Where would we be without our graduate students? They’re very present, very engaged, very supportive. They’re a big part of what’s keeping us running and moving in so many ways.
Reverend Racquel C. N. Gill, Minister for Intercultural Engagement at Duke Chapel
Graduate School: What’s Faith Got to Do with It?
Speaking with Reverend Gill, alongside Director of Religious Life Kathryn Lester-Bacon, the pivotal role that graduate and professional students play in sustaining religious life on campus could not be clearer.
“Their ideas and passion,” Reverend Lester-Bacon adds, “we receive that so gratefully and are always interested to hear what they think.”
In turn, Duke’s roughly two dozen religious life groups and Chapel affiliates offer an array of resources for graduate students, many of whom may not have considered plugging into these communities or may not be sure how to begin.
In conversations with leaders from the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions, support for graduate students—and an emphasis on interfaith collaboration—speak profoundly to the present moment.
Confessions on the Quad: “There to Listen”
Given Duke's historically Methodist ties, it might be surprising that “the biggest single group of religious affiliation on campus” is Catholic, according to Father Juan José Hernández.
So, what does graduate student involvement look like? In addition to mass, special holiday services, and confessions in the Chapel or on the Quad, the Duke Catholic Center holds a small group for graduate students every Thursday.
A graduate student leads the Catholic Center in serving at the Durham Community Food Pantry, and other service opportunities include a weekly breakfast for those experiencing homelessness and an international mission trip to build schools.
While the “pipeline is a lot simpler” for undergraduates, as Father Hernández acknowledges, graduate students looking for religious life and community need not look far.
That goes for graduate students of any faith, and for those unaffiliated with religion. Since the majority of Duke students (if this survey of the undergraduate Class of 2026 can serve as any indication) are not very religious or not religious at all, it is fitting that Confessions on the Quad are open to students who are simply curious or might need someone to talk to.
“I’m there to listen, and I love those encounters,” Father Hernández states.
The embrace of spiritual support, regardless of a student’s religion, is affirmed by the six other religious leaders interviewed for this story, all of whom serve in a special capacity as QuadEx Chaplains.
“These are six people who are equipped to accompany students no matter where they are on their spiritual journey,” Reverend Lester-Bacon states. “There is so much already here on campus in terms of religious diversity, and we're trying to lift up those leaders who are already here doing such good and beautiful work among students.”
Meditation for Wellness: Nourishing the Self
As the Buddhist QuadEx Chaplain at Duke, Rev. Prasert Ammartek takes an expansive view of spirituality as borrowing from any number of religious traditions, with the purpose of nourishing and expanding the self.
The Buddhist Meditation Community, led by Rev. Ammartek, offers the chance for students to learn about Buddhism—but it’s primarily intended to enable students to utilize meditation as “a tool to build resiliency in life, a spiritual practice that they can hold onto” especially when dealing with stress.
Monday evening sessions incorporate discussion and laidback meditation, while Thursday sessions offer a deeper level of meditative practice. Field trips to Buddhist temples or outdoor group activities are further opportunities for peace, connection, and community with others.
Finding Peace and Purpose through Yoga
In a similar vein, Hindu QuadEx Chaplain Priya Amaresh leads yoga classes at the Student Wellness Center. Her mission is “to be available as that source for those who are finding themselves confused about what their purpose is, and to keep encouraging them to do whatever it is they’ve set out to do.”
Students of many faiths and backgrounds attend these classes, and Chaplain Amaresh enjoys bringing in general concepts of Hindu faith through vibrational sounds and chants.
“Even the chanting of ‘Om’—it’s a universal sound. It doesn’t belong to Hinduism, but that’s what we use to get centered,” says Chaplain Amaresh. “We end class with Om Shanti, an invocation for peace. We say ‘Shanti, Shanti, Shanti’ three times—Shanti within, Shanti around us, Shanti in the whole universe.”
Chaplain Amaresh speaks to a “universal desire” to achieve peace and contentment, heavily tied to being of service to others.
“Ultimately, whatever you're studying, it is to serve the greater population. Whatever you gain as knowledge, you don't hoard it, but you share it. You give of yourself and then you'll feel more fulfilled.”
Chaplain Amaresh leads Duke’s Hindu community in a service project every semester, like helping at the Durham Soup Kitchen or fundraising for education in India. For many Indian students on campus, these fundraising projects—along with traditional Indian celebrations, like Navaratri—can help students feel at home.
Thriving in Community and in Prayer
Feeling at home is likewise a crucial part of Brother Joshua Salaam’s role as Muslim QuadEx Chaplain, as he focuses on “creating a place where Muslim students can flourish.”
Duke’s Center for Muslim Life offers several weekly gatherings like a Tuesday study of the Qur’an, Wednesday morning breakfast, and Friday prayer. They also take a beginning-of-year tour of Muslim locations in the Triangle, and a mixer each semester includes off-campus Muslim community members.
Chaplain Salaam also strives to be a “conduit” to other resources at Duke, connecting Muslim students with Muslim faculty, staff, alumni, and fellow students so that they can thrive in community.
While spread across several schools and programs, graduate and professional students nevertheless make up about 40% of the active Muslim community at Duke, according to Chaplain Salaam.
“Bro Jo,” as Chaplain Salaam is affectionately called, advises the Graduate Muslim Students Association at Duke, which he hopes will establish a graduate representative from each school to provide further community among Muslim students.
“Students may not appreciate the priceless situation they’re in, where you have people literally from all over the world,” says Chaplain Salaam. “They really need to take advantage of that and go with the theme of ‘I’m going to seek to understand others before they understand me.’ Half of education is really about perspective.”
Interfaith Roundtable: What It Means to “Gather”
The embrace of diverse perspectives is precisely what drives Duke Chapel’s Interfaith Roundtable, which is co-coordinated by Rev. Kathryn Lester-Bacon and Rabbi Elana Friedman, the Jewish QuadEx Chaplain at Duke.
The Roundtable is open to all religious life groups, and “the idea is for us all to come together and study each other’s traditions over food and fellowship,” says Rabbi Friedman.
She adds, “We live in a multifaith, multicultural world, and I think it’s so important not just to learn about other faith traditions—but to really understand your friends, your peers, and your colleagues, and what their backgrounds and their lives are like.”
The Roundtable’s theme this semester is “gathering,” with leaders from each faith tradition taking turns presenting on this concept for their group.
Shared Values and Lots of Latkes
Meanwhile, Assistant Director Rebecca Ezersky handles the social/cultural programming on campus, from mentorship for incoming students to signature events like the annual Latkapalooza, scheduled this year for November 30, 7-9 p.m. at Devil's Krafthouse.
“It's just a fun Hanukkah party,” Ezersky says. “We have latkes and jelly doughnuts, usually a hot drink like apple cider or hot chocolate, and a photo booth. And we encourage people to wear ugly Hanukkah sweaters. Everyone is welcome to stop by!”
Additionally, Jewish Life at Duke aims to hold one event specifically for graduate students every month, like a Happy Hour or trivia night.
Jewish Life also has a Springboard Social Justice Fellow on staff, tasked with advising students and creating programming around social justice initiatives.
“I’m really excited that we’re trying to uplift our Jewish values in that way,” says Ezerksy, adding that she’s “really jazzed to have graduate students” and wants to “to support them in any way possible.”
Timely Words for Duke Graduate Students
Speaking to the present moment, when students might feel lost, confused, or hurt due to global events, Duke’s religious leaders have these messages to share:
Joshua Salaam, Director and Chaplain of the Center for Muslim Life
“To understand someone else's truth, try to understand their reality and their perspective. I've traveled a lot, and America is one of the most diverse countries that you'll go to from all the other countries in the world. And in the university setting especially—to have a classroom and a neighborhood that has all of that diversity in it—that's gold.”
Priya Amaresh, Hindu Chaplain
“I am just so proud of everybody that's part of the Duke community. I know you've all worked hard to be where you are. If we all stay on a positive path and realize that our goal is just to understand each other, it'll be a collaborative space and we’ll really grow well together.”
Prasert Ammartek, Buddhist Chaplain
“Our community and our events are not just for those who believe in religion or want to study religion. They’re opportunities to come in and join with us. Allow yourself to participate in any event that is going on around campus, that allows you to learn and experience things—anything that allows you to get well, to be well in terms of spirituality.”
Father Juan José Hernández, Director of the Duke Catholic Center
“Take time to reflect on the blessings that have been put into your lives. It’s good to stop and say, ‘I am more than just a student in this field. I’d rather they say of me that I was a generous person, a loving person, a person who lived for others than to say that I was a great researcher.’ That’s the greater legacy.”
Reverend Racquel C. N. Gill, Minister for Intercultural Engagement at Duke Chapel
“Just as we can celebrate our joys—like Duke Basketball winning the championship—we can also mourn and grieve together as a community as well.”
Rabbi Elana Friedman, Chaplain of Jewish Life at Duke
“No one should feel like they are alone. There are times when we need to turn to prayer, our traditions, and our communities to help give us strength and to help us focus on things that we hope for—which is peace, the safety of all, and for goodness to prevail.”
Reverend Kathryn Lester-Bacon, Director of Religious Life at Duke Chapel
“There are people here that are ready to walk with you and listen to you—people who are committed to values of collaboration and compassion, who are themselves in conversation with each other and gathering in supportive contexts. Academia can be such an isolating place and you can feel like you're in a bubble. One thing that religious community offers is a more expansive sense of time and place: across generations and across miles, there are people who want to connect with you and with what's in your heart and spirit.”
Tuning In to Traditions at The Graduate School
The Graduate School likewise celebrates a diversity of faith and tradition. Check out our newly launched Interfaith Observances and Cultural Celebrations calendar!