Senior Spotlight: Marissa McFadden ’17

Marissa McFadden in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re proud to announce that Marissa McFadden is one of this year’s recipients of the Department’s Outstanding Senior Award. 


Why did you major in Religion?

Marissa McFadden ’17 (left) during a study abroad program in India.

Being a religion major is the one part of my life that has not changed these past four years. I started my first year at UVM as a biochemistry and religion double major. I primarily majored in religion because I genuinely had a passion for thinking about world systems, languages, cultures, interactions and intersectionalities. But also, I thought that it would be a unique characteristic that I could present to medical school admissions. In high school I had an ounce of exposure to “world religions” and I knew that I wanted to take religion classes at whatever school I decided to go to. I do not think that I consciously knew it then, but my decision to major in religion was the beginning of my move away from the sciences, and more towards thinking about the world in an activist and highly critical manner. Religion is what countered my work in science and fostered my interest, and eventual switch from biochemistry to history, and eventually, social work. I have also found all of the Religion faculty members, even the ones that I have not had as professors, to be endlessly encouraging and supportive of my interests, goals, and wellbeing. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I see myself working as a social worker in Vermont communities of high refugee and/or immigrant and/or low-income populations. I want to work on improving public health and academic equity in communities around northern and rural Vermont. I see myself critically thinking and applying all that I have learned in history and religion–but especially religion, to my work in a field which will presumably be filled with experiences, big questions, theories, intersectionalities, and policies relating to critical race theory, immigration, gender, culture, religious practice, and human rights.

[Editor’s note: Marissa will begin work toward her goals this Fall as a Master of Social Work candidate at UVM!]

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

Even thought it is a requirement, I would highly recommend a theory course, like Interpretation of Religion with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. I took this course as a first year, with one intro religion course on my transcript. When I realized what I had gotten myself into, it absolutely scared me to death. I felt like this class was far beyond my years and I had no idea that it was a-typical for a first year to take this course. But, I loved every second of that class. It is the class where I learned how to think critically and develop my voice as a scholar of religion, and as an activist. Most importantly, it made me work hard, but not without enjoying the work that I was doing. I think about and use the things that I learned in that class on a daily basis and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life.

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

If I could write any book, it would be about the environmental devastation and public health injustices that have resulted from the U.S. military occupation in Vieques, Puerto Rico during the era of the Manhattan Project up through the early 2000s. There is very little scholarship on this and I think that writing a book on this topic would bring my history and religion majors together with my interests in public health, social work, and the history of my own family.

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

481 Main is the ultimate home away from home. I think I’ve spent some portion of at least 75% of my total waking days in the religion department over the years; mostly doing homework or reading… and an occasional nap on the couches. But the conversations I have had in that building are by far, my favorite—there is just something magical about that seminar room—and every professor in the department!

 

Religion@UVM: the Class of 2016

Our most recent alumni graduated on May 22, 2016, and–while we say this annually–we couldn’t be prouder of this accomplished set of students.

They’ve presented (and even organized) at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in various leadership positions in our undergraduate Religious Studies Club, served organizations across the University, held jobs, did community service, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class was our second to complete the new REL202 and REL203 sequence, which comprises a practicum for extended research and a colloquium, where one’s research is revised and expanded in the context of the graduating cohort and a faculty mentor. These research projects included work on defining religion China, religion and state politics in Tibet, colonial categorization of religion in Jamaica, religion and/in the transatlantic slave trade, the politics of Nazi art seizures, conversion of German Jews in the modern era, vodou in the media, and state-funded, faith-based work with refugees. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Trainor, who hosted a potluck for our cohort at his home.

Class of '16 potluck at Prof. Trainor's house

Class of ’16 potluck at Prof. Trainor’s house

Prof. Trainor may have been this cohort’s formal usher from student to alumni, but the whole department has, in the course of four years, watched them wrestle with ideas about, around, and beyond the study of religion. We will miss them in our home at 481 Main Street, and hope they remain in touch as their post-UVM futures become realities.

As is our ritual, the Department of Religion hosted a reception for our graduating students (majors and minors) and their families at the Waterman Manor after Commencement. Here are a few scenes of that party, with hopes we get to gather together again soon. Congratulations, Class of 2016!

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CAS Honors Awards 2016 Event

CAS Honors Awards 2016 Event

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Senior Spotlight: Stephen Franze

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


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


Why did you major in Religion?

Stephen Franze '16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

Stephen Franze ’16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

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

 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight: Cristina MacKinnon

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

Cristina MacKinnon '16

Cristina MacKinnon ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

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

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight: Lily Fedorko

Lily Fedorko in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Lily Fedorko ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

When considering a major at the University of Vermont, I was stuck because my interests derived from history, politics, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology. I found that I could pursue all of those subjects in the religion department.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I hope to be living abroad and pursuing a career in the direction/administration of a Museum.

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 have to ask which subject she’s most interested in. I love religious history and if she is likeminded – she cannot miss Anne Clark’s Christianity course. But if she wants to engage with a text through a more conversational course, she shouldn’t miss studying with Sugarman.

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

It would be on post-Holocaust art resistution and its effects on Jewish identity recreation. It is also the subject of my colloquium paper (on a much smaller scale). I have fallen in love with the topic and want (and hope) to pursue it past this one paper.

Religion@UVM: The Class of 2015

Our Class of 2015 graduated on May 17, 2015. As we’ve come to know and love, they weren’t shy in proclaiming their success!

They are an accomplished bunch! As we featured before, Maeve Herrick won the Robert D. Benedict Award for the Best Essay in the Field of International Affairs. Kathryn Meader received the Outstanding Senior in Religion Award. At commencement, the Class of 2015–and their families and friends–learned that Joseph Oteng was a recipient of the prestigious Class of ’67 award. We are always honored to our students so visibly recognized for their hard work and achievements.

This class has impressed us throughout their careers. They’ve presented at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in our undergraduate Religion Club, served organizations across the University, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class, too, had the special distinction of helping us launch our new REL202 and REL203 sequence, which comprises a practicum for extended research and a colloquium, where one’s research is revised and expanded in the context of the graduating cohort and a faculty mentor. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Borchert, who took the seniors bowling, perhaps indelibly making a pin the Class of ’15 totem.

We’ve spent the better part of four years listening to these students argue, engage, and wrestle with ideas ranging from religion and pop culture in America to racialized religious formations to Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka to the very term “religion” itself. As their faculty, we’ve listened to their presentations and papers, read their blog posts and research, and written recommendation letters. Prof. Borchert even saw them bowl. These are animated, thoughtful students alumni, and we cannot wait to see what lies in store for them as their post-UVM lives unfold.

We don’t know what comes next, but we hope the Class of ’15 keeps in touch; we hope some of them will be featured as alumni bloggers soon; but we ask very little–only that they continue to think religion, with breadth and depth, in whatever comes next.


As is our ritual, the department hosted a post-commencement reception for our graduates and their loved ones. These are a selection of the photos; for more, visit our Facebook page here.

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Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, graduate Zach Warner, and Prof. Thomas Chipumuro

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graduate Shakir Stephen

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graduate Maeve Herrick, Prof. Brennan, and Prof. Andrus

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Profs. Trainor and Andrus, graduate Kathryn Meader, Profs. Borchert and Brennan

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The Class of 2015! Joey Oteng, Kathryn Meader, Maeve Herrick, Shakir Stephen, and Zach Warner

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Prof. Thomas Chipumuro and graduate Joey Oteng

 

Senior op-ed highlights Religion

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Joey Oteng ’15 (image via UVM Orientation website)

In a recent article in the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper, senior religion major Joey Oteng discussed religion and religion classes, and asked his readers to join the conversations so prevalent here at 481 Main Street.

Joey’s piece, “Why Religion Should be Discussed,” highlights some of the key questions religion majors are asked to tackle: religion in the public sphere; appropriation, adaptation, and adoption within and across religious traditions; how to talk about a subject fraught with politics and that might transgress mores of “polite dinner conversation.”

He wrote:

“We should want to study religion because it is all around us. Daily rituals as simple of rolling over every morning to check your phone, to mindful practices of yoga or even the culturally appropriated Hindu spring festival of Holi repurposed as secular color runs.”

Do read his whole piece, and then be sure to follow his advice: join us in the conversation.

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You majored in religion? So… You’re a priest?

Blaine Billingsley

Blaine Billingsley, Religion Alumnus

If you haven’t heard of Google you’ve been living as an ascetic in the desert–St. Antony style!–for the last 15 years. Blaine Billingsley, one of the UVM Religion Department’s alumni, is currently working as designer for Gmail–and to be completely honest, before hearing him speak I had no idea how he got there.

In a way, Blaine stumbled upon his position at Google. With no experience in coding (apart from what all of the Myspace generation had of HTML), Blaine was living in Austin, Texas when a friend suggested they move to San Fransisco. Within weeks Blaine was living on the edge of Silicon Valley working at a low budget startup learning the ropes of Excel data entry. Blaine laughingly told us that he told his interviewer that he was “EXCEL-ent” and knew exactly what he was he was doing… but he didn’t. He “EXCEL-ed” anyway, and eventually landed at Google.

Since joining Google, Blaine has actually done some interviewing himself as a hirer for Google. He says that Liberal Arts students are at the top of his list of candidates. He remarked that the majors in the humanities create “good thinkers.” He expressed that having been a religion major, he sees the world creatively and he brings new ideas to the (tech) table. Speaking with him was a pleasure and I personally found it reassuring that while building resumes is important, building people is vital as part of higher education.

Blaine says that when someone reads your resume and sees “Religion” as your major, they often ask if you are a priest – once you explain you’re not, you get the opportunity to explain what it is you actually know from college. “When you major in business, people have an idea of what you learned in college. But when you major in religion, you get to set those expectations of what a religion major does,” Blaine said.

After this discussion, we moved on to the most important bit: what was his most notable Sugarman story? Blaine’s response: Upon graduating from high school he deferred for a semester to trek around Europe (I’m envious). While in a crummy Venice hostel he met two Americans and told him he would be heading to UVM in the spring. They immediately replied: YOU HAVE TO TAKE A CLASS WITH SUGARMAN! So now with Sugarman in mind, he headed to Germany where he met ANOTHER UVM pal who also urged this soon to be religion undergrad to absolutely NOT–under any circumstances–miss out on the Sugarman experience.

It’s rare that current students get to hear directly from alumni, and as a current REL major, it was refreshing and a relief to hear of success for religion majors (especially outside of academia). Look out Google, I may not know business or high-level tech, but I’ll soon have the same credentials as Blaine.

Interested in more events like this? Join the RelStuds (or Religious Studies Club)! Check us out on instagram: @relstuds or on Facebook.

Spreading the Good News: AAR’s Religious Studies Major Survey

As some of you know, we here in the Religion Department–thanks to Kevin Trainor‘s successful grant application–participated in the American Academy of Religion‘s Survey of the Long-Term Impacts of the Religious Studies Major. Here’s what AAR says about the purpose of the survey

The focus of the survey is not merely upon what former majors are currently doing, but also upon what they learned (and what they wish they had learned), what parts of the major they have found to be useful, and how the study of religion has shaped their values and actions.

We are thrilled to report that of our roughly 330 alumni, 116 participated in the survey; our 58% response rate far outpaced the 37% response rate for the survey as a whole. Not only does this (statistically significant) data help us pinpoint what we do well so that we might keep on doing it, but in the couple of months we’ve had the results, it has already helped us think critically about where we might better serve our current and future students. We are so grateful to all those who participated, and as we continue to sift through the data and comments, we will make available additional information.

Here are some highlights:
(click the images to enlarge)

  • Our alumni report a 95.7% employment rate, which is more than 10% higher than the national religion major data (82.3%).

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  • Our alumni work in a variety of fields, from medicine to education to environmental science. The following represent the top areas of employment (i.e., above 7% of respondents):

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  •  The majority of our alumni report being satisfied or extremely satisfied with their Religion degrees:

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  •  And, our alumni overwhelmingly agree that their education contributes to their quality of life.

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This last chart is sure to please Prof. Richard Sugarman, who not long ago quipped to Seven Days that:

“Right now everybody is concerned with making a living. Perfectly understandable,” he says. “But you also have to make a life.”

We are pleased to see that our alums seem to be making both a living and a life.

To those who participated: thank you! We were happy to hear from you–and, well, about you. Look forward to us reaching out again, with opportunities to keep us posted on your life, get involved with students as well as other alumni, and perhaps even contribute to this blog.

Religion@UVM 2014 Graduates

DSC_0011On Sunday, May 18, we celebrated and congratulated our Class of 2014 graduates! Many of these students had been with us from the beginning of their college careers; some had moved from the minor to the major; and others still figured out rather late in the game that they had (surprisingly!) taken enough credits to declare a second major in Religion. However they started, all of them finished strongly, and as a department, we are proud of their accomplishments, and eager to hear what they both take on and achieve next.

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Prof. Vicki Brennan with graduate Makenzy Smith

This senior cohort participated in the REL201: Senior Seminar, and wrote intensive research projects as part of their capstone experience. As in years past, the projects built upon both student’s individual interests and coursework experience in the study of religion–which means they produced projects that ranged in scope, method, and theoretical frameworks. While not exhaustive, here’s a sampling of the topics our graduates covered:

  • Buddhist monastic reform movements and nationalism in Thailand
  • analytical perspectives on Nigerian Christian deliverance narratives
  • UVM’s “Healing Touch” course and its place in the curriculum
  • Holocaust narratives and Jewish practice
  • social media, religion, and the NFL

The breadth of their projects certainly reflects the breadth of their interests, but it may belie, at quick glance, the depth with which these recent graduates approach the study of religion, in these projects and in their everyday conversations.

Colin Bradley with Prof. Richard Sugarman

Colin Bradley with Prof. Richard Sugarman

And while this statement itself seems a platitude, we’ve spent the better part of four years listening to them hash out their ideas! Believe us: these are students who cannot help but think religion. We hope they’ll keep in touch, we hope some of them will be featured as alumni bloggers soon, but we ask very little–only that they continue to think religion, with breadth and depth, in whatever comes next.