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 of Students Teresa Hord Owens through her response to the question, Why Chicago?
Chelsea Cornelius, MDiv Student
"Alongside coursework, I teach writing on campus at the University of Chicago Writing Program, I serve on the Office of the Provost’s Sexual Misconduct Advisory Board, and co-lead the Divinity School’s LGBTQ organization, DivOUT. I also played on the Divinity School’s intramural soccer team--we may or may not have lost every game, but as our end-of-season slogan says, “Big losses, even bigger hearts.”
As an extension of my ministry coursework, I have been serving as a chaplain at Cook County Jail. Starting my second year of the MDiv, I will also begin a field placement at Gilead, a newly developed “open and affirming, anti-racist, local, organic, slow-church, just peace, free range, real butter Christians” church in the Rogers Park neighborhood. I am thrilled to get to serve this community in the coming year.
When I’m not engaged in one of these endeavors, I am usually found in my hammock on the main quad of campus, reading at one of the coffee shops in Hyde Park, or playing cribbage with friends."
Irema Halilovic, MA Student
"Most of my coursework centers around History of Religions, Islamic Studies, and Anthropology of Religion. The relatively new Anthro of Religion program overlaps in many classes with the very established History of Religions program. As for Islamic Studies, I like to think I’m doing something a little novel by bringing the study of Islam into the program of History of Religions, which currently only hosts various studies of Indian/South Asian religions. I am a total theory nerd, so most of my thoughts and ideas are related to different theories of religion (i.e. Douglas, Turner, Lincoln, Eliade, Foucault, Gross, Spivak, etc). I also really love philology and ethnolinguistics, which is why studying ancient cultures is so fun for me. Above all, ritual is an extremely important concept to me; how ritual reinforces and produces certain emotional/physical/political responses in its participants and observers is endlessly powerful."
Maham Haq, MA Student
"I am a scientist by training and was enrolled in a Neuroscience PhD program at University College London prior to my admission at UChicago, so the transition to religious studies was a drastic change for me. I am currently enrolled in the Masters of Arts in Religious Studies (AMRS) with an emphasis on Islamic studies. I am researching the medicine practiced by Prophet Muhammad and comparing it to the medicine that was traditionally practiced by the Greek before and at that time."
Kerwin Holmes, MA Student
"Once I was able to secure a visitation through the Discover UChicago Program, I was immediately hooked with what I considered to be an academically rich and intellectually nourishing environment. What was most important for me was that I continue my education in a place where it was still okay to ask questions that, for the sake of truth and knowledge, sought to get at different angles on a topic. And my undergraduate professors were correct, the Divinity School at the University of Chicago is one of those places."
"My area of study is the development of Patristic theology along cultural lines. Currently I am trying to think of ways to approach the complex issue of Christianity’s split from Rabbinical Judaism as both emerged from the religious fervor of Second Temple Judaism under Roman occupation. I very much want to take into consideration the cultural breaks and shifts within the Christian community as more non-Jews, bearing their own ethno-religious traditions, became involved in the doctrines of the Church."
Annemarie Kalson, MDiv Student
"Outside of the classroom I am employed at the Divinity School coffee shop, Grounds of Being, have a committed Zen meditation practice that involves daily meditation and periodic 2-7 day silent retreats, and am a yoga practitioner and certified teacher. Recently I have applied to be a mentor for LGBTQ undergraduate students through the Office of LGBTQ Student Life. With fellow Divinity School students I hope to form a meditation group to support each other in our practice that so often can become lost in the demands of academia. As I settle in to my new life as a graduate student in Chicago I look forward to exploring the numerous opportunities available to me both on campus and in Hyde Park. I hope to make a positive contribution to this community during my stay here."
Clay Lemar, MA Student
"Having just finished my first year in the MA program, looking back, I cannot imagine a setting with more potential—more flexible, smaller, with as much access to professors—for myself and my interests. Whatever your interests may be, the opportunity here is staggering. I have already had a hard time reconciling, or recognizing myself now in who I was when I arrived a year ago. I doubt other programs—in numbers or in curricular excess, would afford such a narrative."
Angela Lei Parkinson, MDiv Student
"The University of Chicago Divinity School was and is my first-choice because of its commitment to a rigorous foundation in traditions. For me as an aspiring scholar, this means gaining a comprehensive and cohesive understanding of my research traditions’ history, literature, languages, and philosophy/theology. As someone seeking to be a practitioner of ministry, I see the Divinity School’s commitment to traditions in this sense in its structured, three-year, and cohort-based program, which provides the student with a strong foundation on which to develop one’s personal form of care of others."
Dante Thrasher, MA Student
"Religion has always been an intriguing subject to me, however I began to pay attention to how it shaped much of my life and the lives of others during my studies at my alma mater, Clark Atlanta University. It was the idea that these traditions have existed since antiquity and continue to influence human interaction today that led me to the submission of my application. Instead of going straight to law school or working at a law firm for a year I decided to do something unconventional. The prospect of having autonomy over my coursework, along with the ability to take a class anywhere throughout the University, sealed the deal for me."
Sam Truman, MA Student
"I chose to attend the Divinity School because of the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum. My primary focus is religious art, so it seemed like a natural fit. The Divinity School has been the perfect place to allow me to explore this topic from various angles because I have the freedom to take relevant classes in other departments.
My main interest is the art of the Northern Renaissance, especially devotional objects like altarpieces and reliquaries. I’m interested in how the historical context of an object informs its narrative development, but I’m also very interested in visual depictions of suffering and grief."
Victoria Valerga, MDiv Student
"I have enjoyed work in law and federal government service, but have long wanted to find a way to develop marketable skills to working with people in the area of religion. My current goal is to become a hospice chaplain. But since I am doing the 4 year dual master’s degrees in Ministry and Social Work, I figure there is plenty of time for things to happen. I will graduate with lots of new skills... UChicago also offers Tibetan for my scriptural language (I’m Buddhist), not just Hebrew, Greek and Arabic. The ministry program is very practically minded, with field training opportunities from the beginning."
Nora Zaki, MDiv Student
"Our chaplaincy shadowing program has opened my eyes. I’ve gained valuable insight from our time shadowing a hospital chaplain that you must know yourself before you can help others... My goal is to build bridges. I’m most likely going to continue with academia and pursue a PhD. But, I also want to focus on service and activism, so I don’t want to only be in the “ivory tower.” With my growing Arabic skills, working in diplomacy and ambassadorship is another possibility."
Liz Brocious, PhD Student in Theology
"I love how leafy green Hyde Park is; it is more residential than many parts of the city. I like the location of my apartment because I am surrounded by many families with children, in addition to fellow university students and faculty. There is a sense of community in Hyde Park.
The University’s evening shuttle buses are nice to get you home in the freezing cold winter months after dark. You can track the location of the buses on the Transloc app, so that you can wait inside a warm building and only go out to the bus stop when the bus arrives.
Also, I love the Seminary Co-op bookstore. Many professors send their book lists there, and you can place an order online through those book lists and pick up the books within 24 hours. They often offer used books. If you become a member, you earn store credit with your purchases. I usually have a decent amount of store credit (once I had $19) toward the cost of my books each quarter."
David Cohen, PhD Student in History of Judaism
"Moving to Chicago from New York, I immediately noticed the clean streets, the affordable housing options, and the general sense of Midwestern politeness. Chicago has a ton of things to do on a student’s budget: from free museums, sports events, festivals and street fairs, and student tickets to the orchestra and opera. In short, you should leave the library from time to time.
My spouse and I moved to Chicago and felt that the Divinity School is a very supportive place for students and their partners. We have found a very warm and welcoming community of students and faculty. The Divinity School is very inclusive for families and students alike."
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."
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."
Magda El-Ghitany, PhD Student in Islamic Studies
"I chose to apply to the University of Chicago Divinity School for its renowned faculty, small size, and the support it offers. After I started the program, I had a different set of reasons that made me sure I made the right decision by choosing U of C Divinity School. I find the unique, “flexible”—interdisciplinary—nature of the Divinity school, which is rarely found at any other academic venue, to be particularly suitable for my academic interests and the multi-dimensional nature of my research. I am also enjoying the cooperative/strong ties the Divinity School has with other departments at the University of Chicago and the way such a connection fed and benefited my own project. For example, my main area of concentration is religion (Islamic Studies). However, central to my project is the study of religion from certain anthropological and historical angles—for example, how Islam has been historically debated in post-colonial Egyptian media outlets and how it has been portrayed in contemporary Egyptian public, intellectual, and literary discourses. For this reason, I have taken classes in Near Eastern Language and Civilizations (NELC) and Anthropology as well as in Swift Hall."
Nadia Khan, PhD Student in Islamic Studies
"The friendships I have made are hands down the highlight of my time at the Divinity School. This is a place where people strive for high standards of academic excellence but do so without being in cutthroat competition with one another (for the most part!). One place where you can see this in action is the Islamic Studies workshop in which my colleagues and I help each other on our writing and prep each other for conference presentations. It’s cliché to say this but true that I have learned just as much from my peers as I have from my courses."
Andrew Kunze, PhD Student in Anthropology and Sociology of Religion
"The Divinity School’s inter-departmental connections were important to me, especially its close relationship with the South Asian Languages and Civilizations (SALC) department. I’ve always wanted to study religion, but I knew that more general linguistic and historical studies would also be necessary for my project. Over my time in the Div School, I’ve taken just as many classes in SALC as I have in Swift Hall... I’m interested in how media consumptions–for example, watching YouTube videos of the guru–play a role in religious development, like inculcating guru bhakti (guru devotion). Just as well, I’m interested in how media production and circulation–filming the guru and posting it online–is also considered a form of seva (devotional service)."
Vinicius Marinho, PhD Student in Theology
"I opted for Chicago because of its combination of intellectual rigor, freedom, and heterogeneity, but also because the scholarship developed here seeks appraisal and validation in topical instances of public life.
In Brazil and during the course of my master's, I read the field-defining scholarship on religion and public life developed by a few Divinity School faculty members. Their books and classes bespoke the cultivation of three major intellectual principles: (a) paramount academic rigor; (b) freedom of thought, exercised through a heterogeneous philological appreciation and the courage to take intellectual risks; and (c) a critical yet nuanced and interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion.
Aside from these principles, I also found it compelling that the school acknowledges religions’ renewed status as reasons in public discourses, be it on the local, national, or global scale. Similarly, I treasure the opportunity to work with scholars who reflect sharply on key questions about the global and intercultural dynamics of particular religious ideas, truth-claims, and moral sensibilities."
Dhruv Raj Nagar, PhD Student in Philosophy of Religions
"I hoped to be able to study certain traditions of philosophy/religion holistically and in depth without being restricted by departmental boundaries or methodological approaches. The Divinity School and the Philosophy of Religions program particularly exemplifies an approach that gave me the freedom to explore my subject with equal sensitivity to philosophical or theological considerations, historical, philological or hermeneutic approaches, Analytic or Continental thought, Indian or Western philosophy or the theoretical or experiential dimensions of a religious phenomenon. The faculty of PR (Dan Arnold, Matthew Kapstein, Brook Ziporyn) especially displayed a sensitivity to and mastery of both Western and non-Western traditions of thought and an ability to bring the two into productive conversation."
Foster J. Pinkney, PhD Student in Religious Ethics
"When examining PhD programs in Religious Ethics and Philosophy, the University of Chicago's program really stood out. I could sense a deep commitment to argumentation and intellectual diversity. I read the works of Dr. Schweiker, Dr. Miller, and Dr. Hopkins before applying and felt that I would have the freedom to explore different hermeneutical approaches to the study of religion and ethics. I've also found that the Divinity School has broadened my concept of religious study and ethical living—UChicago has added depth to my work and to how I inhabit the intellectual traditions of my discipline."
So Jung Kim, PhD Student in Theology
"Pursuing graduate-level study in the English language is the definite and most challenging element for numerous international students. Fortunately, the University of Chicago has multiple programs that can help you to improve your English. Also, most professors at the University of Chicago are well aware of the difference between academic achievement and language/cultural barrier. An international student should not confuse her or his lack of academic preparedness with English skills, although the latter is a significant factor in academic achievement in the United States. Most professors at the U of C – though not all of them – can differentiate between the language barrier and intellectual seriousness. They will not necessarily lower the bar for international students, but they do respect and appreciate the international students and their intelligence."
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."
Hector Varela Rios, PhD Student in Theology
"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 was personally welcomed and encouraged to attend. That 'sealed the deal' for me."
Raul Zegarra, PhD Student in Theology
"I have been one of the coordinators of the Theology and Religious Ethics Workshop for the last two years. There I took care of organizing events for the discussion of students' and faculty’s research, plus some panels on current issues and concerns that go beyond the strictly academic ones.
In addition, I try to have an active role as an academic in Latin America. I travel a couple of times a year to the region to give talks and participate in different academic networks publishing books, academic articles, translations, etc.
In my country, Perú, I do my best to have a voice in public debates, especially those concerning religion. Following the long standing tradition of the Divinity School, I frequently publish articles in a couple of newspapers hoping that the careful study of religion can have a positive role in public life.
On another note, everyone should know about the scan-and-deliver service at the library, the possibility of asking the librarians to buy new books, and the routes of the UChicago shuttles."