When he was named dean of religious life at USC, Varun Soni became the first Hindu in American history to serve such a role. Even today, four years later, he's the only non-Christian, non-ordained dean holding such a position at any U.S. university.
Soni coordinates USC's contingent of 50 clergy, who conduct services and provide counseling in numerous faiths.
His history is rooted in Orange County, where he grew up Hindu yet attended a Catholic elementary school and had best friends who were Jewish. Soni calls those years a time of "hope and wonder."
He went on to edit the Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law at UCLA, and as a student lived in a Buddhist monastery in India.
Soni sees USC through an unusual lens: "We have more student religious groups and campus religious directors than any university in the country," and while that atmosphere can be highly charged, "each challenge also offers a potential learning moment."
Soni's friendly, engaged style softens the academic formalism of his conversation. Heavily influenced by the Buddhist emphasis on journey over destination, he wrote his dissertation on Bob Marley. In a recent blog post, Soni quoted French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."
Soni points to real-life applications of that notion at USC, including an LGBT Bible study group, an interfaith spirituality and sexuality retreat, and an interreligious memorial service held by students from India and Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
But human experience isn't always so heartening. USC chaplains, he notes, work with counselors to help students who are "suicidal, depressed, bipolar or suffering from substance-abuse issues."
Soni holds degrees from Tufts University, Harvard Divinity School, UCLA School of Law, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Cape Town. Yet he keeps one foot planted in the "real world": He runs a successful small firm, Calibrated Juristix, which provides support services to immigration law firms, and he has produced a graphic novel, Tina's Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap.
The novel, the first such work to feature an Indian-American character, has strong personal resonance for both Soni and filmmaker-writer Kashyap. Soni says seeing the novel (and its 800 illustrations) to completion with Kashyap and her creative partner, illustrator Mari Araki, felt almost like a movie project.
Not surprisingly, the story addresses spirituality. "It's not just an Indian-American take on high school life," Soni says. "It's also an introductory text to Krishna, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rashomon and nirvana. ... It creatively explores the big questions -- of meaning, purpose and authenticity -- that we all face as human beings."
Aimed at teens and young adults, the book celebrates "the diversity, creativity and possibility of Southern California." It's a badly needed message, he says. "College students in this day and age may have 500 friends on Facebook, without having any real friends in real life."