Alumni Park, finished in 2018, sits on the historic site of UW’s YMCA building. Founded in 1881, the YMCA became the center of student social life for decades. It foreshadowed the Memorial Union, which would open in 1928, as a gathering place for students, a hosting site for extracurricular activities, and the social hub of campus. The YMCA itself was deeply entwined with the university. As late as 1913, the YMCA published the university’s official handbook which was distributed to every student. Handbooks included church directories and codes of conduct that reflected the dominant Protestant piety of the era.
But the university was diversifying in religious representation and growing in size. In recent decades, Hillel, the center for Jewish campus life, and the Muslim Student Association have each grown larger. More recent Christian groups have become core members of the university religious community, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, The Navigators and Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru). There are now more than fifty religious, Registered Student Organizations on campus.
The university itself has transformed from a liberal arts college to an agricultural school to the more familiar look of a vast public research university, counting more than a dozen colleges with hundreds of fields, thousands of faculty and tens of thousands of students, representing billions of dollars of federal research money. The student population has also diversified, with close to 20% minority student body and more than 4,000 international students from more than 120 countries.
The YMCA building itself was demolished in 1956, a sign of its declining centrality to student life. The overt spiritual heritage on this small plot of land can be seen at the far end of the park, where the seal of the university is carved into the ground. The Latin phrase ” Numen Lumen” translates into English as “God is the Light.” It was adopted in 1854, when the vast majority of the university community was Christian. Small, officially-designated “reflection spaces” in the two buildings that flank the park—the Memorial Union and the Red Gym—are evidence of how the university today both acknowledges and seeks to de-stress religious identity.
Even then, however, the trajectory toward today’s pluralism was visible. The university’s first chancellor, John Lathrop, preferred the interpretation of the seal to be “The divine within the universe, however manifested, is my light”—a non-dogmatic sentiment that accommodated various monotheistic traditions in the nineteenth century, and a far wider breadth of traditions today. Now, students from more than one hundred countries, with dozens of religions and spiritual practices, make up the UW community. No matter what religion those who work live and learn at UW belong to, the university’s spiritual resources remain vast to those who seek them out.