Parker Niles has a lot of ideas for his future.
He’s applied to 10 colleges with plans to major in religious studies and world affairs, depending on what the college he chooses offers. The end goal, though, isn’t certain because of his belief that more interfaith dialogue and understanding in different regions of the world can promote peace.
“So it’s either I could just go full scholar or full on the picket line. I’m not quite sure yet, but it’s something humanitarian,” he said.
A senior at Harrisburg Academy, Niles is the son of Stefanie and Chris Niles of Carlisle.
Niles said his interest in religions grew out of the experience of being raised in a nontraditional Christian sect, and specifically in the small-town seat of the group.
“After I moved away from that, I realized the diversity of belief in the world, and I learned so much about even how my beliefs differed from other Protestant branches,” Niles said.
His pursuit of understanding more about the world’s religions led him to India and Morocco thanks to his selection as an IB Summer Scholar at Harrisburg Academy. Niles said the program allows students to create their own study and service trips.
He initially planned to travel to Turkey, Spain and Japan. When that didn’t work out, he decided to help Tibetan refugees in India and to learn about Islam in Morocco.
In India, he learned about the issues surrounding the Chinese-controlled country of Tibet and some Buddhist philosophy while he taught English to a Tibetan refugee with an organization that supports the refugees’ integration into Indian society.
Niles said the refugees lived in a difficult tension.
“They kept expressing how grateful they were to be in India instead of their home country, and how much they looked forward to eventually going back home,” Niles said.
His travels in Morocco included a stay with a host family for a few days, doing errands with them when he could and traveling through both the older and newer parts of the fabled city of Marrakesh.
“They have a rule there where a guest is treated as a guest for three days so they wouldn’t let us do any chores, which is unfortunate, because we really want to get involved,” Niles said.
When he arrived in Morocco, Niles could only speak enough Arabic to tell someone he couldn’t speak Arabic, but he had a base of knowledge that he built upon through his experiences. In one instance, for example, he was walking with his host, a woman, when her sister, who was walking behind them, started to yell at nearby people. It turned out the people were gossiping about Niles and his host and judging them because they were walking together, as it is unusual for a westerner to walk with a Moroccan woman.
“That was an interesting event that made me pause,” he said.
Niles recently received a one-week academic leave from school to attend the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, a conference meant to foster religious understanding. People of all faiths came to the conference for different purposes.
“Some were there for their own spiritual journeys. Some were there to find their own spiritual network. Some were there as academics, as scholars, as religious leaders, as lay people following their religious leader,” Niles said.
He was particularly interested in learning of interfaith activism, and was able to learn more about how organizations do what they do and why they do it.
Closer to home, Niles took on the task of transitioning the school’s traditional newspaper with its focus on school news and opinions on out-of-school topics into a literary magazine featuring literary arts and photography.
The change, he said, brings more representation to students who are inclined to the humanities in a school that can be STEM-focused at some points.