Students throughout the Divinity School—in all four degree programs, in all eleven areas of study, and at all points of progress—are engaged in the tasks of reading, thinking, posing questions, following leads, arguing points, and trying to shift perspectives on materials familiar and esoteric. And they are all somehow trying to get a handle on what religion is and why it matters that we understand it in continually better ways. We invited a cross-section of our current students to share their perspectives on life and work in Swift Hall and its contexts. Further down the page, get to know Dean Margaret M. Mitchell and Dean of Students Teresa Hord Owens.
Hannah Campbell Gustafson, MDiv Student
"I chose to attend Chicago for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I wanted to attend a grad school where I could do a dual degree MDiv and MSW (which I am doing here, in a 4 year program with the SSA!). I wanted an environment that was going to provide intellectual challenges in ways that my two years since graduating from college have not. I was very ready to return to the Midwest after a year on each coast, and was excited about moving to a big city. I also have a familial history at this institution and in this city. I love that I am spending time in the city where my dad and grandma grew up, and in the neighborhood where one grandpa got an MDiv and the other got a PhD."
Chime Lama, MA Student
"I have learned a great deal in the short time I have been at the Divinity School. The rigorous course work and the swift pace of the quarter system keeps class dynamic and engaging. Although classes may feel demanding I have found that professors are willing to help and classmates are happy to discuss the material and ideas with one another. My most enjoyable experiences have been getting to know the excellent people that make up the Divinity School community."
Steven Philp, MDiv Alumnus ('14)
"I knew that my three years at the Divinity School would be challenging; coming to the University of Chicago was a commitment to push myself academically, socially, and spiritually. As the first Jewish Master of Divinity student, I have had to blaze a few trails – from reformulating the core requirements to reflect my faith commitments, to finding a synagogue for my second year placement. As a convert, I am used to being a border crosser; however I have found that carving your own path can be an isolating experience. Yet from the moment I stepped on campus, I knew I was part of a family; the Divinity School is a remarkably intimate and supportive environment. The faculty and staff have a strict open door policy, and both the Dean and the Dean of Students know each student by name. Reverend Lindner – the Director of the Ministry Program – regularly invites students to her home for meals. Although one is challenged at the Divinity School, I have never had to face obstacles alone. Rather, I am able to approach problems with the tools that I have been equipped with through my classes and extracurricular experiences, knowing that I have a strong and affirming support network behind me."
Hector Varela-Rios, MA Student
"I needed the best fit for my life, and Swift Hall was it: the program (academics, faculty, resources) is one of the best in the country; UChicago is a top-notch research institution; Chicago is a fabulous city; suburban life here offered great opportunities for my teenage sons and young adult daughter (who hopefully will attend University of Illinois as a grad student in 2016); my wife thankfully found employment easily. But, in the end, it was the people I met during the Prospective Students' Day that made the difference. From current students to Dean Mitchell, I, an uncommon 'freshman' by many standards, was personally welcomed and encouraged to attend. That 'sealed the deal' for me."
Sunil Yadav, MDiv Student
"I actually was not planning on attending the University of Chicago Divinity School when the University offered me admission to the program. Based on my limited web interaction, I had perceived the Divinity School at the University of Chicago to be mostly "Western Traditions" oriented and "limited" for multi-faith based learning, as my primary interests lie in multi-faith engagement. However, I was proven very wrong when I visited the campus on Prospective Students Day and met current faculty and students. Especially, the warm welcome from a student body that was fairly diverse in academic interests and religious traditions encouraged me. In addition, the sense of commitment that I received from the Ministry Program Director and other faculty toward fostering multi-faith learning and scholarship at the Divinity School really impressed me. I had found a place where I was to be intellectually challenged and vocationally fostered."
Emily Crews, PhD Student in History of Religions
"Although I applied and was accepted to a number of other programs for the masters, I was very compelled by the Div School's reputation for a stellar faculty and a strong theoretical approach to the study of religion. After visiting and meeting with several professors and the dean of students, I was convinced that there was no better place to prepare me for doctoral programs. After two years as a master's student, I had become a part of a lively and highly rigorous community of scholars and couldn't imagine pursuing my doctoral degree anywhere else . . . My goal is, of course, to become a genius on a global scale. Failing that, I hope to become a professor at a college or university that values independent thought and the art of teaching, and to produce work that contributes positively to the discussion of religion, gender, and health in Africa. Additionally, I plan to continue work with development organizations to tailor their HIV and AIDS programs to the cultural and religious nuances of the communities they serve."
Sean Hannan, PhD Student in History of Christianity
"I was originally working in more narrowly defined History departments, but along the way I realized that most of my main research concerns could be addressed through a closer focus on Augustine of Hippo. A divinity school seemed like a good place to familiarize myself with a broad batch of approaches to Augustine, ranging from the historical to the theological to the philosophical. What drew me to Chicago’s Divinity School in particular was primarily the quality of its teaching faculty."
Dalmar Hussein, PhD Student in Philosophy of Religions
"My acceptance into the PhD program nicely summarizes one of the things I greatly value about the Divinity School: the diversity of its student and faculty bodies. Before enrolling in the MA program, I had never taken a course resembling anything in religious studies. I had, besides this, only one philosophy class under my belt - from back in college, where I was, of all things, a business major. My experience shows, I think, how much this School values hard work and an open mind, and the chances that it will take to bring in scholars who aren't afraid to think outside their comfort zones. If I count this as a "highlight" of my academic work, I do so for the following reason: it's an indication that my work, because (and not "in spite of" the fact that) it comes from a different perspective, can (and already has) contributed to a scholarly discussion about religion."
Michael Le Chevallier, PhD Student in Religious Ethics
"Chicago is an incredibly livable city. Even as it lacks the hiking typical of my native Oregon, I've been able to get my nature fix by heading to the lake. Further, I've enjoyed the surreal experience of biking next to skyscrapers, and finding quiet bird reserves where you can almost imagine the city isn't there. I've loved the music life here, and manage by bike, by public transit, and with the occasional taxi to explore the city through it in every season. My first winter was tough, but I've subsequently managed after gaining an affection for coco, smart wool and peacoats."
Lauren Osborne, PhD Student in Islamic Studies
"I am consistently inspired through my interactions with my colleagues in the Islamic Studies area. They are intellectually challenging, supportive, and kind. And although working on a PhD can oftentimes feel like an uphill battle, there are occasional moments when you can't help but notice how much you've changed over the course of the program. I can think of a few particularly affirming comments I've received on papers, but probably the most revelatory moment so far was when I traveled to Sana'a, Yemen, on a Provost's Summer Fellowship to study Arabic and Qur'an recitation for a summer. Although I've always been very good with languages, oral communication isn't exactly my strong suit. But when I got to Yemen I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was able to communicate perfectly well outside of the classroom. That was one of the most striking times when I was able to see how much progress I'd made."
Rachel L. Watson, PhD Student in Religion and Literature
"I am interested in American culture and American mythology as it impacts identity formation and participates in generating (and sometimes rewriting) history. My current investigations are into the gaps between history (this category continues to shift as I begin to include recorded histories as constructed narratives in their own right) and cultural representation. In short, I wish to see what happened, what is said about what happened, and how the latter is made to fit into a grander American narrative (to give an example from current dialogues, the myth of civil rights in America as continuously progressing, with the experience, notably in the singular, of black Americans set as the gauge and the institution of slavery and the election of Obama set as nadir and apex) . . . The role of literature and popular cultural production in creating, policing, and critiquing these kinds of mythic narratives is at the center of my research, especially since the final aim is to reveal the ways that seemingly secular ideas and ideals are in truth religious commitments. In my experience so far, God language is not needed to evoke human behaviors that might, when linguistic explicitness is removed as a criterion, be referred to as religious--e.g., absolute belief ('the self-evident') that leads to action, efforts at conversion and conformity, the advent of durable systems for evaluating other beings, etc."
Sarah Yardney, PhD Student in Bible
"I think the best features of the Bible program here are its rigor and its flexibility. My professors expect me to master a formidable quantity of material and to think about it with subtlety, acuity, and integrity. They have also encouraged me to put together a program of study that reflects my specific interests. I have never felt that there is only one way to proceed or that I need to step neatly into my professors’ footprints. In addition to being taught and mentored by excellent professors, I have benefited greatly from the insight, enthusiasm, and fellowship of my classmates."
"The [Divinity] School . . . by definition and design does not foster only one kind of approach to the study of religion, one religious tradition, or one way of thinking and conducting advanced research, nor presume to know what alone may count as a significant contribution to knowledge. I have argued . . . that there is a set of specialized skills for the academic study of religion, and that the purpose of the Divinity School, set within the context of this research University, is to inculcate in persons those skills and the capacity to think and speak about religion in ways that are maximally informed, rigorously critical and honestly engaged. Whether we think of this as itself a discipline or as a set of disciplinary conversations under the host category (which is itself always under construction) of religion does not much matter, especially if one takes seriously—as I firmly do—that it takes a University to train a scholar of religion"
Dean Owens responds to the question, "Why Chicago?" Hear what she has to say about choosing to pursue an MDiv at the University of Chicago, and about why she came back to work with students in her current role.