What Have Our Alumni Done with the Religious Studies Major?

Joe Paolelli '11

The Religious Studies program at Northwestern provided me with a superb general knowledge of the major world religions. I gained this benefit not chiefly through rote memorization, but through the department's operating philosophy of immersion in the worldview of another. Texts and lectures encouraged me to temporarily bracket my own views and imagine the world through the lens of another religion. This exercise of empathy- understanding without necessarily agreeing—was valuable in my own growth as a person, but was also an excellent way to learn about other religious traditions. Finally, it gave me a greater appreciation of my own religion. When we take something wonderful for granted, we must discover what sets apart in order to appreciate it anew. I am currently seeking an MA in Theology to prepare me to teach religion at a Catholic high school. Northwestern provided an excellent foundation for this endeavor, forging me into a well-rounded and knowledgeable student of religion. To my future students, I hope to pass on the value of respect for other religions, while emphasizing the importance of holding fast to one's own faith. My experience in Religious Studies reinforced the importance of both.

 

Courtney D. Sharpe '09

I stumbled into the Religion major halfway through college. I found myself buying boxed sets of religious documentaries, watching them and enjoying the experience. At the time it seemed fitting that I should align my passion with my course of study. I have since found that the value of a liberal arts education is that the same is true of life; following your interests should create a path for you to live your passions daily.

After graduation I joined the Peace Corps as a Youth Development Volunteer in Morocco. I am fortunate in that I was able to see an immediate and direct benefit to my studies; I focused on the Abrahamic traditions with an emphasis on Islam. Though Morocco was unfamiliar to me understanding the religious underpinnings of the society facilitated my adjustment to the country. Upon my return to the United States I wanted to branch into work with immigrant communities. I became a mentor to a Christian refugee from Iraq and found employment through AmeriCorps at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Both opportunities have placed me in situations where religious awareness and cultural sensitivity have been of utmost importance. Having a greater purview of others’ religious observances brings what might have been surface level interactions to a deeper level more quickly. I could not be happier with my choice of study—it benefits me every day.

Amy Hirschtick '07

Before my doctoral exams, I liked to joke with my colleagues that my worst fear was being asked, “What is religion?” It wasn’t that I had no answer, but far too many. Five years into my graduate degree in Religious Studies, nine years after I first enrolled in a Religious Studies class at Northwestern, I still find no other endeavor as engaging, enriching, and enthralling as the study of religion. Majoring in Religious Studies was a fantastic way to come to know the world. Among the most valuable skills I took away from studying religion at Northwestern was the ability to comprehend the worldviews of my fellow humans. I have been fortunate enough to discuss the great Goddess with her devotees on the banks of the Ganges, to watch Hare Krishnas chanting in the streets of London, and to break bread with Sikhs at an Indianapolis Gurudwara. In this era of globalization, appreciating religious difference is perhaps more crucial than ever. Finally, as a politically-conscious citizen, the study of religion enables me to critically assess religious politics and identities in an increasingly post-secular world. When I started Northwestern as a curious freshman, I never realized that I would dedicate my 20s (and hopefully beyond) to the study of religion. Almost ten years later, I can think of no aspect of my personal or professional life that was not advanced by the mission of Religious Studies: to understand, appreciate, and explain the great spectrum of human belief and practice.

 

Chris Orvin '05

You should study religion if you think life is worth engaging deeply, if you feel - somewhat instinctively and maybe vaguely - that something is Not Quite Right, if you know that there can be elevated moments where life feels suddenly Right. You should study religion if you really want to dive down into the heart of the mystery of what it means to be alive, the great existential dilemma of having to live a life that is limited. Religion is principally about transformation and fulfillment: about the full actualization of human spirit, the radical expansion of being that comes when the false “self” of our daily lives is absorbed in the great Self beyond selfishness. This is, fundamentally, the point of our living, and in the final analysis, all that matters. Study what you like. At the end of your workday you will have to come home and address the subdued anxiety of having to live a life under the dangling sword of Why. These religions, these thousand year old tools, have been honed by generations to do this fundamental task of answering this gnawing sense of unease. But embark on this journey with no illusions: Religious Studies will not get you to that truth beyond true and false; it is the finger pointing to the moon, not the Moon itself. It's a journey that takes some courage, some wrestling with doubt, and some sense of adventurousness, but it will serve you well your entire life.

 

Annie Little (Johnson) '03 

My ultimate plan while in college was to get into a good law school. From what attorneys and law students had told me, all I needed to do was major in something I enjoyed and the good grades would follow. They also mentioned that philosophy would be helpful. While I found philosophy classes interesting, they were also very dry. Religion, however, was like philosophy brought to life. One of my favorite aspects of Religious Studies, second only to the stellar faculty, was the multi-disciplinary approach which drew on and integrated religion and theology with sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, economics, politics, women's studies, environmental studies, pop culture, current events...and the list goes on. This approach honed my analytical reasoning and critical thinking abilities while developing my research and writing skills, all of which have been crucial to my success in law school and as an attorney. While my Religious Studies major has paid for itself by preparing me for the legal profession, its real value has been in reminding me that the so-called ultimate questions in life are those most worth considering. Among such questions is, "What is one's purpose in the universe?" Feeling unfulfilled in my legal career and without a meaningful purpose, I recently decided to find my passion work. Such exploration led me to the conclusion that I need a new career that fully aligns with my personal values. Accordingly, I am in the process of launching my own life coaching business and loving every second!

 

Raman Khanna, MD '02

I came to religious studies the way many come to religion itself: serendipitously. In the days before electronic registration, we lined up in Blomquist auditorium and waited in lines labeled "History", "Physics", etc. to sign up for our required courses. As I was halfway into the Political Science line, "Introduction to International Relations" was announced as closed. I meandered to the front and as I did, the woman at the adjacent Religion desk called out--"why not take New Testament Origins, it's at the same time as IIR." I thought, why not? The rest was history. I proceeded to take classes in Christian Martyrs, Islam in America, Native American traditions, Zen Buddhism, Confucianism/Daoism/Chinese thought. Comparative religious studies was a window into the most important questions humankind has ever posed--why are we here, how do we make sense of and transcend suffering--and how various individuals had sought to answer these questions through experience and revelation, and situate those answers in the context of both theory and practice.

Though my trade is now medicine, I continue to wrestle with these questions, both at work and outside of it. Most especially my work with the Hindu American Foundation, an organization dedicated to fostering a pluralistic public space that does not ignore the non-Abrahamic traditions, calls out the religion major in me, again and again. The analytical techniques and breadth of knowledge I learned from Drs. Taylor, Ziporyn, and Kinnard have helped me enormously in both interfaith understanding and in looking into my own Hindu beliefs and practices and articulating them more effectively. For these skills and for this knowledge, I will always be grateful to these faculty, and to the department as a whole.

 

Neela E. Kale '01

My interest in the “big questions” that humankind seeks to address through religion drew me to study religion. Although I was raised a Catholic Christian, my family and friends come from diverse backgrounds. Thus I appreciated the opportunity to explore the world’s great religious traditions in an academic rather than confessional setting. Along the way I learned to read and write well, to listen and speak well, and to evaluate and propose arguments – the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. I recommend the religion major to anyone, believer or not, who is interested in the way religion shapes us as individuals, communities and cultures. Recent world events only reinforce the importance of understanding the potential of religion at its best and the peril of religion at its worst. 

A chance encounter on study abroad in Mexico led to my senior honors thesis on the role of the Catholic Church in the Mexican indigenous movement and then to three and a half years of volunteer service there. On returning to the United States I entered seminary and earned a Master of Divinity. Since then I have worked in Catholic religious education, serving primarily a Mexican immigrant population. The perspective gained from a broader look at world religions, in a secular context, has proved invaluable in this work. Learning about the paths of others gave me the necessary insight to claim the path that is my own and to help others to do so in my career.

 

Emily Grossi '98

I entered Northwestern intending to study biology. Serendipitously, organic chemistry left me uninspired, and, to complete a requirement, I enrolled in an introductory course on world religions taught by Prof Kieckhefer. That class quickly changed my academic direction and impacted my life tremendously. Prof Kieckhefer was a wonderful instructor who took time to truly get to know and mentor his students. I spoke to him often about my burgeoning interest in pursuing Religious Studies as a major but my concurrent fear of doing so because I didn’t want to “preach or teach” following graduation. Ultimately, I took the plunge, and as he’d suspected, studying religion made me feel intellectually engaged and alive in a way I hadn’t previously. It was a new lens through which to understand people, cultures, morality, behavior. Having grown up agnostic in a very religious Southern town, I’d often felt like a confused outsider, and Religion courses enabled me to explore some of those experiences in academic and ethnographic ways. The writing-intensive coursework honed my critical writing skills which helped enormously at NU and in post-graduate study: though I pursued master’s in two fields largely unrelated to religion, the analytical and writing abilities I’d obtained in college benefitted me greatly and still do (I write a food blog). Religion continues to fascinate me, and though still a non-believer, I engage with it intellectually as often as possible. Presently, for example, I’m co-chair of the Quaker Life Committee at my son’s school which has made our family’s experience there all the richer.

 

Nicholas Butowski, MD '95

I am a neuro-oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco responsible for research and patient care as it pertains to people with cancer of the brain and spine. My decision to major in Religious Studies is among the shrewdest decisions of my life and has paid dividends both professionally and personally. The knowledge base provided by my major led to a tenacity of purpose in my endeavor to improve the lives of my patients beyond that provided by medical treatments alone. Rather, it was through my study of belief and cultural systems as they relate to humanity, and to that beyond, which taught me that it is through being astute to my patients’ beliefs and hopes that I most help them get out of bed every day. Moreover, as I look back on what I have learned over the years, it was my major that provided the comfort that happiness lay not in obedience to ritual but in the slow, clumsy, and perhaps error-strewn working out of a path. Lastly, my major was FUN. My peers in medicine are near constantly reminding me that I am lucky that I majored in something “enjoyable.” After all, it is fun to know how to think, how to learn, the history thereof, and the tools and language necessary to connect with patients and people alike. What else is there in life?


Cynthia Barker Cox '87

Majoring in Religious Studies at Northwestern provided me with an excellent education that has continually served me well over the last 25 years.  It was not the most obvious path to my current career as a veterinarian, but I believe that it prepared me for veterinary studies better than my classmates’ typical majors in biology or other physical sciences. I developed writing and critical thinking skills that were beneficial throughout my post-graduate education.  It also gave me a larger perspective on religion and other cultural phenomena that have helped me to navigate the ethical complexities associated with a medical field, in addition to understanding the issues behind many contemporary conflicts and events. The program was academically challenging and rigorous; so much so that I was exceptionally well-prepared for the disciple required to succeed in veterinary school.  On a professional and personal level, I attribute my development of interpersonal skills and ability to empathize in large part to learning about such a fundamental human and cultural phenomenon.  I am currently in several leadership positions within the veterinary community: I am treasurer for the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, a member of the Organizing Committee for Shelter Medicine, and the Head Shelter Veterinarian for the MSPCA.  I attribute my ability to lead and negotiate the complex issues that arise in these positions to the incomparable education I received from the brilliant and always accessible faculty in the Religious Studies department at Northwestern. 

 

Donald Wright Fink, Jr.  '79

Recently, I came across a letter dated 02-June-1978 addressed to my parents from the Director of Undergraduate Studies, History & Literature of Religions stating the department was “delighted to inform you that we have invited Donald to membership in our Honors Seminar”. Though never quite being able to understand why I chose to major in the religious studies, this achievement was nonetheless a source of parental pride for 30+ years. Religion is one of those uniquely human attributes, dependent upon a complexity of cognitive ability and contemplation that has a broad impact traversing political, social, and cultural boundaries. Attending to the origins, precepts and practices of the world’s religions can facilitate an understanding of the intricacies of interpersonal relationships that occur on the micro as well as macro-scales. I was privileged to have the late Dr. Edmund Perry as a professor. I continue to hold him in the highest esteem. He was a remarkable educator who taught me the value of critical, disciplined thinking and demonstrated with eloquence, the power of verbal communication. As a student at Northwestern, I envisioned myself entering the field of medicine while others offered I would do well in ministry. I am doing some of both. I evaluate novel stem cell-based therapies being developed for clinical investigation in my role as regulatory scientist for the Food and Drug Administration. I am also involved in musical ministry at my local church. Cultivating a liberal arts education was enriching and allowed me to pursue study in an area about which I was passionately curious (quest for the historical Jesus). My experience provided me the basic tools that have enabled me to achieve a high level of success in my current vocation.


Mary Belfry Hansley  '67

I transferred from Mt. Holyoke into the Class of 1966 my junior year, I actually extended my time at Northwestern by a summer and extra semester as I changed my major from Mathematics and Chemistry to History and Literature of Religions and Anthropology.

Threading through my entire life has been the sense that I wanted to know the meaning of the 'whole' - wanted to find something to which everything else would relate, to which everything was connected.  Although I did not recognize myself to be a relational thinker, I did recognize that such a 'framework' was necessary for me to function at my best.  Religion (from the root meaning 'to bind back') was the only discipline that had the 'whole' embedded in its subject matter.   I also recognized that religion is that discipline from which ethical and moral directions are generated.  This led me to see that I was learning the answers to 'Who/Whose am I?' and, therefore, 'what am I to do?'   (Anthropology studies also enlivened these questions as I explored how human beings organize themselves.)

 

Thank you to all Northwestern University Religious Studies Major Alumni who sent us profiles for this page! Are you a Northwestern religious studies major alumnus reading about your fellow alums? Please contact us to have your name and profile included on the page. Thank you. --

Sarah Jacoby, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and website coordinator

 

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December 17, 2012