astin, & Lindholm (2011). The qualitative strand consisted of semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with eleven study participants whose quantitative survey results demonstrated particularly high or low levels of spiritual change.

Study findings indicate that nearly 80% of study participants grew spiritually during the service-learning experience. Consistent with Sanford's (1962, 1966,1967) theory of college student development and the spiritual development theories of Fowler (1981) and Daloz Parks (2000), spiritual growth was most likely to occur when students experienced significant challenge balanced with support. Qualitative and quantitative results found that challenge was related to the eye opening experience of witnessing injustice at service sites while simultaneously being exposed to diverse perspectives through course assignments and discussions. This eye opening experience led students to struggle spiritually as they questioned prior assumptions and beliefs. Support was found in relationships and effective integration of course content with the service experience.