Pilgrimages serve as a journey to spiritual well-being

June 12, 2023

Student Experience

Junior Ethan Vest called his University-led pilgrimage program to the Camino de Santiago in Spain “an incredible opportunity to see a new part of the world and to grow in my faith.”

To senior Sofia Dimotsi, spending time in Wyoming was about learning “more about myself and the way I observe my surroundings.”

For junior Alana Good, as an Ashkenazi Jew with ancestry in Eastern Europe, the opportunity to travel to Berlin and explore Judaism in Germany and the global effects of the Holocaust helped her “understand Jewish history more broadly in order to understand my own role in the ongoing Jewish story.”

Vest, Dimotsi, and Good are among the many students who have participated in the program since 2011. The program takes students from a range of backgrounds on week-long pilgrimages three or four times a year to examine their spiritual and religious lives in the context of the faith stories of others. Students forge new friendships, develop self-awareness of what is and is not important to them, and expand their awareness of other traditions.


The program creates an environment of trust and learning where genuine and meaningful engagement across differences can happen.
headshot of Craig Kocher
Craig Kocher
University Chaplain

“I knew the pilgrimage would allow me to explore my newly sparked interest in interfaith spaces by sharing in discussions to celebrate both the similarities and differences among the cohort,” said Good, a double major in leadership studies and rhetoric and communication studies.

The Jewish Museum of Berlin particularly resonated with her. “Its exhibits for the Holocaust and victims of terror were incredibly moving and personal, and its exhibits on Jewish history and practices showed the immense diversity and openness within Judaism and the joy to be found within our community.”

It’s not religious tourism, and it’s not travel for the sake of travel, said Craig Kocher, University chaplain and Jessie Ball duPont Chair of the Chaplaincy. It’s an opportunity for students “to reflect deeply on who they are, what they believe, and who they want to become.”

Each group consists of between eight and 10 students, who earn a half-credit class on a pass-fail basis. Past pilgrimages have taken students across the world, from Wyoming, North Carolina, and New Mexico to South Korea, Poland, and the Holy Land.

“During our weekly conversations, hearing the thoughts of my classmates and being able to express my own was influential, said Dimotsi, a computer science major originally from Thessaloniki, Greece. “It helped me form some answers to my life-related questions.”

Her favorite experience, she said, was hiking up a steep mountain in Thermopolis, Wyoming, an area known for its hot springs. Besides a spectacular view, at the summit the students found a book in which many previous travelers wrote their thoughts.

“It was also a great time with my team since we were all motivating each other not to give up and just keep going up the mountain,” she said.

Vest, a mathematical economics major and data science and statistics minor, had never traveled overseas before his trip. His faith and religion are “very important” to him, and he saw the program “as a great way to develop and grow even deeper in that part of my identity.

“My favorite site was the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela,” Vest said. “After we had been hiking for an entire week, the cathedral — our final destination — was certainly a sight for sore eyes and was well worth the journey.”

Traveling with a purpose has a profound impact on student development, Kocher said. And it doesn’t need to be a year or a semester — short-term programs can have a high impact. 

“At UR, we talk a lot about student well-being and belonging,” Kocher said. “In a time of incredible discord and an increasing awareness of social injustice, the pilgrimage program creates an environment of trust and learning where genuine and meaningful engagement across differences can happen.”