Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

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

– greta close
Greta Close ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

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

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

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

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

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

– hannah kiely
Hannah Kiely ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

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

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

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

– jake wilson
Jake Wilson ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

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

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Somewhere warmer than Burlington. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

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

– lena ginawi
Lena Ginawi ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

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

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

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

-Hannah nathan
Hannah Nathan ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

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

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Providing service to others. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight: a Series on our Graduating Students

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

– Alex Castellano
Alex Castellano ’22

Why did you major in Religion?

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

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight: a series on our graduating students

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 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.

There is no Capital “T” Truth: Traveling with Students Abroad

By Abra Clawson ‘19

Looking across at the Mihintale Buddha. All photos taken by the author.

“So, the other tour guide was wrong, then?” one of our students asked from the back of the group. The branches of an enormous Bodhi tree stretched above us, the fence around it decorated with strings of Buddhist flags. Located in Anuradhapura, the tree is said to be one of the oldest in the world. It was the first Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, planted using a branch from the tree in present-day India under which the Buddha reached enlightenment. The colors of the flags woven through the fences and branches were the subject of our discussion.

Our guide had just finished explaining the significance of the flag. Each color represented a different quality of the Buddha, he told the class. In his description, yellow was for the Buddha’s robes, orange for skin, and white for purity. The day before, a different tour guide in Polonnaruwa told us that the colors signified body parts of the Buddha. There, it was blue for eyes, orange for gums, white for teeth and bones, and red for blood. These colors come together in a final stripe to represent the Buddha’s multicolored aura.

Both men had authority as Sri Lankans and as official tour guides, yet the answers they provided conveyed the complications of searching for a single, “true” Sri Lankan reality.

Questions about the colors of monks’ robes elicited similarly mixed responses. One man in a small village near Kandy told us the differences in color is due to a monk’s status, with the head monk in the village wearing maroon while lower-status monks were orange. Days later beneath the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, the class was told that monks are just given whatever robes are available, and that the colors do not mean anything beyond what resources are offered. His answer also implied that some colors were more expensive to produce than others.

Taken aback by the contrast in the multitudes of answers from guides and locals we had talked to, some students immediately sought to find and label one answer as the “correct” one. They were asking questions which should have simple, concrete answers. Or so it seemed. This assumption is ultimately what led to the comment that one of the other guides had given us incorrect information the day before.

Later in the evening, after leaving the Bodhi tree behind, we clambered back onto our bus in order to drive to Mihintale. About a half hour’s drive from Anuradhapura, Mihintale is known as the site where Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka.

 

We were met in the parking lot by a monk who would be our tour guide, and would later be referred to as “everyone’s favorite.” He told us he was a “liberal, open minded” monk, and that he would answer any and all questions candidly.

The students immediately took to his openness, asking questions about the history of Mihintale, his own path as a monk, and the workings of the monastery. As our conversation continued over tea, he challenged some of the assumptions that students brought with them, especially about how and why people become monks. In our guide’s case, he had asked his mother to allow him to join the monastic community when he was 12 years old, going against his family’s wishes.

From the beginning, one of the goals of the UVM travel study course “Travel Writing in Sri Lanka” was to convey the various realities of this South Asian country and its people. In a country that has been involved in a 30-year civil conflict which ended barely a decade ago, it is especially important to acknowledge the differing experiences and stories of people living there. In addition, this context asks us to question why we hear certain kinds of answers, and maybe don’t hear others. Which histories are promoted, and which are pushed to the side as less valid – less “Sri Lankan”?

Over the course of our two weeks in Sri Lanka, this theme of stories and capital “T” Truth kept coming up. This culminated at the International Buddhist Museum in Kandy. As the Teaching Assistant for the travel writing class, I welcomed the opportunity to explore the museum by myself for an hour or so, while our class was observing and writing about the Temple of the Tooth complex across the street. As a religion major, I was intrigued by what information would be offered in the museum, and how it would connect to classes I have taken back in Vermont.

The first four rooms of the museum are all designed to explain the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the significance of various sites around the country. After traveling through this detailed description of Sri Lankan Buddhism, the visitor is expelled into the main hall, from which you can continue through the ground floor through rooms with artifacts from India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Or, you can walk up the central staircase to rooms on Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. This format of the museum in some ways mirrors the spread of Buddhism, and is accompanied by maps showing exactly how the different forms travelled across the continent. What was most interesting to me about this museum was the message conveyed about Buddhism which worked to give further authority to Buddhism in Sri Lanka specifically.

Take, for example, the single room containing objects from Nepal. Of the 15 or so pictures and items on display, the majority were from Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. The introductory panel to the room stated that Theravada monks in Nepal are the most respected, although they consist of a much smaller population than the Tibetan or “Lamaist” monks. The only artefacts related to forms of Buddhism found in the Himalayas were a picture of Swayambhunath stupa and a model of Boudhanath stupa, both of which are in the Kathmandu valley. This dynamic stuck out to me because Theravada Buddhism is what exists in Sri Lanka, and is highlighted in the museum as being most important Nepal, even though it is the minority of Buddhists there. Thus, the museum seemed to be primarily an exercise of nationalism, even as it taught visitors about Buddhism throughout the world.

Museums are spaces which are widely assumed to be secular, objective, and authoritative – or close to it. The International Buddhist Museum calls each of these qualities into question. Walking its halls, I once again found myself questioning how and why certain Sri Lankan realities become more legitimate or popularized than others. Sri Lankan organizations often promote a unified national identity, yet little attention is given to the minority Tamil population that is predominantly Hindu. It has become a recurring discourse of “oh, and also…” which can be seen everywhere from the nation’s constitution (in reference to language and religion) to the conversations of people on the street. Yet in reality there is no single “Sri Lankan” way of life. This was made clear to our class again and again, with every contradicting explanation and every person we met.

Looking back, Mihintale was a turning point at which many students began to realize that they would never find the one capital-t True answer to their questions, and that a more interesting project is to look at the nature of the conflicting responses. Perhaps it was the openness of our favorite Monk-tour guide that allowed them to begin to shed their obsession with objectivity and their grip on Western frames of thinking. Perhaps it was the beauty of the dagobas and mountains at sundown. Either way, we left Mihintale with our energy refocused towards seeking out and accepting difference and small “t” contextual truths.

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!