About Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

Assistant Professor of Religion

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

I took [Dr. Clark’s] advice and sought out the classes and subjects which most intrigued me and again and again I returned to religion. Intellectually, I was constantly engaged by my professors and the course-material they taught, but as an individual it was the religion department’s tightknit community that I appreciated most.

– greta close
Greta Close ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

Since I was a child, I have been curious about religion. As a “two-day saint” (a Christian affiliate who attends church on Christmas Eve and Easter), I was not raised religious, but constantly wondered why people participated in religion and what it did for them. Then on a trip to Europe in high school, I was exposed to the massive cathedrals built during the “dark ages” and I was baffled by the feats of engineering and architecture that had been the product of religion. So, when I arrived at UVM as a freshman and signed up for classes, I picked “What is the Bible?” as my TAP class, hoping to find an answer to these questions which had plagued me for years.

Although clear answers were far from what I’d discover, I’d consider this to be my best academic decision. Not only did I end up in Professor Clark’s class, in which I became fascinated by the study of religion, but as an undecided student she became my advisor. And as I played with different ideas for majors – ranging from Art History to Communications – Clark pushed me to indulge my curiosity and intellect. As a student-athlete surrounded by very clearly academically tracked individuals, this encouragement meant a great deal to me. 

Going forward, I took her advice and sought out the classes and subjects which most intrigued me and again and again I returned to religion. Intellectually, I was constantly engaged by my professors and the course-material they taught, but as an individual it was the religion department’s tightknit community that I appreciated most. By the end of my sophomore year, I declared a major in religion. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

It’s hard for me to imagine myself anywhere in 10 years because I am so eager to travel in the present. But based on my current interests, I would see myself as an established adventure journalist living in a mountain community but continuing to travel and cover intriguing adventure stories in 10 years. I hope to be a member of a close community which values the environment, is eager to learn, and is filled with good, interesting, and diverse people. I would love to be living abroad, perhaps in New Zealand, but I’m open to living in many places. I also hope I am continuing to engage with new ideas, concepts, and arguments like I was exposed to in college… and hopefully reading more.

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

Gosh, that’s a tough one. I would say for a first-year without previous interest in religion, a class with Professor Morgenstein-Fuerst like “Intro to Hinduism” is a great hook into the REL department. If it’s someone already interested by religion, culture, etc. I would say “Islam and Race” or “Islam and Modernity” with Morgenstein-Fuerst or “Mysticism, Shamanism, and Spirit Possession” with Brennan are very intriguing. 

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

Hmmm… I think would like to write a memoir, detailing the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the perspective I hold — that is if my life grows in interest and relevance!

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

I’ll always fondly remember meetings with my professors, in which I was offered tea, life advice, and always someone to talk to. Thanks to everyone who made 481 a comforting and happy place.

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

The seminar room is unlike any other on campus. Being in the religion house and thinking about how little I knew my first semester freshman year sitting at that table to feeling so much more confident in myself is a really special feeling. 

– hannah kiely
Hannah Kiely ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

I majored in Religion because I wanted to study why people practice religion and how it affects them and the world around them. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years, I hope to be an attorney, eventually returning to Maine and living near the ocean. 

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

Any class in the religion department that is super specific is always really fun and interesting. Women in Christianity to 1500, Islam and Modernity, and Buddhism in Sri Lanka were my favorites. 

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

If I could write a book, I think it would be about the chronological journey of female subjectivity from the high Middle Ages to our modern day. A lengthy endeavor to say the least. 

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

The seminar room is unlike any other on campus. Being in the religion house and thinking about how little I knew my first semester freshman year sitting at that table to feeling so much more confident in myself is a really special feeling. 

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

The first class I took was with Professor Trainor about Christ and Buddha it really engaged me. I felt engaged by both the content and the questions being asked. I was really intrigued so took other classes and followed that thread. 

– jake wilson
Jake Wilson ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

I started out not having any ideas of what I’d major in, but I had always been interested in religion, and learning about how other people live and center their lives. The first class I took was with Professor Trainor about Christ and Buddha it really engaged me. I felt engaged by both the content and the questions being asked. I was really intrigued so took other classes and followed that thread. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Somewhere warmer than Burlington. 

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

I loved the Jewish Creativity and Ritual Course with Professor Andrus. I think it gives a glimpse of all the different dimensions that religion courses offer. It has interning theoretical base with all these cool readings which challenged the way I thought. But also it gave me the chance to see those ideas in practice as we got to interview an artist and make our own artistic creations as part of the final projects. 

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

I wish there were more books connecting more theoretical ideas about ritual, community and belief to modern life, so maybe something like that trying to connect modern music or tv shows to a lot of these ideas, showing the way they are interrelated and the ways religion is still a part of of our experience and understandings. 

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

It was really cool to take a lot of different types of courses in the same place each coming year, and to end with the senior colloquium there. One memory that sticks out is getting that Religion Mug in Professor Borchert’s Interpretations of Religion, this was during COVID lockdown and the class was hybrid, so the mug was a way of providing that together feeling even while behind the screen. 

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

What I loved about every class is that it would usually invite discussions of race, social structures, politics and gender into the classroom, which made it all the more special and interesting to learn about. As a result of that, it granted me the space to think critically about religion in the context of colonialism, globalization, societal norms, and so much more. It also taught me that religion is everywhere and that it intersects with every aspect of our lives, which means it can’t be ignored! 

– lena ginawi
Lena Ginawi ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

During my freshman and sophomore year of college, I honestly couldn’t figure out what I wanted to study. However, what felt like a waste of time was honestly a blessing in disguise because I eventually found the major that I truly loved: Religion!! At first, I decided to minor in religion, but as I started taking more REL courses, I realized there was something special about the Religion department and the study of Religion, so I decided to major in it. What I loved about every class is that it would usually invite discussions of race, social structures, politics and gender into the classroom, which made it all the more special and interesting to learn about. As a result of that, it granted me the space to think critically about religion in the context of colonialism, globalization, societal norms, and so much more. It also taught me that religion is everywhere and that it intersects with every aspect of our lives, which means it can’t be ignored! 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I hope to be doing what I love and utilizing the skills that I’ve gained from the religion department to navigate the world. I see myself as a human rights defender in Egypt working against the oppressive and arbitrary arrests and detention of political prisoners.

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 honestly a tough one for me to answer because I absolutely enjoyed every REL course that I took at UVM. However, if I were to choose a couple, I would say Islam & Race and Religion, Health & Healing! I really enjoyed Islam & Race because it granted me the space to both grapple with my own identity and to think critically about the racialization of religious minorities. I also really enjoyed Religion, Health & Healing because it helped me think about how folks use religion to make sense of illness, death and suffering in the context of colonialism and norms shaped by society.  

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

I’ve always been interested in the arts and creative modes of expression! More specifically, how folks of color use poetry as a way to reclaim their narrative in a postcolonial and racialized society. So, I would probably write a book of poetry to tell my own story and to reclaim my narrative as a Muslim woman of color. 

I would also love to write a book on the Egyptian anti-imperialist movement and the effects of colonialism during the British occupation in Egypt I think it would be super interesting to explore some of the ways it has shaped political identities and social order in postcolonial Egypt. 

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

I loved going to the back area of the REL department and sitting on the couch until class would start. It was such a comfortable space to be in and it was a good little hiding spot if I wanted to escape from UVM’s busy campus. 

I also loved having class in the seminar room! I realized I learn a lot better in smaller classrooms spaces, and it also grants me the opportunity to establish more meaningful connections with my classmates and professors. 

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

I would tell a first-year student taking religion classes not to dream of missing Religion in Popular Culture! This class showed how much religion is in EVERYTHING in such an interesting and relevant way!

-Hannah nathan
Hannah Nathan ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

When I was a freshman selecting a TAP class, the only available class was Religion, Health, and Healing with Professor Brennan. Before the semester began, I wanted to withdraw from the class because I had never learned about religion before and I had a false idea of what the class would be like. By the end of that semester Religion, Health, and Healing was my favorite class and I was excited about taking further religion classes. The next semester I declared Religion as my major when I realized most of the classes offered are equally as interesting.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Providing service to others. 

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 tell a first-year student taking religion classes not to dream of missing Religion in Popular Culture! This class showed how much religion is in EVERYTHING in such an interesting and relevant way. The final project was also so much fun to do!

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

A book about events that occurred during the Holocaust, or a book about religion in popular music nowadays!

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

During finals week of Fall 2021 when there were no seats in the library to study, 481 Main Street opened the building for students to have a place to study and provided snacks and coffee. It was the only good part of that final week for me and one of the reasons why I loved being a Religion Major!

Senior Spotlight: a Series on our Graduating Students

I don’t think there’s another major as interdisciplinary, nor do I think any other major makes its students better people. The Religion major has allowed me to expand the information I cherish the most and has made me a more aware, intentional, and passionate member of society.

– Alex Castellano
Alex Castellano ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

I’ve never been a fan of school, and I only originally came to college because my family wanted me to go. But after one meeting with Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, I was hooked. I don’t think there’s another major as interdisciplinary, nor do I think any other major makes its students better people. The Religion major has allowed me to expand the information I cherish the most and has made me a more aware, intentional, and passionate member of society.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

That’s funny. Honestly, I don’t really think that far ahead, but I hope that in ten years I’m helping people and coming home to a farm far, far away.

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

I’ve been dreading this question, because it’s too hard to choose! Probably Islam and Race or Islam and Modernity with IRMF, or African Gods/Western Museums with Prof. Brennan. These classes gave me a tangible method for thinking about imperialism and colonization in everyday life.

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

I would love to publish a photography book one day. About what? I’m not sure, but I imagine a book of portraiture of some sort. I like to romanticize the idea of writing a novel, but I don’t think it’s likely.

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

Getting my REL house mug at the end of Religion 100 was super special (I even have a video with REL alum Becca Turley!), but I think even more special was spending my Wednesday nights in the seminar room, drinking tea and eating snacks with Prof. Brennan in African Gods/Western Museums. That was one of many moments in which I knew the Religion department was family, and I’m so grateful to have spent my four years here.

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

In what other major can you peruse the Ramayana, the Sattipatthana Sutta, and the Scivias, at the same time? As a religion major, you will have access to the greatest works in translation. What’s more? Religion professors, you must have heard by now are the most caring, talented, and student-centered you can find on UVM campus.

– shuvan shrestha
Shuvan Shrestha is one of our 2021 Outstanding Major Award winners!

Why did you major in Religion?

In what other major can you peruse the Ramayana, the Sattipatthana Sutta, and the Scivias, at the same time? As a religion major, you will have access to the greatest works in translation. What’s more? Religion professors, you must have heard by now are the most caring, talented, and student-centered you can find on UVM campus. After taking Professor Trainor’s Comparing Religions, followed by Professor Brennan’s Religion, Sound, Space my first year, I was destined to become a religion major. Yet the question of why you majored in religion, cannot be described fully in words, you will need to sit in a religion classroom to experience for yourself.  

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I am deeply worried about the state of K-12 education in Nepal, where I received my own K-12 education. As remnants of colonial atrocities, corporal punishment is widely used in schools today. I hope to push against institutions that value discipline over creativity, rigidity over flexibility, censorship over academic freedom, and unhealthy supervision over trust in students. This needs to change.

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

Religion, Sound, Space with Professor Brennan! This was THE class when I think back, what made my first-year UVM experience so great, this is the class. A four-credit class with six other students, a class in which CAS’ public reputation as a “small liberal arts college within a high caliber public research institution” was manifest, in this class we conducted field research, we interviewed local community members and made connections with them, while also learning about ethnomusicology and acoustemology, we recorded the soundscape of Burlington with support from Howe Library’s Multimedia Services, and then we made an entire blog post, in turn receiving compliments aplenty from the local community members. As someone who did not know much about Vermont or even the U.S., interacting with local community members back in my first-year had been a valuable experience, which made me confident to work with local communities later when I undertook the legislative internship position at the Office of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders the semester after taking this class. 

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

The Epic of Gilgamesh: Nepali Translation. After receiving permission from Professor Andrew George from the SOAS and from the Penguin Press, I undertook the book translation project for Gilgamesh in my junior year. Then pandemic hit… For now, it remains a potential future project. I was interested in the project for several reasons: Professor Chiu’s excellent classes, which piqued my interest in the epic, the fact that I dearly miss reading and writing in Nepali, and the issue of language justice and accessibility. 

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

I will always remember Professor Trainor’s warm greetings the second I stepped into his office, also his efficacious smile, the invaluable advising sessions, the really comfortable sofa in his office! After meeting Professor Trainor in his first-floor office, I remember walking down the wooden stairway (that creaked!), only then to be heard by Professor Brennan inside her ground-floor office who waved cheerfully–thank you so much, it always brightened up my day.

You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience—bonus points for including religion or the Religion Department as a way to think about it!

I want to thank all my professors; the pandemic has not been easy for anyone. This semester, I attended UVM remotely from Nepal. For a 2:50-4:05pm class, it was 1-3am at night in my time zone. I could have picked another class with a suitable timing, but I really wanted to be in Professor Brennan’s class (again!) for my last semester (which was at 2:05). She recorded her live lectures, and all religion professors were very supportive to meet my academic needs, thank you!

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

Taking classes during this pandemic and comparing my experience to those of my friends has reminded me how grateful I am for this major and my professors. Being in small classes with professors who know me and care so much about their students has made all the difference. It’s still hard learning online and having the energy to focus on school with everything else going on, but this department has made it much easier.

– LAURA BISBEE-SLADE

Why did you major in Religion?

Religion was a large part of my high school experience, so entering college it seemed like a natural topic for me to study. Looking back, I don’t think I really understood what it meant to study religion, but the more I understood how religion functions in people’s lives, often in ways we don’t initially realize, and how it intersects with so many other areas of society, the more I knew I made the right choice.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Hopefully putting a law degree to good use, but we’ll see in 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?

There are a lot of courses that I think are absolutely essential, but I’m going to say Islam and Race with Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst because it is relevant to so many other facets of life and addresses topics which are often mishandled or avoided entirely.

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

I’ve always loved creative storytelling and working with kids, so I think I would probably want to write (and illustrate!) a children’s book. Maybe a religious literacy for kids book!

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

Snack days in Religion, Nation, and State with Prof. Borchert!

You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience—bonus points for including religion or the Religion Department as a way to think about it!

Taking classes during this pandemic and comparing my experience to those of my friends has reminded me how grateful I am for this major and my professors. Being in small classes with professors who know me and care so much about their students has made all the difference. It’s still hard learning online and having the energy to focus on school with everything else going on, but this department has made it much easier.

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

I am never uninterested in any aspect of religion, I have found throughout my undergraduate work that these courses have taught me what I really need to know about the world in order to understand people, place, culture, and history, and it has made me recognize that I will always keep learning.

– amelia coates

Why did you major in Religion?

I came to the University of Vermont looking for a passion. I have always been drawn to the humanities and to furthering my education more broadly (AKA I am a total nerd), and I found that passion for religious studies. During my freshman year I took Comparing Religions with Professor Andrus, and from there I took as many religion courses as I could before eventually transferring into the Religion department as a major. I am never uninterested in any aspect of religion, I have found throughout my undergraduate work that these courses have taught me what I really need to know about the world in order to understand people, place, culture, and history, and it has made me recognize that I will always keep learning.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years I’m sure I’ll have more degrees (the number remains yet to be seen), but in all sincerity I hope that in 10 years I am able to study what I love with other people who share my passion. If I were to set goals right this second I see myself as the head curator at the British Museum, dismantling the structures that allow for its proliferation of colonialism, or working with migrant and indigenous populations in the United States to understand land rights, reparations, politics, and community healing. I always like to set lofty goals. 

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 say that Mysticism, Shamanism and Possession with Professor Brennan was one of my all-time favorite religion courses and should not be missed by any students. I also would recommend Islam and Race with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst, I have taken many D1 courses and it was hands-down the best one.    

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

My answer to this question changes every day, but right now if I could write any book I would write something about the framework through which we understand systemic oppression, the necropolitics surrounding marginalized bodies and experiences, and how religious practice informs community mourning and change. 

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

I will always cherish every moment at 481 Main. I loved advising office hours with Professor Brennan every semester, I loved every class in the seminar room, and I will never forget my reception of the Religion department mug, which I happily use every morning.  

You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience—bonus points for including religion or the Religion Department as a way to think about it!

I think that the Covid semesters have taught me about patience, especially patience with myself and my peers. I also have had the privilege of taking Religion, Health, and Healing with Professor Brennan during this Covid semester and I found the connections between the course materials and our collective life right now to be extremely interesting and inspiring in terms of how we learn to heal from this kind of experience that is so nuanced with history and politics. I have learned that care is about upholding individual experience, and not bogging ourselves down with collective exhaustion. 

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

I always loved the atmosphere of the small classes in the seminar room. Having smaller class sizes really allowed me to feel more connected to the class and its material. One of my fondest memories at 481 Main was probably receiving my REL mug after finishing REL 100! I keep it above my sink in my kitchen so I can always see it, definitely feels like a great accomplishment!

– Belly luksza ’21
Isabelle Luksza ’21

Why did you major in Religion?

I honestly never would have guessed 4 years ago that I would be majoring in Religion. I came to UVM as a Political Science major, to Anthropology, then made my way to Religion by the end of my Sophomore year. I had taken Religion, Health, and Healing as an Anthropology class, and I found myself wanting to take more and more Religion classes. That is when I realized I felt much more connected with the material than any other classes I had taken at UVM. It was almost like everything finally fell into place for me.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

The first thing that came to mind was cats. Lots of cats. Hopefully living in my own place with lots of room for rescue animals! 

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

Religion, Health, and Healing with Professor Brennan! It was the first REL class I took, and it was the perfect beginning to my academic journey to the Religion department. It is also one of the reasons why I changed my major! 

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

I would love to write a children’s book! It would be about the many adventures of my kitty, Moe. His hobbies include playing fetch with his favorite blue mouse and riding in the back of my car daydreaming about being an outdoor cat. 

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

I always loved the atmosphere of the small classes in the seminar room. Having smaller class sizes really allowed me to feel more connected to the class and its material. One of my fondest memories at 481 Main was probably receiving my REL mug after finishing REL 100! I keep it above my sink in my kitchen so I can always see it, definitely feels like a great accomplishment!