Alum spotlight: Van Tongeren named to VCU's Top 10 Under 10
Daryl Van Tongeren, Ph.D., studies some of life’s biggest questions — the meaning of life, religion, virtues, to name a few. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived just as he finished writing “The Courage to Suffer: A New Clinical Framework for Life’s Greatest Crises,” putting an often conceptual field of study into stark real-world context.
Van Tongeren and co-author Sara Showalter Van Tongeren (M.S.W.’08/SW) (also his wife), found themselves in the unexpected position of leveraging the work in the book into research examining the impact of COVID-19 and the spectrum of psychological responses people have experienced.
The relevance of this research captured significant attention, adding to his growing resume. Since Van Tongeren earned his Ph.D. in experimental social psychology in 2011, he has published more than 175 scholarly articles, resulting in coverage of his research in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Scientific American and earning him several awards, including the 2016 Association for Psychological Science Rising Star Award and the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (APA’s Division 36) Margaret Gorman Early Career Award for 2022.
In 2012 he joined the faculty of Hope College, a liberal arts college in Holland, Michigan, where he has continued the legacy of personal and professional mentorship he knew at VCU. Mentorship is particularly à propos for his specialty. “College students are about to launch into the rest of their lives and sometimes have some big questions — questions that fall into my realm of study. I like providing support at that critical juncture in life,” he says.
The appreciation is mutual. The senior class at Hope College chose Van Tongeren to give the 2021 commencement speech, an honor he took seriously, particularly for the seniors graduating amid the pandemic. “I told the students to think of their life as an assignment, in that time is limited. Assignments have due dates that keep you motivated — think of life as having a similar sense of urgency and you will approach it with more intentionality.”
Van Tongeren is working to broaden understanding of the psychology of religion, engaging groups that are often underrepresented in this research field (nonreligious, agnostic, those who identify as spiritual but not religious). He has developed a new line of research studying the religious “dones” — those who identify as nonreligious after de-identifying from a religious community they were previously affiliated with — to help expand understanding of religious practices outside the boundaries of traditional institutions and models.
This pursuit chimes with Van Tongeren’s overarching mission to help create a more compassionate world. “I hope to be able to encourage people to live meaningful lives in which they are able to care for others and fight for rights and justice for all people. If I could make the world a bit more loving and a bit more accepting, a bit humbler, a bit more open to a wider variety of perspectives, I would define that as professional success.”