Reflections of a Summer Intern

Over the summer, I was granted the wonderful opportunity to intern at Americana Community Center (ACC) in Louisville, Kentucky. ACC is an organization that specializes in refugee and immigrant services, with programs such as GED and English classes, a sewing class for adult women, after school kids programs, citizenship classes, and taxes and computer help. Louisville is a commonly chosen area for refugee resettlement, and the services that ACC provides the city and its refugee community is invaluable. The Youth Program, which is where I spent my time, is particularly important. My primary role at the Center was to teach art classes to middle and high school students.

My first day on the job, I messed up. I messed up in a way that I never expected. I pride myself on being a socially aware Religion major, where a major part of what I’ve learned is to see and confront privilege (including and maybe especially my own). On the first day, as the students filtered in, the other interns and I were doing a get-to-know-you exercise that involved moving around the room and switching seats. While one of the other interns was explaining how the game worked, I noticed two girls on the edge of the room murmuring to each other. Thinking to fulfill my role as one of the persons in charge, I confidently decided to discreetly quiet them so that it would not be distracting to the other kids. As the murmuring continued, as well as my efforts to shush them, I became extremely frustrated. I’m in charge here, I thought to myself. Why won’t they listen? Then, I started to listen to what they were actually saying to each other—and it hit me. These girls weren’t gossiping like I expected of two middle school aged girls; one of the girls was translating what was being said for the other.

Any time you are working with kids, there are always moments of both joy and frustration, amplified in this case by the language barrier that some of the children and I experienced. Most recent statistics for ACC note that there are families coming from 99 different countries all seeking services in some form or another, and while I consider myself a culturally conscious person given my background in religious studies, it was impossible to remain fully culturally competent in a way that catered to each and every child. Our ACC training in the area consisted of a brief training session and a few handouts (as examples, the two images below).

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“How is Culture Like A Car?” Handout

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Brief list of nonverbal cultural norms from a handful of contexts.

I spent my time at ACC very self-conscious of my own position and point of view (me, being a white, middle class, 20-something college student), and I came to understand the full extent to which my Religion major influences the way I act in multicultural contexts. I was very careful, perhaps overly so, to be sure not to offend any of the children I was working with (especially after shushing a translating student on my very first day) and to be understanding of the hardships many of them had faced as refugees or first-generation Americans. My position as an intern, an authority figure, and my background, all became very apparent to me in this context. We all know the horror stories of scholars on anthropological missions in the world, who, quite frankly, simply did not understand their position in the grand scheme of things, or used it to further racist, eurocentric aims–you know the ones I mean: middle-aged, white, Euro-American men who traveled around “discovering” people and who used words like “orient” and “exotic.”  Studying scholarly works over the past three years (which included the mistakes and assumptions that many an ethnographer and scholar before me has made) fostered a sense of caution that I myself didn’t even realize until being thrown into an environment where that sort of caution served me well.

Navigating the changing currents and whims of middle and high school aged children, new to the cultural landscape of America, simply would not have been possible without the knowledge and sensitivity I have gleaned over the years as a religion major. Yes, I made some embarrassing mistakes while at ACC, but also learned valuable lessons in the recognition of my own position, and the difference between recognizing this in theory (sitting in a classroom critiquing others and myself) and in practice (being immersed in the lives of children of variegated cultures and backgrounds).

My Conference Experience: Presenting Research as An Undergrad

Selfie from L to R: Marissa, Ellen Eberst, Lily Fedorko, and S. Brent Plate

Selfie from L to R: Marissa, Ellen Eberst, Lily Fedorko, and S. Brent Plate

In March, I had the privilege to give a paper at the Syracuse University Undergraduate Conference on Religion and Culture. I have to say that it was one of the most tiring and stressful, but awesome experiences that I’ve had so far as a religion major. I met a lot of brilliant scholars, like S. Brent Plate (the Author of A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects), and I also met a lot of more senior undergraduates. But before I tell you what this experience was like for me, this intro wouldn’t suffice without giving a shout-out to Lily Fedorko and Ellen Eberst for driving the 5 hours there and back with me, and all of the moral support!!

I am interested in religion and gender, and the conference paper that I presented dealt with these topics; but this blog post needs a trigger warning, because in my paper, I explored cultural concepts about gender as well as the contemporary legal issues that surround the sensitive but important issue of rape. In my paper, “Gender in the Age of Contemporary India: Aspects of Masculinity, Femininity, and Contemporary Legal Issues in a Predominantly Hindu Society,” I wanted to sketch out some of the realities of rape in India as well as the ways in which it is impacted by Hindu traditions. This paper specifically discusses motives behind rapes that occur in India, and drew upon various sources including: article publications, legal texts, news articles and the Ramayana, a Hindu religious text. The Ramayana was significant in my research because there is a present theme of gender and women’s bodies, and how these are affected by power and honor. Being that the Ramayana is a historical and culturally influential text, I used it as a touchstone to talk about how Hindus might mobilize religious ideas about rape. To some extent, I found that rape in India is a gendered desire for honor and power (specifically in terms of males), in many of the cases that are reported by females. This may be simple, but I argued that texts are interpreted, and used in many ways, and one of the ways in which the Ramayana seems to be used is to structure patriarchal systems, including rape culture.

This project started out as an blog assignment for my Studies in Hindu Tradition Religion class with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst. She also helped me to edit my paper very short-notice and very extensively, for which I am eternally grateful. I was so happy to have my paper accepted to the conference, but to give a paper on my own research, that I was completely interested in, was both absolutely nerve-wracking and fulfilling. For me, there was a way in which I had this knowledge that I was presenting that I was seeing uniquely, and that was exciting; but I also had a looming sense that someone might be an expert and ask a question that I should know the answer to—but didn’t. I was scared of drawing blanks, or stuttering over my paper. Plus, I was nervous about the fact that I was presenting on a touchy issue.

IMG_6056-768x1024So with that said, I think fear deserves a lot of the credit in my success, at least during that point in time, because I was imagining things so hugely out of proportion to the point that when I got there, things seemed much smaller. I was still intimidated, but when I saw that I was in a classroom like those in Lafayette, rather than in a room like Billings Lecture Hall (which is colossal) I felt a lot better. There is a way in which I over-prepared, and that proved to be helpful in my situation.

The most important thing that I learned from this conference is that there is nothing to be worried about when you’re the center of attention in a room full of people, at a low-key conference because you have the same thing in common with (almost) everyone else there: you’re there to speak and they’re there to listen to you speak. I think that giving a paper is a great experience if you are interested in becoming an academic because it provides a way to get your name out there, conduct research for a purpose, and practice a key element of academic work.

If there was one thing that I was not expecting from this conference, it was that people (like, real-life PhD candidates and Professors) were impressed by my work (or so I was told!). I was shocked, and still am. But I am also humbled. I think that as undergrads, we might feel that our work is not important because we only do it for a grade in a specific class. In fact, our work is always given a letter, which in a lot of cases, is the only thing that we care about as students. But the conference that I went to showcased everyone’s work as something more than a grade. At the conference, each panel had moderators, who guided us in the sense that they told us how we could, and should do better work; that is, if we were willing to put in the effort. For example, one of the more significant critiques that I received was that my paper was solid, but could be part of some kind of bigger research and therefore, was a work-in-progress. And this makes sense to me because (at least in my universe) everything can, and should be better.

Now that I have participated in a conference, I know that I will probably continue to do so if I have the opportunity again. I have learned that conferences are actually awesome because you have the opportunity to network with great scholars and to hear what they have to say about your own work. To me, this is important because they’ve been where I am right now. Talking to PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows, about their work and what they had to endure to get to where they are now, was kind of like looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, in terms of all of the hard work that is put into becoming an academic.

In terms of viewing myself as a future academic I have thought about the ways in which I could re-work this research. Ideally, I would like to narrow my research down to a more specific time frame. Right now, the partition of India is the historical context that I have in mind. In this context I would like to look comparatively the motives and dynamics behind the gender violence that occurred among Hindus and Muslims after the establishment of Pakistan as a state for Muslims, and India as a state for Hindus. I hope to find an answer to at least part of this question, as I continue to do work on this project in the future.

You majored in religion? So… You’re a priest?

Blaine Billingsley

Blaine Billingsley, Religion Alumnus

If you haven’t heard of Google you’ve been living as an ascetic in the desert–St. Antony style!–for the last 15 years. Blaine Billingsley, one of the UVM Religion Department’s alumni, is currently working as designer for Gmail–and to be completely honest, before hearing him speak I had no idea how he got there.

In a way, Blaine stumbled upon his position at Google. With no experience in coding (apart from what all of the Myspace generation had of HTML), Blaine was living in Austin, Texas when a friend suggested they move to San Fransisco. Within weeks Blaine was living on the edge of Silicon Valley working at a low budget startup learning the ropes of Excel data entry. Blaine laughingly told us that he told his interviewer that he was “EXCEL-ent” and knew exactly what he was he was doing… but he didn’t. He “EXCEL-ed” anyway, and eventually landed at Google.

Since joining Google, Blaine has actually done some interviewing himself as a hirer for Google. He says that Liberal Arts students are at the top of his list of candidates. He remarked that the majors in the humanities create “good thinkers.” He expressed that having been a religion major, he sees the world creatively and he brings new ideas to the (tech) table. Speaking with him was a pleasure and I personally found it reassuring that while building resumes is important, building people is vital as part of higher education.

Blaine says that when someone reads your resume and sees “Religion” as your major, they often ask if you are a priest – once you explain you’re not, you get the opportunity to explain what it is you actually know from college. “When you major in business, people have an idea of what you learned in college. But when you major in religion, you get to set those expectations of what a religion major does,” Blaine said.

After this discussion, we moved on to the most important bit: what was his most notable Sugarman story? Blaine’s response: Upon graduating from high school he deferred for a semester to trek around Europe (I’m envious). While in a crummy Venice hostel he met two Americans and told him he would be heading to UVM in the spring. They immediately replied: YOU HAVE TO TAKE A CLASS WITH SUGARMAN! So now with Sugarman in mind, he headed to Germany where he met ANOTHER UVM pal who also urged this soon to be religion undergrad to absolutely NOT–under any circumstances–miss out on the Sugarman experience.

It’s rare that current students get to hear directly from alumni, and as a current REL major, it was refreshing and a relief to hear of success for religion majors (especially outside of academia). Look out Google, I may not know business or high-level tech, but I’ll soon have the same credentials as Blaine.

Interested in more events like this? Join the RelStuds (or Religious Studies Club)! Check us out on instagram: @relstuds or on Facebook.