COLUMBIA — The idea of sitting in silence without a cell phone is more or less a foreign concept to most American college students. That's the idea behind Vespers, also known as Stephens Unplugged.
Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College, decided one of the first things she wanted to do on campus was to bring back Vespers. Lynch didn't just dust off the old tradition; she added her own twist to it.
Vespers started in the 1920s as a mandatory gathering of all students to participate in a time of reflection. It continued for more than 60 years at Stephens but disappeared from campus life sometime in the 1980s.
When Lynch arrived at Stephens this past summer, she asked a number of alumni what they remembered from their times at school. One of the most popular answers was Vespers. Lynch thought it had important qualities that were missing from the lives of current Stephens' students.
Her twist was the idea of "unplugging" from the world. People who attend are asked to turn off their phones and place them in baskets during the duration of the event.
"Young people are connected to their cell phones all the time," Lynch said. "They are never really alone."
Students have found the practice beneficial in bringing peace into their otherwise hectic lives. Sophomore Tiffany Paradise had a midterm the next morning so she went to Vespers to take a break from her books.
"I have a really busy schedule and never have anytime to relax, so this is something I can do for myself," Paradise said.
Vespers ceremonies are usually held in the Firestone Baars Chapel on campus and feature a speaker and then 15 minutes of "intentional silence." The speaker will be either Lynch or a guest such as alumnae, members of the Stephens staff and people from the community.
The program is not yet on a set schedule. The first revamped Vespers was held in mid-December with Lynch speaking to the students. She called the experience being "alone together" and also thinks this will teach the value of being quiet.
This past Sunday, Vespers was moved from the chapel because it was being used as a venue for the True/False Film Festival. Held instead in the warmly lit Kimball Ballroom, it attracted about 20 women. Scattered in groups and by themselves, they listened to comedian Karith Foster, a Stephens alumna in town in part for Black History Month events at the college.
Foster told the group that the Vespers tradition is an opportunity to take time out of life to "just be" and to "quiet the negativity" in life.
"It's an opportunity to think about your lives," she said. "Sometimes I just have to chill out."