Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

In ten years I imagine myself as a middle or high school teacher teaching social studies. There are so many things I wish I was taught in middle/high school that I didn’t learn about until college. We can’t dismantle corrupt systems until we know about them and how they function – so it’s better to start that work as early as possible. 

– lexie drew ’21
Lexie Drew ’21

Why did you major in Religion?

My freshman year first semester class schedule was done for me by someone in CAS. I was randomly placed in Professor Morgenstein Fuerst’s “Comparing Religions” class and absolutely loved it. I remember leaving every class feeling like my brain was exploding and growing! I just kept thinking about the discussions, information, and questions that were brought up in each class. I was learning so much and having a lot of fun and so I just kept sneakily signing up for REL classes each semester.  Because I didn’t want to go without one, I eventually added it as my minor. Last semester, Professor Borchert and I realized I was only 8 credits away from a major and I decided to go for it. I am so happy I did and feel so proud to be a Religion major. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years I imagine myself as a middle or high school teacher teaching social studies. There are so many things I wish I was taught in middle/high school that I didn’t learn about until college. We can’t dismantle corrupt systems until we know about them and how they function – so it’s better to start that work as early as possible. 

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

Oh my, what a tough question. I think all Religion classes are amazing (like actually I am not kidding), so any and all! But these were my favorite: 

  • Islam & Modernity: I loved constantly trying to answer the question of “what is modernity?” and we read some really great books such as “Pious Fashion.” 
  • Religion and Ways of Knowing Loved the books we read and it really expanded my knowledge in terms of the embodiment of religion and how religious meaning is created and found. 
  • Seeing the Sacred: Love the focus of visuality and the senses. Studying Religion by focusing on the body has taught me so much about how it functions.
  • Religious Literacy: I just feel like this is a really great class to take to understand how important it is to know about religion as it is literally everywhere. 

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

“How to get the confidence to raise your hand!” Or something about a friendship between a turtle and a dog. Still deciding between the two. 

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

Gathering around the table in “Religion and Ways of Knowing.” It was so small and intimate. I felt so free to be speak, question, and wonder in that atmosphere. It’s cool to talk about humans and the human experience while being close to other humans! I think it helps things make more sense. That was one of my last classes before COVID. 

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!

Things and people adapt under ever-changing circumstances. Religious communities are made up of people and so it makes sense that these communities change and shift based on particular contexts. Also, despite not being together physically, I still learned a lot virtually and was like seriously always in my pajamas. 

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

I remember the religion classes I took sophomore year so vividly and having “Ah-Ha” moments almost every day. I felt almost like I had to become a religion major because studying religion makes me excited and engaged in ways no other subject can. 

– eli van buren ’21
Eli Van Buren ’21

Why did you major in Religion?

There’s nothing else I would want to struggle to understand more than the questions asked in the Rel department. I remember the religion classes I took sophomore year so vividly and having “Ah-Ha” moments almost every day. I felt almost like I had to become a religion major because studying religion makes me excited and engaged in ways no other subject can. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Oh yikes, my imagination is endless! In 10 years, I think I’ll be taking it easy – swimming and laughing somewhere nice. I’ll be fluent in Portuguese by then (of course!) and collaborating with other artists in meaningful ways.

I also hope to be much more articulate/confident and to be continuing to think critically no matter what I’m doing. 

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! It completely changed the ways I understand the body, ritual, and socialization. Easily one of my favorite classes at UVM.

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

It would be an interstellar pirate western full of space outlaws, political intrigue, and personal connection. I mean, it would be an allegory for something, but I haven’t worked that bit out yet – the absurdity of life, maybe. I love a healthy portion of humor in a narrative, but I would savor the serious moments so they could really hit home. It would the kind of book that fully immerses readers into the world it creates – with characters you hate to love and love to hate. I dunno, that’s the kind of book would want to read!

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

When I took Religion in Japan, Professor Borchert had optional movie showings on a few weekends over the semester – I remember being the only student to show up to watch Okuribito with him and it was just really chill and nice to hang out and eat popcorn while watching this movie on a cloudy afternoon.

And a million of my favorite conversations with Professor Brennan in her office.

And being surrounded by coffee and donuts on finals weeks.

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!

It was absolutely terrible!

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

Every class that I have taken in the department has taught me so much about how people relate to one another across time and space and the social mechanisms tied to colonial projects and white supremacy that permeate every facet of society, including through how we perceive religious people.

– becca turley ’21
Becca Turley ’21

Why did you major in Religion?

I chose to be a Religion major because I took Comparing Religions and absolutely fell in love with the subject and the department. I was drawn to the ways that the major combined so many different academic disciplines like gender studies, sociology, political science, anthropology, etc. through the lens of religion, which itself is a highly misunderstood topic. Every class that I have taken in the department has taught me so much about how people relate to one another across time and space and the social mechanisms tied to colonial projects and white supremacy that permeate every facet of society, including through how we perceive religious people. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years I hope to be engaging in work that contributes the world in a positive matter; a dream job that I would hope to have in 10 years (or more!) is an ambassador to India or some type of political advisor on a foreign region where I can use the invaluable knowledge I have gained from both the Religion and Political Science departments to foster positive change in the world!

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

ISLAM AND RACE! This was by far my favorite class in the REL department and at UVM because it taught me so much about the racialization of Islam in the United States and how it relates to the delicate racial and social fabric in the US. The materials we read and the ethnographic accounts we read opened my eyes to the US as a surveillance state and inspired me to educate myself on the racialization and politicization of other minoritized identities. 

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

If I could write any book it would be children’s book about the Black Liberation Movement in the 20th century and the role of religion in the fight for Civil Rights in America. 

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

I have so many fond memories in the REL department because it was the first place at UVM that felt like a home to me, rather than a temporary dorm or classroom. I would have to say that my funniest (not necessarily favorite) memory of the REL house, aside from receiving my REL mug at the end of REL 100, was getting stuck in the first floor bathroom because the lock got stuck, and I had to wait for someone to kick the door open before returning to class!

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!

Graduating college in the midst of a pandemic has been a unique and difficult experience, after getting kicked out of my study abroad trip and returning to a city that looked and acted nothing like how I remembered it was very tricky for me. It has taken me a while to adjust to this new learning format, not only because taking class from home can be difficult to learn, but also because this is admittedly not how I imagined my senior year at all. Nevertheless, I have felt incredibly supported by so many people in my life during this transitionary time, and I owe a million debts of gratitude to the REL department for teaching me so much about myself and the world around me (no matter how quickly and dramatically it changes!).

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

Challenging yourself to think differently comes with the territory of being a religion major: regular unlearning, relearning, and the instability of every question having “yes and no” be the answer have prepared me for anything.

– katherine brennan ’21
Katherine Brennan is one of our Outstanding Major Award 2021 winners!

Why did you major in Religion?

I majored in Religion because I found the study of religion to be the most inclusive, well-rounded, and comprehensive academic study at the University of Vermont. A religion class delivers the full package: you get to learn about cultures, societies, laws, imperialism, colonialism, politics, religions, people, and more – and you get to unlearn all the harmful things ingrained by society.  

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I hope to use the knowledge I gained from the religion department and will gain from my upcoming graduate studies to apply religious literacy to the international legal sphere. I want to make a difference for religious minorities at home and abroad through navigating legal systems.  

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

My advice to first-year students about REL courses is to take as many as you can. The religion professors are the best of the best, and their one-on-one guidance, expertise, and dedication to both you and their scholarship make the religion program unique. REL courses are meant to force you to unlearn harmful stereotypes, misunderstandings, and false information. You will be challenged: not only academically, but also to be a better person. It’s definitely worth it!

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

If I could write any book, I would write a book about (no surprise?!) the ways in which French laws, culture, and politics impact religious minorities in France.  

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

My first year, every time I passed 481 Main, I commented on how beautiful the building was. At the time, I had no idea that it housed the religion department- but it was by far my favorite building on campus. When I first went to Professor Morgenstein Fuerst’s office hours at 481 Main to discuss changing my major to Religion, it felt like it was simply meant to be. Since I changed my major four years ago, I’ve spent as much time at 481 Main as possible. The building quickly became more than just outwardly beautiful, because it also became the location of some of the most academically and personally challenging and rewarding moments of my undergraduate career. I will miss 481 Main, and everyone in it!

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!

Finishing college in the midst of a pandemic is not exactly how I pictured everything playing out. However, if there is anything I’ve learned from religious studies it’s that people, cultures, and societies adapt. Religions are constantly changing because people are constantly changing, and part of my work as a scholar of religion has particularly prepared me for change and adaptation. Religion is what people do, and people are as unpredictable as a sudden global pandemic. Challenging yourself to think differently comes with the territory of being a religion major: regular unlearning, relearning, and the instability of every question having “yes and no” be the answer have prepared me for anything. Not to mention, adapting to thinking burdened by the loss of in-person instruction, loss of social activities, and being unable to do the things I’d like to do is reminiscent of the adaptability required of religious minorities burdened by imperialism, for example. With my privilege I do this work, despite the circumstances, and hopefully one day I can make positive change in the world.

Senior Spotlight: a series about our graduating students

Through my classes in religion at UVM I have become more aware of how religion is related to understanding society and social justice issues like: racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, etc.

NINA CARR ’21

Why did you major in Religion?

I was in Professor Sugarman’s religion classes in the Integrated Humanities Program my freshman year. During one of my IHP classes Professor Clark came in to do a guest lecture on women in medieval Christianity, specifically Hildegard of Bingham. I found it incredibly interesting, and I found the material to be very different from that of the other classes that I had taken so far; much more about story telling. After class I asked Professor Clark about joining one of her upper level classes “Seeing the Sacred,” which she encouraged me to do.

After taking that class I completely fell in love with the study of religion, and have loved every religion class that I have taken since. I think it is really revealing and important to study how people think about the world and how people conceive of reality from a religious point of view. Through my classes in religion at UVM I have become more aware of how religion is related to understanding society and social justice issues like: racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, etc. People stereotype and have prejudices against certain religions and against certain people because of their religious beliefs. It is really interesting to think about power dynamics through the lens of religious studies. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years I imagine myself in grad school, after having traveled the world for many years, and after having had many “real world” experiences. I imagine myself doing some grad program that will help me to better be involved in addressing social justice issues. I imagine myself running consistently, and perhaps training for marathons, or just 5K road races. I imagine myself doing what I can to help those around me, being healthy, spending time outdoors, and maybe starting a family. 

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 too many to choose from. They are all amazing and you can’t go wrong. One that sticks out to me and that I particularly enjoyed was “African Gods, and Western Museums” with Professor Brennan. It was a fantastic combination of religious studies, colonial studies, anthropology, art history, the list goes on. It was very intersectional in nature. The readings that we did were dense but super interesting. I thought it was really powerful that we applied what we had been learning to something tangible, like the Fleming Museum.

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

WOW, big question! I would write a book about people, and about different life experiences, somehow. My book would be about unifying different experiences while showing the differences between peoples’ lives. I think that there is something really important to be said about the fact that we are all living different lives, with different amounts of privilege, different focuses, and aspects, but that we are all fundamentally the same and have similar needs and desires (so many people have written books about this already… Humanity I guess?!

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

I loved the time spent in the seminar room. I have so many fond memories of walking over there for class and having such intellectually stimulating discussions every day. I love the cozy feeling of the room, and the wooden chairs and table. It was such a great atmosphere to learn in. Sometimes there wasn’t quite enough space but everyone was always friendly and happy to be there no matter how crowded. I also loved sharing snacks, and particularly during finals week when the teachers would put out treats for us to eat while we studied. Thank you so much for that!

Senior Spotlight 2020: Abe Goren

a series about our graduating seniors

“The religion department was a supportive, tight knit community that allowed me to really dig into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the system.”

–Abe Goren
Socially Distant Abe Goren ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

In high school I was fascinated by religion both as a cultural system and as a place to find my identity. I’m very intrigued by the aesthetics of religion and religious performance, whether it be music, costumes, art, rituals or literature. I think people of my generation don’t think of religion day to day, but it’s such a powerful and immersive force. I initially was an anthropology major but switched to religion because religion had more direct intersection with my interests.

The religion department was a supportive, tight knit community that allowed me to really dig into the “why” and “how” of the system. One thing that drew me to the religion department was becoming friends with Shakir Stephen, a religion graduate (and current grad student at NYU) who really convinced me that the religion department was the way to go.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

It’s hard to say. I think I imagine gaining ground with making music. Music has been a very big hobby for me as of late, and a way for me to keep sane. I imagine that in addition to cultivating a music career, I will likely want to pursue graduate work in religion, pop culture and musical fan communities.

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

I highly recommend anything with Prof. Vicki Brennan. Her classes are hands on, informative and fascinating. To have experience with working with museum curation was excellent.

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

I really want to write an occult book/manual mocking the style of superfascist esotericist Julius Evola from a queer, trans perspective. This is not to endorse Evola, I hate the man! Rather, I think I can try to rearrange his philosophies and ideologies to be about gender transcendence, trans jñanayoga and nonbinary asceticism. I want to call it Gender Amongst the Ruins or Revolt Against the Transphobic World, and it would be a more materialist analysis of perennial traditionalism if that’s even possible. It probably wouldn’t be, but I want to use National Mysticism tropes to define trans people. I want to move away the “queer witchy vibes” that a lot of trans pagans use and onto more straightforward Theosophical ideology, that remembers the roots of modern occultism. I would throw out “root races” as a concept, of course.

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

I remember when I was in my first semester, I went from office to office, saying hi to different professors. It was a great way to randomly meet and socialize with people who knew their stuff about religion. 

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

I’ve been spending a lot of time taking walks, wondering about my gender identity and making music. In addition, I’ve been binging Parks and Rec with my mom. It’s a great way to unwind every night and a great way to bond. Parks and Rec has a lot of religious aspects to it, at least with the fundamentalist watchdog Marsha Langman, and the opportunistic Wamapoke Cheiftan, who uses white people’s superstitions about Native Americans against them.

Senior Spotlight 2020: Caleb George-Hinnant

a series about our graduating seniors

“Frequently, I considered religion classes–alongside copious amounts of coffee–to be my incredible coping mechanism during the pursuit of a STEM degree.  But they were also so much more than that.  They revolutionized my ability to write and to critically analyze all institutions of knowledge and power.”

–Caleb George-Hinnant
Caleb George-Hinnant ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

I came to UVM as a biomedical engineering major.  After spending my first semester in engineering classes, I took Comparing Religions with Dr. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst to fulfill my diversity requirement.  This class convinced me to take more religion classes in tandem with a neuroscience degree which I had decided to transfer into.  

Although understanding the brain had been a long-term goal of mine, religion classes were almost a vacation away from the hard path of studying synapses and biological processes. Religion classes were simultaneously some of my most challenging, intellectually stimulating, and motivating experiences at UVM.  

Frequently, I considered religion classes–alongside copious amounts of coffee–to be my incredible coping mechanism during the pursuit of a STEM degree.  But they were also so much more than that.  They revolutionized my ability to write and to critically analyze all institutions of knowledge and power.  I wish I could write a long essay about why I majored in religion.  However, it dissolves to a love for writing, analyzing “what people do,” and having the opportunity to share that experience the brilliant minds at UVMREL.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

This is definitely the last question any senior feels prepared to answer.  First and foremost, alive.  Maybe there will be puppies?

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

Take any and all of them.  More importantly than that, take classes that analyze issues of religion.  My two favorites were the two 200 level courses I took: African Gods/Western Museums and Religion, Nation, and State.  But more importantly, get more than one opinion, you’ll need to be comparing a lot of conflicting arguments at 481 Main.

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

A good one.  I think I would really like to write about the brain, neuroplasticity, meditation, what people find meaningful, and how experience and self-reference shape the ways in which we believe ourselves to be “us.”  Or possibly a book of opinions.  Either way, I hope it helps somebody.

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

Snack times with Professor Borchert!  Often that class did not feel like a class, rather a riveting hour in which we uncovered the hidden nature of our topics. Also all of the (previous semesters’) Reading Days, during which students from various classes came together to share in snacks and stress for final projects in the seminar room.

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

In the midst of a global crisis, barreling down the train tracks of peril, while sipping tea of calming thoughts in our couches seated in our homely homes each six feet apart on the expressway riding the curve, we look to our captain, sure that the egomaniac who is so disconnected from reality might look the other way so we may have the opportunity to steer the course straight.

Writing about global drama, systems of power, political injustice, colonialism, the neurotypical tragedies of addiction, tribal mentalities, and existential meanings of truth has never been so much fun in my comfy pants.

Senior Spotlight 2020: Ava Williams

a series about our graduating seniors

“I continued taking religion classes because I wanted to know why abstract ideologies compel individuals to think and behave in certain ways. I became a religion major because I wanted to know how individuals mobilize under their religion to effect macro-level social and political change. ”

–Ava Williams
Ava Williams ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

In the hectic midst of picking out classes during first year orientation, I found myself signing up for the religion TAP “What is the Bible.” While I originally took the class under the seemingly classic “religiously raised kid turned pessimistic atheist” guise, I soon learned the faults in my own worldview. I began to understand that religion is more than a sacrosanct dedication to the words of ones god– it is a means of building community, a way of coercing behaviors above secular law, and it factors quite literally into everything in our world. 

I continued taking religion classes because I wanted to know why abstract ideologies compel individuals to think and behave in certain ways. I became a religion major because I wanted to know how individuals mobilize under their religion to effect macro-level social and political change. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Ask me 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?

Arguably, the most impactful class I took in the Religion Department was “REL 196: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States.” This class challenged me to think critically of the U.S. through the lens of religion. Through looking tracing the development of religion, race, and ethnicity, we studied how these invented categories were employed to help form and maintain our hierarchical society. I recommend this class to any students who want to analyze religion in the context of U.S. politics and history. 

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

My capstone project was titled “‘The World’s Oldest Colony’: Cultural Nationhood, Political Nationalism, and Religious Activism in Puerto Rico.” It investigated how religion factored into the development of the Puerto Rican cultural nation and how religious actors mobilize within the secular politics of Puerto Rico. If I had the chance to write a book, I think that it would be tied to this capstone project because there is a wide scholarly void in understanding religion in Puerto Rico. I think that it would be quite fun to research the island on a larger scale to fill this scholarly void and to show the world how deep and multifaceted Puerto Rico truly is. 

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

Although I can’t seem to choose a favorite memory of 481 Main, I think my most fond memories revolve around the community that we built within the religion building. It was quite special to take classes with the same core group of students since freshman year– we learned, grew, and laughed together for four years. I really enjoyed our strong support system and watching my peers develop throughout our time together. 

I do not think this community could have grown without our teachers who called us by name and remembered our favorite topics of study, our best papers. They were extremely adept at balancing the teacher and friend role; I don’t think that I would be half the person or scholar I am today without their motivation to help us learn. 

Senior Spotlight 2020: Maddy Gale

a series about our graduating seniors

“[Islam & Race and Religion, Nation, & State] were rooted in scholarship that had real world, real time applicability. I left those classes with theoretical bones to pick and activism to do!”

–Maddy Gale
Maddy Gale ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

My dad, a very open atheist, always told me the Bible was the best book he had ever read. 

In high school, theology and philosophy were my favorite subjects, so coming to college, I knew it was an area of interest! After my Theater major turned into a minor and my English major wasn’t cutting it, I took Islam & Modernity with IRMF (uh, that’s Prof Morgenstein Fuerst), added a double major in Religion, and the rest was history.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Writing! Not sure in what capacity, but I’m hoping that whatever career I’m in will involve writing.

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

Ooh that’s tough. I would say it’s a tie between Islam and Race with IRMF and Religion, Nation, and State with Professor Borchert. Both classes were rooted in scholarship that had real world, real time applicability. I left those classes with theoretical bones to pick and activism to do!

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

Yikes. Maybe a collection of short stories about losing a parent as a child, but that’s heavy… or a checking-my-white-girl-privilege type of memoir!

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

Cheese, crackers and sparkling cider in my Religion@UVM mug with Professor Trainor in Religion 100!

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

Hands down, my Religion professors have been the most understanding and kind humans during this time. This sh*t sucks, but every teacher from the department has had my back 100%. Thank you, thank you, thank you.