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!

 

Responding to the 2016 US Elections

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election was shocking to some, and a surprise to most. However, it is probably not a surprise to anyone who knows us that the REL@UVM faculty have things to say about the election and the way that it impacts our research, teaching, and broader work with campus communities. What follows are links to short comments and observations from a handful of our faculty, with the promise of more analysis and questions to come in the near future.

Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies
Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

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The UVM Interfaith Center & UVM’s Post-Election Future
Professor Kevin Trainor

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Pan-Indigenous Pipeline Religion
Professor Todne Thomas Chipumuro

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What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election
Professor Vicki L. Brennan

 

Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies

By Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

It’s no secret that Donald Trump ran a campaign that stoked Islamophobic sentiments (in addition, of course, to anti-immigrantanti-Mexicanmisogynisticableist and homophobic rhetorics and staff picks). In the few weeks since the election, we have seen Trump name members of his cabinet who espouse patently and expressly anti-Muslim positions. What seems to have surprised many around the country, however, are the ways in which hate crimes—and Islamophobic or anti-Muslim hate crimes—have seemed to tick upward since the November 8 presidential election. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, reported on November 29 that they had tracked over 860 hate-related crimes since the election. Of these, roughly 6% (or ~54 incidents) were against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims; additionally, Muslim women who choose to veil are at particular risk, given the public ways in which their religious identities are marked. Campuses—assumed to be both liberal havens and safe spaces by many—are not immune to post-Trump increases in harassment and violence against people of color, Muslims, Jews, LBGT+ and other minorities

These issues of violence and harassment, especially as part of campus, are tied up with white supremacy, racisms, and a now-longstanding process of labeling Muslims and Islam as a problem with which to be dealt. As far as how this effects Islamic studies, from conversations at international conferences, digitally, and in person, it is clear that many of us who study Islam have been called upon to talk with the media, offer sessions for students, join panels on our campuses, and write articles—scholarly and popular alike. In other words, as scholars of Islam, it is clear that in a moment of heightened Islamophobia, our expertise is in high demand. As teachers, it is similarly clear that we have been and will continue to be asked to tailor our syllabi to student interest (what *is* Islam, anyway?) as well as public need (let’s unlearn some of the stereotypes that contribute to Islamophobia). Personally, I’ll be on a panel in the spring for Blackboard Jungle and talking about Islamophobia; my REL30: Introducing Islam will specifically and methodically address anti-Muslim rhetoric in historic contexts and today, instead of just referencing it as we go. Moreover, as a scholar-teacher and as an advisor, I have seen the traffic in my office increase in manifold ways to students of color and of minority religious traditions, some hoping to talk through their experiences, others looking for scholarly resources, and others still seeking a safe space in which to talk about bias incidents or fears about racism and prejudice on campus.

The UVM Interfaith Center & UVM’s Post-Election Future

By Professor Kevin Trainor

On November 16th, one week after awakening to the shocking result of the presidential election, I attended the formal opening ceremony of UVM’s new Interfaith Center on the Redstone Campus, located in a building with a complicated institutional history. It began fifty-two years ago with another opening ceremony, presided over by Harvey Butterfield, the Episcopal bishop of Vermont, as he dedicated the newly constructed St Anselm’s Chapel. I have been researching that history as part of a broader survey of the teaching and practice of religion at UVM, and in a future blog post I will give a longer overview and analysis of that history, which provides the wider context for understanding the institutional significance of the new Interfaith Center, and of the recent appointment of Laura Engelken as UVM’s first Interfaith Coordinator. Here I will focus on the ceremony itself, and what I think it might mean for UVM’s post-election future.

While I’m not sure that the election results were ever explicitly referenced in the words of the various speakers that afternoon, the fact of Donald Trump’s election, and its apparent validation of his campaign’s embrace of hateful and violent rhetoric, hung like a dark cloud over the proceedings. Like many people with whom I had spoken the previous week, I felt disoriented and anxious about the future. I experienced the election results as a direct assault upon the values and forms of practice to which I, as a member of the UVM community, am committed. It thus seemed fitting to come together with a large group of UVM community members to inaugurate a new university facility whose mission is defined as “creating space for all people to explore and ethically engage the meaning-making systems that sustain their own lives and communities as well as of others” (Interfaith Center Facebook page). The creation of the new Interfaith Coordinator position and the Interfaith Center, which are administered through the university’s Center for Cultural Pluralism, are evidence of UVM’s dramatically expanded institutional engagement with issues of religious and spiritual diversity, now foregrounded as foundational elements in the university’s commitment to diversity, equity, and justice, as encapsulated in UVM’s Our Common Ground statement. This represents a significant shift in policy and practice. At UVM, as at most state-supported public universities, questions arising from community members’ religious identities were for the most part rendered invisible to public discourse, a situation that many community members have found oppressive.

Several members of the UVM community spoke: Laura Engelken (Interfaith Coordinator), Wanda Heading-Grant (Vice President of Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs), Tom Sullivan (University President), Annie Stevens (Vice Provost for Student Affairs), and Aya AL-Namee (Senior Admissions Counselor, former Student Government Association President and 2015 UVM alumna), each of whom played an important role in the creation of the Interfaith Center. All the speakers spoke movingly of the personal significance that the new center held for them, but for me the most memorable reflections came from Aya AL-Namee. Identifying herself as a Muslim, she spoke of walking about since the election feeling like “I have a target on my back.” As SGA President in 2015, she played a key role in organizing student support for hiring an interfaith coordinator and for creating a safe place on campus for students to explore and practice their religious and/or spiritual beliefs, which culminated in the passage of an SGA resolution.

St. Anselm's Chapel

St. Anselm’s Chapel from p. 20 of A Goodly Heritage: The Episcopal Church in Vermont. Edited by Kenneth S. Rothwell. Burlington, VT: Cathedral Church of St. Paul, 1973.

But what is a fitting space for religious or spiritual practice on the campus of a public university? This is a complicated question, one that I will explore in greater depth in a future blog entry. But the opening ceremony in which I participated hints at some possible answers. A structure that began its life in the early 1960s as an Episcopal chapel, and then served as the home of the Christ Church Presbyterian community for thirty-five years, took on a new institutional identity at the end of 2013 when the university administration decided not to renew the church’s lease. The Christ Church Presbyterian community vacated the building and found at least a temporary home in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. The space they left behind was emptied of its Christian symbols and furnishings, and during this past summer the structure underwent a basic renovation, which included asbestos abatement and the addition of links to the university infrastructure. A large abstract painting by the artist Peter Heller that covers the north wall of what had been the chapel, which he donated to St. Anselm’s in 1963, was covered over with white muslin. It was within this pleasant but largely empty space that the opening ceremony took place.

Apart from the formal speeches, delivered from a lectern located in the middle of the low raised platform in the center of the main gathering space (which in an earlier incarnation served to define the chancel upon which the altar stood in St. Anselm’s), the opening celebration had the character of an extended and largely unstructured reception during which participants were free to come and go, mingle with one another and chat, and enjoy the food and drink that was provided. Two bunches of multi-colored balloons were anchored at either side of the raised platform. Music was provided by a harpist stationed on the right side of the platform. In keeping with the speakers’ frequent references to “religion and spirituality” and “religion or spirituality,” a pairing that implicitly contrasts institutionally organized forms of religion characterized by collective rituals and socially imposed belief systems, and highly individualized and idiosyncratic forms of personal spiritual exploration, there was very little orchestrated movement required of the participants. There was no collective recitation, no singing, no coordinated gestures. After years of schooling, everyone knew how to stand and listen attentively while the various speakers offered reflections from the lectern.

There were, however, two opportunities for coordinated practice. Large blank sheets of poster board were fastened to the walls in the various parts of the complex (the main gathering space, a small room that will eventually include a sink for ritual ablutions, a room designated for meditation with a collection of religious symbols among which individuals can select as their focus of choice, a lounge area with a couch and chairs and a kitchenette), and participants were invited to write in their ideas about how the spaces could be used or what they needed. A large mesh basket was also placed on a table in the main gathering space. Participants were invited to select from a collection of multi-colored ribbons, to write out their hopes and prayers for the future of the center, and then to thread their ribbons into the basket, with the expectation that the completed basket would be placed on display, a multi-colored weaving together of the participants’ materialized sentiments.

PHOTOS ABOVE FROM THE UVM INTERFAITH CENTER FACEBOOK PAGE

A few days after the ceremony, I met with Laura and we talked about the ceremony and how she understands her role as interfaith coordinator. Her plan is that anyone in the community with a UVM ID card will have free access to the center throughout the day. I asked if there would be a set of rules posted, and how center practitioners would address possible conflicts in their shared use of the space. She plans to impose as few restrictions as possible, and hopes that practitioners will learn through practice how to respectfully share the space to their mutual benefit. If conflicts occur, she will help the participants negotiate an appropriate resolution. If this seems optimistic, it is nevertheless clear that Laura is highly attuned to the ways in which religious differences, improperly addressed, can result in conflict. This is apparent from her adoption of a plastic blowfish as a kind of informal mascot for the Interfaith Center. The blowfish, or fugu in Japanese, is a highly prized culinary delicacy in Japan. Because the flesh of the fugu is highly poisonous if not properly prepared, it must be approached with knowledge and careful attention. Properly handled, it is a delight, but carelessly consumed, it is deadly. Given the poisonous discourse of religious difference that has recently dominated our public life, I believe we have good reason to celebrate the university’s new commitment to creating a safe and supportive space for members of the community to openly explore and engage their religious and spiritual commitments.

Senior Spotlight: Stephen Franze

Stephen Franze in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re proud to announce that Stephen Franze is this year’s recipient of the Department’s Outstanding Senior Award. 


Why did you major in Religion?

Stephen Franze '16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

Stephen Franze ’16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

My undergraduate career brought me all over the College of Arts and Sciences including Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology. Up until a year ago I was actually on a BS track for Psychology. However, the Religion Department was finally the place I felt at home. I decided to switch to double major once I realized that Religion is the crossroads between all the disciplines I had been studying. What really won me over was the emphasis on critical theory and the fact that, for once, the professors were actually interested in what I thought about the material we were reading. Instead of regurgitating the information I was supposed to know, a major in Religion challenged me to express what I had learned.

 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Well, for one thing, I’m hoping to be debt free! Besides that fantasy, I see myself having finished at least a Master’s program in religious studies with an emphasis on Religion and Media. I think American culture has tried so hard to label itself as secular that religion has become a taboo at worst and “That thing my grandparents still adhere to” at best. Media has done a disservice to religious scholars and adherents across the country by not engaging the public with religion generally and not just in regards to terrorism or controversial social justice issues.

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

Without hesitation I can say the one class people should not miss out on is REL 100 with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. This was the class that made me say “I must be a Religion Major.” I cannot think of another class in any department where you can engage such a wide variety of theoretical topics and issues while being constantly invited to share the things with which you agree and disagree. It was the first time I actually felt like I was a scholar participating in the contemporary discourse.

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

If I could write one book, it would be a satirical novella reflecting the current role and function of religion in contemporary US society. I want to find a way to get readers engaged so they can start to see and explore the ways religion impacts and constructs their lives regardless of whether they explicitly adhere to a particular religion.

Congratulations on receiving the 2016 Outstanding Senior in Religion Award! In addition to your actual award, you’ve also won the opportunity to answer an additional question:

How to you think what you’ve learned in Religion might helping you navigate challenges in your future?

The fact is we never stop learning, so I guess you could say Religion taught me how to learn. Some say we are living in the Information Age and thus we are constantly being bombarded with supposed facts and claims, with the worlds wealth of information sitting right at our fingertips in the form of the Internet. In a time of so much noise and so many voices, it is invaluable to learn the skills necessary to weed out the superfluous details and invalid arguments in order to find those kernels of truth that can so often get lost in all the noise. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Religion taught me how to critically approach anything that I want to learn and to identify the guise of misinformation which leads people to fully accept claims such as “A Glass of Red Wine a Day is the Equivalent to an Hour at the Gym.” (Yes, this is an actual article being shared by major news outlets!)

Senior Spotlight: Cristina MacKinnon

Cristina MacKinnon in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Cristina MacKinnon '16

Cristina MacKinnon ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

I decided to switch into a Religion major pretty late in my college career (Spring of Junior year?) because I realized how much I enjoyed the critical thinking and engagement we do that intersects with a variety of disciplines. Religion is never simply just religion, but something that is constantly interacting with history, politics, lived experiences, authority, and power – just to name some of my favorites. I have also found all of the Religion faculty members that I have worked with to be endlessly encouraging and supportive of my interests and goals, which makes me feel truly validated as someone who aspires to be a scholar.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Either pursuing a graduate degree in Religion (ancient/early Christianity, in particular) or happily teaching. Probably a dog-mom!

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 recommend Anne Clark’s “Religion and Ways of Knowing” because it stimulated conversation around a topic at the heart of the study of religion throughout the semester by using a variety of different traditions. It also introduced me to the book, the Impossibility of Religious Freedom by Winnifred Sullivan which I think provides an insightful and impactful look into how religions are understood and its practitioners treated in an American context.

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

NOT Religion-related but — I am a huge music nerd and engaging in local (and even online) music scenes has had a huge influence on who I am today. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about how gender and race/ethnicity show up in localized music communities. I would love to explore these ideas more critically and write about it!

Senior Spotlight: Linda Biafore

Linda Biafore in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Linda Biafore ’16

Why did you major in Religion?

After transferring from art school, I decided on Religion and Classics majors because I was interested in world mythology. It was during my first Intro Comparative Religion class with Professor Morgenstein-Fuerst that made me decide to focus on Religion. In short, it blew my mind, and I was very excited and eager to learn more.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

My plans change pretty constantly. I hope to get a job at a college or university, as staff, in financial aid, admissions or advising–something that helps students with the hard parts of college and post-college life. (Bonus: this job within a college or university will help pay for a graduate degree.)

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 highly recommend REL196: Race and Religion in America with Professor Chipumuro. The class was engaging, intense, and introspective. You learn about the world that is right in front of you; aspects of our daily lives that we overlook every day. Every class discussion was relevant to current events, because we were learning about how religion motivates movements, traditions, and our own worldviews in our society.

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

To be honest, I would write a book in the style of “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Mitchell Miner. I love turning the lens around on our own society and analyzing the way we talk about cultures that aren’t our own.