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!

Senior Spotlight 2018: Lydia Marchese

Lydia Marchese ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Lydia Marchese ’18 & Abby the Labby (not graduating)

I majored in religion because the subject has always intrigued me, I identify as a religious person, and I intend to continue my religious education with seminary in my post-graduation career.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Hopefully, in 10 years, I will be an ordained Deacon (or at least on track to become ordained) in the United Methodist Church, serving in either the New England or Chicago conference. Deacons wear a variety of hats and can work in many settings, but I am particularly interested in pastoral counseling and the intersections of faith and mental health.

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

This is perhaps the most difficult question on the list! I think if I had to recommend just one course that she absolutely could not miss out on, it would have to be Religion, Race & Ethnicity in America. Learning how ingrained religion is in our nation’s history and current events is indispensable for today’s citizens. Furthermore, learning about the intersections that race and ethnicity hold with religion, especially in the United States, is both fascinating and incredibly important to learn about considering our country’s current social and political climate.

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

I would love to write a book about being a Christian feminist and the different ways in which the two identities clash or cooperate with each other.

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

When the Religion Club was still in action, we had some lovely meetings and get togethers there. But when I think about times in 481 Main, no specific memories crop up, but rather feelings: feelings of support, honesty, and genuine caring for each other. The religion department really cares and supports their students in a unique way that other departments simply don’t.

Senior Spotlight: Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Rebecca Friedlander in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Rebecca Friedlander, ’17

I majored in religion because I took a world religions class in high school and realized how much I didn’t know. I really wanted to learn about new places and new people and I was already planning on majoring in anthropology so religion seemed like a good second major to really give me a broad world view.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years I’ve hopefully completed a masters and maybe even further schooling but I’m keeping my options open right now. Currently I’m thinking about graduate school in archaeology but I’m taking a year off to work and really get a plan together.

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

I would definitely say take at least one class with every professor if you can and don’t miss out on office hours. That’s one thing I wish I had done more of when I was in college because the few times I went it was super helpful and it’s amazing how much you can learn outside of the classroom when you’re just having a conversation and how much you can improve your own work and your life.

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

I’m reading a lot of dystopia right now so if I could write a book it’d probably be something along those lines. I really like novels that look at how simultaneously expansive and small the world really is in terms of how much everything is connected and impacts everything else but also how much the world contains. So I guess it would have characters vastly different from one another but that have intertwining storylines.

 

Senior Spotlight: Aphaia Lambert-Harper ’17

Aphaia Lambert-Harper in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Aphaia Lambert-Harper ’17

I have always been fascinated, and often, perplexed with the enigmatic force of what we call religion. Initially coming into UVM, I declared a Global Studies major with interests in International Relations and politics. I was fascinated by the ways in which history had been told, and given the then political conflicts in the Middle East, I was even more conscious of how conventional understandings of religion affected the media and political consensus in American politics. I then switched to Political Science as it was a bigger department with more options. Still, something was missing; I longed for something more, something that was concerned with the “Why?” questions. My grandfather on my father’s side was an Episcopalian minister, a scholar of philosophy and religion, and ultimately, a scholar of existentialism. Though he passed away when I was less than two years old, there is a not-so-ironic connection between he and I as I continue to study religion. I found that Religion and Politics were constantly circulating through my mind, and the two became symbiotic elements in my education. Come junior year, I declared Religion as my second major. It has been a pleasure to be a part of the Religion Department and I will always value the relationships I have made with the professors and students here.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

10 years from now, I would love to revisit the Greek islands with my father and visit abandoned, or highly populated churches in Greece. I think it would be a fascinating experience to write about the ways in which religiosity has translated into Greek personhood, or identity. My grandmother had always described herself as Greek Orthodox, yet she rarely visited the Church or practiced any sort of highly ritualistic act. Nonetheless, there was an element she could not part with, something that was inextricably intertwined with her Greek identity. So, ideally, maybe working on writing a book while my father completes his. I think that would be really special.

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

If I were to suggest one class to any first-year student interested in Religion, it would probably be one which required Religion 100 as a prerequisite. Nonetheless, my favorite course ever taken in the department was with Professor Thomas Borchert, “Religion, Nation, and State.” This course was essentially what I had been seeking to study throughout my four years at UVM. And Professor Borchert is pretty great, too.

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

“Antiquities and Identities, Greek Churches and Flags.” (Just chose that title off the top of my head!)

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

So many fond memories of 481 Main Street I could share…

Perhaps my favorite is just the general feeling I get when we all fit into the classroom on the first floor. It truly has a family-feel, and I love to see people open up and challenge big questions around an even bigger mahogany table.

Senior Spotlight: Maria Lara-Bregatta ’17

Maria Lara-Bregatta in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Maria Lara-Bregatta ’17

Why did you major in Religion?

Instead of obsessing about mainstream professional aspirations and ultimately choosing a traditionalist path—I chose to be adventurous and became a scholar of religion. I thought to myself: it couldn’t possibly be true that certain majors somehow equated to higher earning in the future or whatever mumbo-jumbo big departments try to convince prospective students across the globe of. Even if these assumptions were true, I was eager to learn not to amass some great fortune. That’s when it clicked. The place for higher learning is in a department that focuses on high-power. Religion stuck that cord for me. I was eager to know more about all-things human and not just from one singular perspective. Committing to one subject area over the next felt too definite, so I ended up choosing a location with overlap. Life as a religion major eased my anxieties about the future. As a scholar of religion I have dabbled in everything from theory to politics. Go figure. How else can one understand the nature of our universe if not by understanding the nature of humanity, and the many paradigms of thought that pervade our world? By becoming a religion major I narrowly escaped the trend of rigid and pre-formed studies and opened up my mind to a truly objective, empirical and careful location. I may not be a religious devotee, but as a student of religion I am devoted to a life of scholarship that seeks to understand all things real (or existential) from several vantage points.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

 I see myself working for a non-profit organization or something that requires compassion and a knowledge of culture/religion…the real hippy-dippy stuff! I also am toying with the idea of going back to school and getting my masters. Whatever it is I do end up doing, it will have to feel like a vocation. I want to have that Aha! moment and just know I am where I belong.

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

I would say that taking a class on Islam is critical this day in age. We are constantly confronted with propaganda and biased assumptions about the east that I think a religion course can help individuals unscramble. Opening up our minds to the religious-culture and history of Islam will help proliferate a new generation of hope and understanding regarding our views towards the East. If a class is offered on Ritual/Ritualization I highly suggest that too. A deeper look into ritual performance is mindblowing!

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

If I had the opportunity to publish a book it would probably end up as a dystopian novel. I am really interested in post-apocalyptic society and “fresh starts.” After all, religion has its place in these types of things. This year I reread 1984 and got some ideas! I would probably add some mystic details, maybe some mythology.

Senior Spotlight: Marissa McFadden ’17

Marissa McFadden in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re proud to announce that Marissa McFadden is one of this year’s recipients of the Department’s Outstanding Senior Award. 


Why did you major in Religion?

Marissa McFadden ’17 (left) during a study abroad program in India.

Being a religion major is the one part of my life that has not changed these past four years. I started my first year at UVM as a biochemistry and religion double major. I primarily majored in religion because 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. In high school I had an ounce of exposure to “world religions” and I knew that I wanted to take religion classes at whatever school I decided to go to. I do not think that 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 in an activist and highly critical manner. Religion is what countered my work in science and fostered my interest, and eventual switch from biochemistry to history, and eventually, social work. I have also found all of the Religion faculty members, even the ones that I have not had as professors, to be endlessly encouraging and supportive of my interests, goals, and wellbeing. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I see myself working as a social worker in Vermont communities of high refugee and/or immigrant and/or low-income populations. I want to work on improving public health and academic equity in communities around northern and rural Vermont. I see myself critically thinking and applying all that I have learned in history and religion–but especially religion, to my work in a field which will presumably be filled with experiences, big questions, theories, intersectionalities, and policies relating to critical race theory, immigration, gender, culture, religious practice, and human rights.

[Editor’s note: Marissa will begin work toward her goals this Fall as a Master of Social Work candidate at UVM!]

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

Even thought it is a requirement, I would highly recommend a theory course, like Interpretation of Religion with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. I took this course as a first year, with one intro religion course on my transcript. When I realized what I had gotten myself into, it absolutely scared me to death. I felt like this class was far beyond my years and I had no idea that it was a-typical for a first year to take this course. But, I loved every second of that class. It is the class where I learned how to think critically and develop my voice as a scholar of religion, and as an activist. Most importantly, it made me work hard, but not without enjoying the work that I was doing. I think about and use the things that I learned in that class on a daily basis and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life.

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

If I could write any book, it would be about the environmental devastation and public health injustices that have resulted from the U.S. military occupation in Vieques, Puerto Rico during the era of the Manhattan Project up through the early 2000s. There is very little scholarship on this and I think that writing a book on this topic would bring my history and religion majors together with my interests in public health, social work, and the history of my own family.

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

481 Main is the ultimate home away from home. I think I’ve spent some portion of at least 75% of my total waking days in the religion department over the years; mostly doing homework or reading… and an occasional nap on the couches. But the conversations I have had in that building are by far, my favorite—there is just something magical about that seminar room—and every professor in the department!