Profile photo of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

About Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

Assistant Professor of Religion

Alumni Spotlight: Jillian Ward ’11

MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT*

If a university education is meant to build not just a career but a productive and meaningful life, Jillian Ward’s UVM experience provides a compelling example. A native of Woodbridge, Conn., Ward ’11 was interested in entering the helping professions and declared psychology as her UVM major. It wasn’t until her second semester that she took an introduction to Asian religions class. She liked it so much, she took a few more religion courses, including sections on African religion and Buddhism. After a while she realized she was accumulating enough credits to earn a double major.

“They were the best classes I ever took, so I just kept taking them. By the time I got to upper level classes, I felt this amazing sense of community shared by a small cohort of students and professors.”

When it came to deep discussions, developing ideas for a thesis project or getting advice on writing and other academic projects, it was mostly faculty in the religion department whom she turned to for guidance. “The department became a sort of a sanctuary for me,” she said.

After UVM, Ward graduated from the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in nursing, and now works as a trauma and neurology RN at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. The perspectives she gained in her religion courses at UVM, and her interest in yoga, have informed her holistic approach to healing. “I did yoga at UVM and enjoyed it. Then I did it more intensely as a way of dealing with the stress of graduate school. I received my certification as a RYT (registered yoga teacher) and teach part time at Core Power YogaI. Now I see yoga as a key part of providing care that treats the patient’s mind, body, and inner spirit.”

As she becomes grounded in her career, Ward is looking forward: “My goal is to work in palliative care and hospice nursing…One of the reasons why my experience in the religion department was so powerful was the passion the instructors—every one of them—had for the subject matter and for their students,” Ward recalls. “They showed me how important it is to find something to be passionate about.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Shakir Stephen ’15

INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY LEADS TO NYU*

Shakir Stephen was born in Montreal and grew up in Southeast London, and his intellectual journey reflects a broad set of interests and potential career paths. After working in as an academic coach in Burlington for three years after graduation, he is bound for New York University where he begins an M.A. program in religion.

Stephen was a talented science student, and his interests in high school seemed to lead him towards the STEM disciplines. “The educational system in the UK is different: the choices for undergraduate study are narrower, and you need to make a decision about your path for studies at a pretty young age, around 16.”

Stephen declared physics as his major upon entering UVM, but something was tugging him  towards the humanities. In his first year at UVM he took several liberal arts courses and found his home in the religion department.

“I took a course on the bible with Anne Clark and she really focused on writing, which I was OK at but because I was concentrating on the sciences I was a little rusty,” he recalls. “She emphasized how important writing was for success in college and beyond, and that really resonated with me.”

Stephen discovered that religion was an ideal prism that brought together perspectives from other disciplines that interested him, including history, philosophy,  sociology and anthropology. At the same time he developed critical thinking, reasoning, writing and presentation skills important for any post-graduate undertaking.

Stephen works as an academic coach at Mansfield Hall in Burlington, an organization offering academic support to college-aged students with learning differences and executive functioning challenges. “These are often high functioning people with executive challenges who need help building skills that set them up for success sin higher education,” Stephen explains.

The job draws on Stephen’s broad educational background, and he’s discovered that he’s a talented teacher. He sought out religion department members Kevin Trainor and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst for advice on graduate programs and he settled on NYU. He received a fellowship that covers tuition and fees for the two-year program.

“If it feels right I’d consider going on to get my PhD. Eventually I see myself in the education field in some capacity.”

See a post Shakir Stephen wrote before he left UVM for NYU!

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Kathryn Meader ’15

Skills for Success

When Marshfield, Mass., native Kathryn Meader began burrowing into her college search as a high school junior, one thing in particular about UVM stood out: The university’s first-year Integrated Humanities Program (now called the Liberal Arts Scholars Program, or LASP).

“I had already declared history as my major, and I was attracted by the idea of living and studying with 30 other students who shared my interests,” she said. “I felt like I had 30 new friends the moment I arrived on campus.”

LASP encourages students to wrestle with life’s big questions through an intensive multi-disciplinary approach. Students live in the same Living/Learning Center residence complex, so conversations in the classroom tend to spill over into meals, community activities and events throughout the year.

“We took three courses each semester—in English, History and Religion,” Meader explained. “Professor Sugarman, who was my teacher for fall semester religion course, told me ‘yeah, I think you are really a religion major at heart.’”

The twin majors gave her complementary perspectives on her interest in medieval Christianity, and her research on the twelfth-century abbess, Heloise d’Argenteuil.

The intensive emphasis on critical thinking, writing, and communication–she cites her involvement in the annual Student Research Conference as sharpening her presenting skills—began with her IHP experience and continued on throughout her UVM education. After graduating in 2015 with the religion department’s Outstanding Senior Award, she got a job as a development assistant at the UVM Foundation. She has since been promoted to assistant director of annual giving, and she credits her academic preparation as a key to her success.

“The anthropological reading you do in religion courses help you to consider perspectives outside your own experience,” she says. “ I think that training really helps me in my current work. In the writing that I do every day, it’s important to think about how the recipient is going to read it. This way of thinking also definitely helps me to tell other people’s stories in ways that are inspiring, and effective.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Simeon Marsalis ’13

GRAD PLUMBS UVM EXPERIENCE, HISTORY IN DEBUT NOVEL
– By Tom Weaver, Vermont Quarterly, Spring 2018

Simeon Marsalis arrived on the UVM campus in 2009 focused on playing varsity basketball. Though he stepped away from the game after his sophomore season, Marsalis stayed at the university to earn his degree in religion in 2013 and had the rare opportunity to sit among his fellow graduates for a commencement address from his own father, famed musician Wynton Marsalis. Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. Last year, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

photo: Chris Buck

Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. This past October, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

After leaving Burlington, Marsalis found himself frequently returning to study the architecture on campus. The book includes beautifully detailed descriptions of some of UVM’s most notable buildings. Marsalis also spent many hours combing the university archives to research the school’s blemished racial past, which plays a central role in protagonist David’s character development.

“It is about a freshman in college who questions the reasons why he has arrived at that particular university,” the author says, discussing the book’s plot. “He begins to research his own reasons for attending that university, and discovers an alumni ritual with a deeply personal resonance. The campus itself is its own character within the novel. I couldn’t have written this novel if I had not gone to UVM.”

Marsalis’s family roots, surrounded by musical artists, helped instill the confidence and work ethic to pursue a career in writing. “Watching my father and grandfather and uncles all those years allowed me to see the amount of work it takes to make it as an artist,” he says. “It helped me see art not as an abstract pursuit, but as an approachable entity. I had a very real connection to the amount of time it takes to hone an art. I didn’t see it as something that was foreign and unapproachable. I saw it as a distinct language that you had to learn, but once you learn that language, that’s where the freedom and play comes in.”

Spending weekends at his father’s house growing up, Marsalis also saw the amount of work required to make a living off of one’s art. “My father practices obsessively, it was all day,” says Marsalis. “There was always something to work on, whether it be the next piece, refining an old piece, or anything else. As an artist, it can be maddening because there is something you could be working on literally every second of the day. Seeing him and that work ethic, it originally really had an impact on the way I played basketball, because it made me see my goals in that sport as an attainable thing that had to do with work more so than something esoteric like talent or luck. More recently, I place my belief in work and work ethic as a way to develop my writing talent and to cultivate some of my own luck as an artist.”

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

Since the book’s release, Marsalis has traveled widely—Seattle to Austin to Boston and many points between—to promote his novel at readings and festivals. The book has been well-received and got a cover-blurb boost from noted UVM poet/professor Major Jackson. “There are so many people at UVM who have been a big help to me,” says Marsalis. “Obviously Major Jackson, but also Sean Witters and so many people from the Religion Department, like Vicki Brennan and Kevin Trainor.”

Alumni Spotlight: Thomas Mackell ’18

Learning that is Deep and Collaborative*

“At UVM I was studying philosophy at first, which lacked a direct confrontation with a lot of social justice and political issues that religion classes offer, so I added religion as another major. I was exposed to works like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and Saba Mahmood’s Agency, Performativity, and the Feminist Subject, two of the best things I’ve read for any class . . .

“One of the most rewarding experiences at UVM was the work I did as part of professor Vicki Brennan’s classes, which resulted in a museum exhibit ‘Spirited Things‘ held in the fall of 2017. The exhibit included sacred objects from the Yoruba religion of West Africa, and other offshoots of Yoruba in the Americas developed by enslaved Africans who blended their spiritual practices with those of their captors. First, I took a religion seminar in the spring prior to the exhibit where we did a lot of research to prepare for the exhibit. In the fall I took another course concentrating on ethnography of museum visitors who were largely unfamiliar with these religions. The context of a Western museum typically implies that these objects must be very old and come from faraway places–therefore they are usually exhibited mainly for their value as natural history. However, in ‘Spirited Things’ many of the objects came from the contemporary Afro-Atlantic diaspora including cities like L.A. and New York. These objects were imbued with power and meaning for ritual purposes, and revered in their own right . . .

“A small statue of the Afro-Cuban goddess Yemayá, manufactured in China in 2014 and picked up by Matory in a Los Angeles botanica, served as the inspiration for independent research.For me it inspired an independent study centering around one of the objects in the exhibit, a statue of Yemaya. I ended up publishing a paper ‘Yemayá on Display: Post-Colonial Contact Zones in the Museum,’ and made a presentation at a spring symposium.”

–Thomas Mackell ’18

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Mairé Gebhard ’18

Making a Difference*

Mairé Gebhard ’18

“My father is a Presbyterian minister, my mother a self-proclaimed agnostic. I went to church every Sunday when I was growing up, however my parents were both constantly discussing and introducing other religions. I remember distinctly having a menorah, talking about Kwanza, my mom referencing different Hindu Gods, and my most fond memory of my mom reminding us every year on Christmas that the reason we celebrate the holiday when he we do actually because of ancient Indo-Iranian mythology and the God Mithras. I was constantly surrounded by discussions about religion . . .

When I was in high school and began going on college tours I told everyone I wanted to study political science. It wasn’t until my junior year, when I took a religion course combined with a class called Human Geography, that my thoughts began to change. I distinctly remember the day I was touring colleges the summer before senior year and changed my answer to what I wanted to study. I said ‘religion.’ I came in declared and haven’t regretted it a single day . . .

I am currently working for AmeriCorps in Florida with the Palm Beach Literacy Coalition where I am working with Haitian immigrants, teaching English to both children and adults. I have an eleven-month commitment with AmeriCorps and my plan is to apply for the PeaceCorps after my service here. People always ask ‘what you can do with a degree in religion’ and I think the great thing is that you’re not limited! My studies broadened my world view, taught me about race, gender, politics, and so much more than just religion.”

–Mairé Gebhard ’18

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Marissa McFadden ’17

Making a difference in the here and now*

Marissa (left) during a study abroad program in India.

As a high school student in Groton, Conn., Marissa McFadden ’17

was looking for a college that offered a lively religion program and a strong reputation in the sciences—at the time she had her sights set on medical school.

“I had never been to Vermont as a kid, but I enjoy hiking and the outdoors, so the fact that UVM had a good medical school right on campus and a great rural atmosphere were really strong selling points for me.”

McFadden double-majored in biochemistry and religion, but felt a stronger tug to the latter discipline.

“I genuinely had a passion for thinking about world systems, languages, cultures, interactions and intersectionalities. But also, I thought that it would be a unique characteristic that I could present to medical school admissions. I don’t think I consciously knew it then, but my decision to major in religion was the beginning of my move away from the sciences, and more towards thinking about the world as an activist.”

In her second year at UVM she concentrated fully on religious studies. She still sees herself working in a clinical setting as a social worker–she’s now pursuing an MSW through UVM’s College of Education and Social Services.

“Studying religion helps you empathize with people and what they are going through. It takes into account not just their belief systems but their cultural history, their stories, their circumstances. It provides me a way to bring the whole person into focus.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Lectures in Religion and Law

This Fall, Prof. Thomas Borchert has arranged a truly impressive speaker series–one that boasts academic rockstars and timely topics. The Lectures in Religion and Law Series, “Interrogating Religion Freedom in the US and Abroad,” features four talks between October and November 2018; two of which center on Asia and two on North America.

Prof. Borchert gave the first talk in the series himself! On October 3, he presented “Bloody Amulets and Punitive Disrobing: Reflections on the Legal Environment Governing Monks in Contemporary Thailand.” The talk was a CAS Full Professor lecture, a series sponsored by the College to honor and share the work of newly-minted full professors. We assume you may know his work already, but if not: Prof. Borchert writes about religion, nationalism, and Thailand.

Prof. Winnifred Sullivan is the second speaker. Renown scholar of law, religion, and the United States, Prof. Sullivan’s talk, “Banning Bibles: Death-Qualifying a Jury,” will be on October 11.

Next, we welcome Prof. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist who focuses on law, religion, international relations, and the concept of religious freedom. Her talk, “Religion and Politics after Religious Freedom,” will be held on November 2.

Finally, Prof. Jolyon Thomas joins us a lecture titled “Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan” on November 13. He is a scholar of definitions of religion, religious freedom, religion and media, Asian religious traditions, and religion and law. This talk is also the Lintilhac Seminar in Asian Studies.

Senior Spotlight 2018: Thomas Mackell

Thomas Mackell ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Thomas Mackell ’18

In high school I got really into (and found some solace in) reading pop philosophy stuff on Taoism and Buddhism like some writings of Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, etc. I came to college knowing I wanted to study “Eastern philosophy” in a way that actually taking religion classes has helped me to realize was essentializing and Orientalist! I was just studying Philosophy at first, which lacked a direct confrontation with a lot of social justice and political issues that Religion classes offer so I added another major.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I’d like to move to a city like New York, Philadelphia, or go back DC. I’m definitely comfortable living in apartments my whole life. It’d be nice to go to post-grad to do some work that could involve using what I’ve learned and actually helping people, thinking about working in a library, museum, school, or maybe something to do with law or some non-profit work who knows!

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I think REL 100: Interpretation of Religion is super important as far as it deconstructs our common Western assumptions of what religion is and reveals that “The Invention of World Religions” was a colonial project. Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and Saba Mahmood’s “Agency, Performativity, and the Feminist Subject” are definitely two of the best things I’ve read for any class.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

There are some ideas floating around my head connecting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of language as a “form of life”, Judith Butler’s idea of “performativity”, and Robert Orsi’s “lived religion” but I would need to think about them a lot more to write something coherent.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

Going to Professors Clark and Brennan for advising help, Professor Borchert pulling Adorno off the shelf for me and bringing snacks to 203 along with all the bonding over stress we got to do in that class. Cramming into a packed seminar room for REL 100 with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst.

Senior Spotlight 2018: Mairé Gebhard

Mairé Gebhard ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Mairé Gebhard ’18

This question, combined with a face full of confusion/wonder, will forever haunt me. It’s a hard question to answer, because so many things led to my decision. My father is a Presbyterian minister, my mother a self-proclaimed agnostic. I went to church every Sunday when I was growing up, however my parents were both constantly discussing and introducing other religions. I remember distinctly having a menorah, talking about Kwanza, my mom referencing different Hindu Gods, and my most fond memory of my mom reminding us every year on Christmas that the reason we celebrate the holiday when he we do actually because of ancient Indo-Iranian mythology and the God Mithras. I was constantly surrounded by discussions about religion.

When I got into middle school I began to reject religion pretty fiercely. When I was in high school and began going on college tours I told everyone I wanted to study Political Science. It wasn’t until my junior year when I took a religion course combined with a class called Human Geography (basically like a high school anthropology class) that my thoughts began to change. I distinctly remember the day I was touring colleges the summer before senior year and changed my answer to what I wanted to study. I said Religion. I came in declared and haven’t regretted it a single day.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I have no idea. My mind changes every other day! Honestly, I still have no clue “what I want to be when I grow up,” but I’ve come to realize (with the reminder of my mother and professors) that that’s okay. I’ll figure it out, or I won’t, and I’ll let you know in another 10 years.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

Honestly, any class with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. Seriously. I think that every single student, everyone in our country really, needs to take a course on Islam. Religion and Empire fundamentally changed the way I think.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

This year for my religion practicum and colloquium I wrote a paper titled “With God on Our Side: The American Flag and Patriotic Symbols in the American Christian Church” and have never had more fun writing a paper. If I could write a book I would expand on this research.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

So many. 481 Main feels like home: because I came in declared a religion major, I have been going to that building since my first year at UVM. There is something comforting about the department, and I feel incredibly scholarly sitting around the table in the seminar room. From long chats about classes and life with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst, to existential crisis about paper topics with Professor Borchert, to feeling like a real scholar discussing theory with my colleagues—I will never forget my time at the religion department.