Alumni Spotlight: Simeon Marsalis ’13

GRAD PLUMBS UVM EXPERIENCE, HISTORY IN DEBUT NOVEL
– By Tom Weaver, Vermont Quarterly, Spring 2018

Simeon Marsalis arrived on the UVM campus in 2009 focused on playing varsity basketball. Though he stepped away from the game after his sophomore season, Marsalis stayed at the university to earn his degree in religion in 2013 and had the rare opportunity to sit among his fellow graduates for a commencement address from his own father, famed musician Wynton Marsalis. Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. Last year, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

photo: Chris Buck

Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. This past October, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

After leaving Burlington, Marsalis found himself frequently returning to study the architecture on campus. The book includes beautifully detailed descriptions of some of UVM’s most notable buildings. Marsalis also spent many hours combing the university archives to research the school’s blemished racial past, which plays a central role in protagonist David’s character development.

“It is about a freshman in college who questions the reasons why he has arrived at that particular university,” the author says, discussing the book’s plot. “He begins to research his own reasons for attending that university, and discovers an alumni ritual with a deeply personal resonance. The campus itself is its own character within the novel. I couldn’t have written this novel if I had not gone to UVM.”

Marsalis’s family roots, surrounded by musical artists, helped instill the confidence and work ethic to pursue a career in writing. “Watching my father and grandfather and uncles all those years allowed me to see the amount of work it takes to make it as an artist,” he says. “It helped me see art not as an abstract pursuit, but as an approachable entity. I had a very real connection to the amount of time it takes to hone an art. I didn’t see it as something that was foreign and unapproachable. I saw it as a distinct language that you had to learn, but once you learn that language, that’s where the freedom and play comes in.”

Spending weekends at his father’s house growing up, Marsalis also saw the amount of work required to make a living off of one’s art. “My father practices obsessively, it was all day,” says Marsalis. “There was always something to work on, whether it be the next piece, refining an old piece, or anything else. As an artist, it can be maddening because there is something you could be working on literally every second of the day. Seeing him and that work ethic, it originally really had an impact on the way I played basketball, because it made me see my goals in that sport as an attainable thing that had to do with work more so than something esoteric like talent or luck. More recently, I place my belief in work and work ethic as a way to develop my writing talent and to cultivate some of my own luck as an artist.”

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

Since the book’s release, Marsalis has traveled widely—Seattle to Austin to Boston and many points between—to promote his novel at readings and festivals. The book has been well-received and got a cover-blurb boost from noted UVM poet/professor Major Jackson. “There are so many people at UVM who have been a big help to me,” says Marsalis. “Obviously Major Jackson, but also Sean Witters and so many people from the Religion Department, like Vicki Brennan and Kevin Trainor.”

Alumni Spotlight: Thomas Mackell ’18

Learning that is Deep and Collaborative*

“At UVM I was studying philosophy at first, which lacked a direct confrontation with a lot of social justice and political issues that religion classes offer, so I added religion as another major. I was exposed to works like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and Saba Mahmood’s Agency, Performativity, and the Feminist Subject, two of the best things I’ve read for any class . . .

“One of the most rewarding experiences at UVM was the work I did as part of professor Vicki Brennan’s classes, which resulted in a museum exhibit ‘Spirited Things‘ held in the fall of 2017. The exhibit included sacred objects from the Yoruba religion of West Africa, and other offshoots of Yoruba in the Americas developed by enslaved Africans who blended their spiritual practices with those of their captors. First, I took a religion seminar in the spring prior to the exhibit where we did a lot of research to prepare for the exhibit. In the fall I took another course concentrating on ethnography of museum visitors who were largely unfamiliar with these religions. The context of a Western museum typically implies that these objects must be very old and come from faraway places–therefore they are usually exhibited mainly for their value as natural history. However, in ‘Spirited Things’ many of the objects came from the contemporary Afro-Atlantic diaspora including cities like L.A. and New York. These objects were imbued with power and meaning for ritual purposes, and revered in their own right . . .

“A small statue of the Afro-Cuban goddess Yemayá, manufactured in China in 2014 and picked up by Matory in a Los Angeles botanica, served as the inspiration for independent research.For me it inspired an independent study centering around one of the objects in the exhibit, a statue of Yemaya. I ended up publishing a paper ‘Yemayá on Display: Post-Colonial Contact Zones in the Museum,’ and made a presentation at a spring symposium.”

–Thomas Mackell ’18

*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: Mairé Gebhard ’18

Making a Difference*

Mairé Gebhard ’18

“My father is a Presbyterian minister, my mother a self-proclaimed agnostic. I went to church every Sunday when I was growing up, however my parents were both constantly discussing and introducing other religions. I remember distinctly having a menorah, talking about Kwanza, my mom referencing different Hindu Gods, and my most fond memory of my mom reminding us every year on Christmas that the reason we celebrate the holiday when he we do actually because of ancient Indo-Iranian mythology and the God Mithras. I was constantly surrounded by discussions about religion . . .

When I was in high school and began going on college tours I told everyone I wanted to study political science. It wasn’t until my junior year, when I took a religion course combined with a class called Human Geography, that my thoughts began to change. I distinctly remember the day I was touring colleges the summer before senior year and changed my answer to what I wanted to study. I said ‘religion.’ I came in declared and haven’t regretted it a single day . . .

I am currently working for AmeriCorps in Florida with the Palm Beach Literacy Coalition where I am working with Haitian immigrants, teaching English to both children and adults. I have an eleven-month commitment with AmeriCorps and my plan is to apply for the PeaceCorps after my service here. People always ask ‘what you can do with a degree in religion’ and I think the great thing is that you’re not limited! My studies broadened my world view, taught me about race, gender, politics, and so much more than just religion.”

–Mairé Gebhard ’18

*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: Marissa McFadden ’17

Making a difference in the here and now*

Marissa (left) during a study abroad program in India.

As a high school student in Groton, Conn., Marissa McFadden ’17

was looking for a college that offered a lively religion program and a strong reputation in the sciences—at the time she had her sights set on medical school.

“I had never been to Vermont as a kid, but I enjoy hiking and the outdoors, so the fact that UVM had a good medical school right on campus and a great rural atmosphere were really strong selling points for me.”

McFadden double-majored in biochemistry and religion, but felt a stronger tug to the latter discipline.

“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. I don’t think 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 as an activist.”

In her second year at UVM she concentrated fully on religious studies. She still sees herself working in a clinical setting as a social worker–she’s now pursuing an MSW through UVM’s College of Education and Social Services.

“Studying religion helps you empathize with people and what they are going through. It takes into account not just their belief systems but their cultural history, their stories, their circumstances. It provides me a way to bring the whole person into focus.”

*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!

Senior Spotlight 2018: Mairé Gebhard

Mairé Gebhard ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Mairé Gebhard ’18

This question, combined with a face full of confusion/wonder, will forever haunt me. It’s a hard question to answer, because so many things led to my decision. My father is a Presbyterian minister, my mother a self-proclaimed agnostic. I went to church every Sunday when I was growing up, however my parents were both constantly discussing and introducing other religions. I remember distinctly having a menorah, talking about Kwanza, my mom referencing different Hindu Gods, and my most fond memory of my mom reminding us every year on Christmas that the reason we celebrate the holiday when he we do actually because of ancient Indo-Iranian mythology and the God Mithras. I was constantly surrounded by discussions about religion.

When I got into middle school I began to reject religion pretty fiercely. When I was in high school and began going on college tours I told everyone I wanted to study Political Science. It wasn’t until my junior year when I took a religion course combined with a class called Human Geography (basically like a high school anthropology class) that my thoughts began to change. I distinctly remember the day I was touring colleges the summer before senior year and changed my answer to what I wanted to study. I said Religion. I came in declared and haven’t regretted it a single day.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I have no idea. My mind changes every other day! Honestly, I still have no clue “what I want to be when I grow up,” but I’ve come to realize (with the reminder of my mother and professors) that that’s okay. I’ll figure it out, or I won’t, and I’ll let you know in another 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?

Honestly, any class with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. Seriously. I think that every single student, everyone in our country really, needs to take a course on Islam. Religion and Empire fundamentally changed the way I think.

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

This year for my religion practicum and colloquium I wrote a paper titled “With God on Our Side: The American Flag and Patriotic Symbols in the American Christian Church” and have never had more fun writing a paper. If I could write a book I would expand on this research.

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

So many. 481 Main feels like home: because I came in declared a religion major, I have been going to that building since my first year at UVM. There is something comforting about the department, and I feel incredibly scholarly sitting around the table in the seminar room. From long chats about classes and life with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst, to existential crisis about paper topics with Professor Borchert, to feeling like a real scholar discussing theory with my colleagues—I will never forget my time at the religion department.

Senior Spotlight 2018: Simon Wolfe

Simon Wolfe ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Simon Wolfe ’18

I initially chose religion because I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, but at the time

I thought I might want to be a rabbi.  I stuck with it because religion turned out to encompass quite a lot, and I’ve always thought of it as the best parts of literature and history smooshed into one.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

No idea.  The world is big and scary and there’s somehow to much and not enough to do at the same time.

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 said for years that Intro to Islam with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst should be required for everyone in arts and sciences.  That course fundamentally changed the way I see not only Islam, not only religion, but the whole crazy entangled world all together.

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

I wish I could expand my term paper from Religion and Empire which was about the abolitionists Maria W Stewart and Angelina Grimke.  It would be titled something like The Nasty Christian Women of Abolition: Race, Gender, and Religion in the Discursive Struggle for Liberation.

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

No memories in particular, but its always been my favorite building on campus.  The seminar room and all its beautiful dark wood and old books have always made me feel very comfortable.  I had my first class ever in that room, a TAP course on the Bible with Professor Clarke.  Every other classroom has been something of a disappointment since then, but luckily religion classes end up in there with some regularity, and it’s always been a little spot of home on a campus that so often seems to value STEM over the humanities.  When/if I come back to visit campus, that will be the first and one of the few spots on my list.

Senior Spotlight 2018: Lydia Marchese

Lydia Marchese ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Lydia Marchese ’18 & Abby the Labby (not graduating)

I majored in religion because the subject has always intrigued me, I identify as a religious person, and I intend to continue my religious education with seminary in my post-graduation career.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Hopefully, in 10 years, I will be an ordained Deacon (or at least on track to become ordained) in the United Methodist Church, serving in either the New England or Chicago conference. Deacons wear a variety of hats and can work in many settings, but I am particularly interested in pastoral counseling and the intersections of faith and mental health.

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 perhaps the most difficult question on the list! I think if I had to recommend just one course that she absolutely could not miss out on, it would have to be Religion, Race & Ethnicity in America. Learning how ingrained religion is in our nation’s history and current events is indispensable for today’s citizens. Furthermore, learning about the intersections that race and ethnicity hold with religion, especially in the United States, is both fascinating and incredibly important to learn about considering our country’s current social and political climate.

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

I would love to write a book about being a Christian feminist and the different ways in which the two identities clash or cooperate with each other.

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

When the Religion Club was still in action, we had some lovely meetings and get togethers there. But when I think about times in 481 Main, no specific memories crop up, but rather feelings: feelings of support, honesty, and genuine caring for each other. The religion department really cares and supports their students in a unique way that other departments simply don’t.

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.