The Office of the Chaplain has a new member joining their team this year.
Shameem Balakrishnan will be working as the Interfaith Fellow & Campus Minister to the Hindu Community. Balakrishnan is a graduate of the School of Nursing and has begun graduate studies in the Graduate School of Education’s Counseling and Mental Health Services program.
She sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian to talk about plans for her term and how she will establish relationships with students.
Daily Pennsylvanian: What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Shameem Balakrishnan: It’s less of a day-to-day job, I’d say like a week-to-week job — I attend all the Hindu Student Council meetings and I’ll attend all of their events, and monthly meetings with all the staff at the Chaplain’s office. I meet with Chaz [Rev. Charles L. Howard, University Chaplain] and Steve [Steve Kocher, Associate Chaplain] on a regular basis to touch base.
DP: How do you think your experience at Penn will influence your job as the Interfaith Fellow & Campus Minister?
SB: I think that my work experience and my educational experience has all been in working with people and I love working with people, and I think that’s so necessary in a chaplaincy role to be familiar with lots of diverse groups. In both counseling and nursing, you have to be able to take care of anyone regardless of their background and whether you agree with them or not. I think those are really key ingredients of being a chaplain as well.
DP: What is your favorite part of the job?
SB: Getting to work with Chaz and Steve so much more closely has been really exciting for me. Also, I wasn’t part of the Hindu Student Council as an undergrad but I have a lot of friends who are in it and getting to be part of it now more as an advisor is really fun.
DP: What are your biggest goals for your term?
SB: Before the year got started, I met with the co-chairs of the Hindu Student Council and talked to them about what direction they want to move the organization in for this year. My biggest goal at this point is to help them achieve their goals. They wanted the organization to move in more of a spiritual direction as opposed to being an event-planning organization, and I hope that I can help them do that.
DP: What challenges do you expect to face?
SB: Hinduism is a very open religion. You’re free to practice the religion in the way that you want. But unlike a lot of other religions, Hindus tend not to reach out to someone like a chaplain which I know is a very important role in other religions, but it’s not so much in my own religion, which I actually think is kind of a negative thing. So the only problem I anticipate having is Hindus and Jains not seeing the purpose of a chaplain and it taking some time to establish a role.
DP: Can you offer any advice for people seeking to explore their religion?
SB: There are so many religious opportunities on campus and I know that religious life at Penn is not something that is really heavily publicized. I realize that religion can be very touchy and controversial and it’s a sad thing because that has it under the radar when it shouldn’t be. I would just more than anything strongly encourage people to explore their religion in a way that makes them comfortable, not give in to the way other people might be practicing the very same religion. I personally believe that religion is a very individual experience. Your faith is whatever it means to you and that’s what it should be, so I strongly encourage people to do what feels right to them and not feel pressured to do anything different.
DP: In what ways would you be able to encourage people to step in and explore their own religion?
SB: At the beginning of the year, I did get a list of incoming freshman that had identified as Hindu or Jain, and I took the time to reach out to them personally, introduce myself, and I told them that I’m really here for them. I’ve been a Penn undergrad so even just someone to show you the ropes or to talk to you in a crisis. I realize that’s probably something that underclassmen will take advantage of more readily because upperclassmen tend to feel like they have it all figured out, but I’ve also reached out to upperclassmen.