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.

Alumni Spotlight: Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Rebecca Friedlander

Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Besides her suitcase and backpack, Rebecca Friedlander ’17 had a lot of intellectual interests to unpack when she arrived at UVM as a first year student in 2013. She was curious about psychology and archaeology—her family paid regular visits to the Chicago Science Museum and she participated in digs near her native Chicago.

To fully explore her options, she enrolled in UVM’s Integrated Humanities Program, which offers a series of courses that studies topics in-depth, from several different disciplinary perspectives. Participants live and learn together. By sharing the same intellectual journey under the same roof, she developed close relationships with her peers and faculty mentors.

It was just the sort of academic experience Friendlander was looking for. She had attended Stevenson High School in North Chicago was interested in pulling up stakes and exploring a new environment. UVM popped up as an option during her college search, and a visit to campus confirmed her early impressions—a substantial research university that projected a friendly, progressive vibe. “I ended up meeting a lot of professors on Admitted Student Day,” she recalls. “They were really impressive people, but also very down to earth.”

The program exposed her to courses she otherwise might have overlooked, and she was fascinated by her class in religion. It led her to take more religion courses, and she was especially inspired by classes with professors Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst and Vicki Brennan. “The professors in the department really helped me grow as a person,” she said. “They pushed you academically, while at the same time being very approachable.”

Freindlander completed a double major in anthropology and religion at UVM, and after taking a year off to carefully explore her options, she enrolled in a master’s program in archaeological biology at Brandeis University. She’s interested in paleopathology (particularly osteology, the study of the structure and function of bones) in sites in mesoamerica, particularly those that were invaded by the Spanish. “I want to use the scientific aspects of archaeology to broaden our anthropological understanding of past cultures.”

Now in her first year at Brandeis, her current plan is to earn a PhD and teaching in higher education. She’s convinced that her broad liberal arts background has made her a better learner and deeper thinker.

“Both human development and religion are very closely intertwined–they inform each other,” she said. “Studying both gave me multiple areas of human understanding to draw on.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Jillian Ward ’11

MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT*

If a university education is meant to build not just a career but a productive and meaningful life, Jillian Ward’s UVM experience provides a compelling example. A native of Woodbridge, Conn., Ward ’11 was interested in entering the helping professions and declared psychology as her UVM major. It wasn’t until her second semester that she took an introduction to Asian religions class. She liked it so much, she took a few more religion courses, including sections on African religion and Buddhism. After a while she realized she was accumulating enough credits to earn a double major.

“They were the best classes I ever took, so I just kept taking them. By the time I got to upper level classes, I felt this amazing sense of community shared by a small cohort of students and professors.”

When it came to deep discussions, developing ideas for a thesis project or getting advice on writing and other academic projects, it was mostly faculty in the religion department whom she turned to for guidance. “The department became a sort of a sanctuary for me,” she said.

After UVM, Ward graduated from the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in nursing, and now works as a trauma and neurology RN at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. The perspectives she gained in her religion courses at UVM, and her interest in yoga, have informed her holistic approach to healing. “I did yoga at UVM and enjoyed it. Then I did it more intensely as a way of dealing with the stress of graduate school. I received my certification as a RYT (registered yoga teacher) and teach part time at Core Power YogaI. Now I see yoga as a key part of providing care that treats the patient’s mind, body, and inner spirit.”

As she becomes grounded in her career, Ward is looking forward: “My goal is to work in palliative care and hospice nursing…One of the reasons why my experience in the religion department was so powerful was the passion the instructors—every one of them—had for the subject matter and for their students,” Ward recalls. “They showed me how important it is to find something to be passionate about.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Shakir Stephen ’15

INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY LEADS TO NYU*

Shakir Stephen was born in Montreal and grew up in Southeast London, and his intellectual journey reflects a broad set of interests and potential career paths. After working in as an academic coach in Burlington for three years after graduation, he is bound for New York University where he begins an M.A. program in religion.

Stephen was a talented science student, and his interests in high school seemed to lead him towards the STEM disciplines. “The educational system in the UK is different: the choices for undergraduate study are narrower, and you need to make a decision about your path for studies at a pretty young age, around 16.”

Stephen declared physics as his major upon entering UVM, but something was tugging him  towards the humanities. In his first year at UVM he took several liberal arts courses and found his home in the religion department.

“I took a course on the bible with Anne Clark and she really focused on writing, which I was OK at but because I was concentrating on the sciences I was a little rusty,” he recalls. “She emphasized how important writing was for success in college and beyond, and that really resonated with me.”

Stephen discovered that religion was an ideal prism that brought together perspectives from other disciplines that interested him, including history, philosophy,  sociology and anthropology. At the same time he developed critical thinking, reasoning, writing and presentation skills important for any post-graduate undertaking.

Stephen works as an academic coach at Mansfield Hall in Burlington, an organization offering academic support to college-aged students with learning differences and executive functioning challenges. “These are often high functioning people with executive challenges who need help building skills that set them up for success sin higher education,” Stephen explains.

The job draws on Stephen’s broad educational background, and he’s discovered that he’s a talented teacher. He sought out religion department members Kevin Trainor and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst for advice on graduate programs and he settled on NYU. He received a fellowship that covers tuition and fees for the two-year program.

“If it feels right I’d consider going on to get my PhD. Eventually I see myself in the education field in some capacity.”

See a post Shakir Stephen wrote before he left UVM for NYU!

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Kathryn Meader ’15

Skills for Success

When Marshfield, Mass., native Kathryn Meader began burrowing into her college search as a high school junior, one thing in particular about UVM stood out: The university’s first-year Integrated Humanities Program (now called the Liberal Arts Scholars Program, or LASP).

“I had already declared history as my major, and I was attracted by the idea of living and studying with 30 other students who shared my interests,” she said. “I felt like I had 30 new friends the moment I arrived on campus.”

LASP encourages students to wrestle with life’s big questions through an intensive multi-disciplinary approach. Students live in the same Living/Learning Center residence complex, so conversations in the classroom tend to spill over into meals, community activities and events throughout the year.

“We took three courses each semester—in English, History and Religion,” Meader explained. “Professor Sugarman, who was my teacher for fall semester religion course, told me ‘yeah, I think you are really a religion major at heart.’”

The twin majors gave her complementary perspectives on her interest in medieval Christianity, and her research on the twelfth-century abbess, Heloise d’Argenteuil.

The intensive emphasis on critical thinking, writing, and communication–she cites her involvement in the annual Student Research Conference as sharpening her presenting skills—began with her IHP experience and continued on throughout her UVM education. After graduating in 2015 with the religion department’s Outstanding Senior Award, she got a job as a development assistant at the UVM Foundation. She has since been promoted to assistant director of annual giving, and she credits her academic preparation as a key to her success.

“The anthropological reading you do in religion courses help you to consider perspectives outside your own experience,” she says. “ I think that training really helps me in my current work. In the writing that I do every day, it’s important to think about how the recipient is going to read it. This way of thinking also definitely helps me to tell other people’s stories in ways that are inspiring, and effective.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!