Since the beginning of our M.A. program in 2012, our graduates have been admitted to Ph.D. programs at Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, UT-Austin, the University of Chicago, Princeton, USC, the University of Toronto, Arizona State University, Florida State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Illinois. A number have also entered the School of Information Science’s Library Science program at the University of Illinois.
Hear former students in Religion describe their experiences:
Letter from Alumnus from Spring/Fall 2020 Religion Department Newsletter:
After an initial residential teaching position at a small boarding school in the US, Joshua began teaching at India’s oldest IB and international school in Tamil Nadu, South India. He writes:
I have been fortunate in my life to have studied with some of the very best teachers and in many of the finest institutions in the world. Of all of these, I am most proud of my time in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois. During my two years in the Department’s Master of Arts program, I received world class instruction in the academic study of religion, as well as personal mentorship and supervision as a teaching assistant. In my chosen profession of education, I have utilized the teaching, research and analytical skills I developed as a graduate student at Illinois each day in my classroom, and I am a better teacher, educator and human being because I came to the University of Illinois to study religion.
One cannot know who we are as human beings without studying the religious practices that shape and animate so much of our common life. As I tell my students here in India, to know people, you need to know their religion, and to understand our past and attempt a glimpse into our future, you need to study religion. I came to the Department of Religion at Illinois desiring to know why we believe in what we do, and the ways that our religious practices are shaping the world that we live in today. Religion is not static and bookishly boring, but a living phenomenon that continues to guide how we see ourselves as people, and all of creation.
I am a teacher of humanities in the International Baccalaureate (IB) in Tamil Nadu, India, and I can attest that any teaching career in the IB or at an international school anywhere is deficient without a strong background in the study of religion. Because religion influences so much of a person’s life and the socio-political dynamics of communities, to study and know religion is an important pathway to countless professions where it is necessary to understand people...which describes most jobs in today’s world.
I came to the University of Illinois intending upon a career in education. Receiving my Master of Arts in 2018 was a crucial step in beginning my professional path. But even if a person has no desire at all to work in education, studying religion will complement his or her career and also assist in something far greater: building understanding on oneself and of the world we live in.
Though I am still relatively new to my career in teaching and educational management, I know that the intellectual and social riches that I found in the Department of Religion will benefit me for a long time. Without coming to Illinois, there is no way that I would be teaching in South India in the IB. This is now my second year at my school, and I could not be happier. I hope to progress into educational management after teaching, and because I may never have the opportunity to write this again, I would like to thank my teachers and classmates at Illinois for supporting me in the wonderful career that I began as a Master of Arts student. Thank you all for the memories!
Written with much gratefulness, I am,
Joshua M. Reinke
Class of 2018
Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India
From the Fall 2017 Religion Department Newsletter:
Courtney Averkamp reminisces ... My decision to become a graduate student in the Religion Department was initially an act of self-discernment. After a two-year absence from college, did I have the intellectual chops to make it in academia? Did I even have the discipline to study a new language from scratch? I was essentially dipping a toe into the murky waters of academia and the study of religion – and I was so terrified of sinking. But from first contact to May commencement, I found myself buoyed by the kindness and generosity of the department’s scholars and teachers. Finding my academic sea legs was by no means an easy feat, but encouragement abounded. So I’ve decided to stick around.
I recall an evening in my first semester as a graduate student in Religion: There I sat on the couch, blanket-wrapped, in my very first apartment with a roommate I barely knew. My semesterly cold had hit the day before, I missed my parents, and I anticipated a long night ahead. Every fiber in my body wanted to throw in the towel and go to bed, but I still had to learn five new characters in the Sanskrit script and read 50 more pages and write a quiz and... and! The big question on my mind was “Why did I ever decide to do this to myself?!” Three years later, I know exactly why: Because the work is hard, but the rewards of rigorous study are tremendous. Because whenever I’m feeling unsure of myself, some kind professorly soul comes along and gives me the encouragement I need, whether they know it or not. Because the Religion Department gave me the training and the confidence to jump head first into the academic study of religion.
As I type this, I’m once again huddled on my couch, having just defeated yet another semesterly cold, with altogether too much work to do. But this time, I’m not in unfamiliar territory, wondering if my choices are the right ones and cursing my past self. I’m sitting beside my husband John Plaiss (A fellow Religion alum as it were!), with plans to enroll in a PhD program next year, and I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else.
Alumnus Spotlight from Fall 2019 Religion Department Newsletter:
Michael Hamilton’s coursework in the Department of Religion sent him on an intellectual journey that resulted in a dissertation, Educational Values and Practices of Fundamentalist
The Department of Religion is the most visible location at the University of Illinois for scholarship and teaching about religion. But it is hardly the only such place on the U of I campus. Faculty and students in African American Studies, American Indian Studies, Anthropology, English, History, Jewish Studies, and Sociology, as well as in the College of Fine and Applied Arts and the College of Education often wrestle with the complex and fascinating ways in which religion presents itself in their subject matter. For decades, University of Illinois graduate students have sought out faculty and courses in the Department of Religion as they prepare for doctoral work and for the interdisciplinary nature of twenty-first-century academia.
Michael Hamilton was no stranger to academia when he entered the doctoral program in Educational Policy in the College of Education. He was, at the time, a faculty member in the Religion and Philosophy Department at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. Michael also knew a thing or two about serious engagement with religion. Before joining the faculty at Principia, he spent twenty years as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, ministering to sailors and Marines. When he began working toward his Ph.D., Michael knew that he wanted to focus on the intersection of educational policy and religious difference, but he wasn’t sure of the exact project or of the relevant literature that he would need to master.
Course work in the Department of Religion ended up being crucial to the intellectual journey that resulted in a dissertation, Educational Values and Practices of Fundamentalist Mormons, which examined approaches to education among polygamist communities in the American West. Michael’s project required unprecedented access to communities that generally resist contact (not to mention sustained interviews) with those outside their circle. The knowledge that he gained of American religious history, of struggles between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the U.S. government, and of tensions and ruptures within the LDS community, helped him not only to frame his scholarly inquiry but also to relate to the contemporary realities of his subjects.
The relevance of religion to Michael’s professional life has only increased over time. Since 2014, he has served as Executive Director of the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) was the pioneering founder of the First Church of Christ, Scientist and the author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. As Executive Director of the library that bears Eddy’s name, Michael is responsible for ensuring “public access to original materials and educational experiences about Mary Baker Eddy” and for helping educate various publics about “the ideas she advanced; her writings; and the institutions she founded and their healing mission.”
Michael’s path is unique. But the breadth and complexity of the issues raised by his encounters with religion are typical. The subjects of his work could fuel weeks of discussion about gender roles, bodies, education, healing, marginality, and the promises and challenges of religious freedom in the United States. The Department of Religion is proud to have played a part in preparing him for this journey.
Michael Hamilton, Executive Director, Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, MA.
Alumna Ryann Craig reminisces ... I sat in my Grandma’s living room during Thanksgiving break of my freshmen year, tabbing the course catalogue for a clue as to what my major should be. I liked history, culture, art, politics, literature, and languages. But most of all, I wanted to understand what motivates people at their core: Are our fundamental convictions determined by holy texts and spiritual encounters, or are they influence by cultural norms and social practices, or a combination of all that we experience? The reoccurring theme in most of the courses I was drawn to were that they fit the Religious Studies major requirements—and all other interests would complete my Liberal Arts degree from the University of Illinois.
To say that I loved my time at U of I would be an understatement. It shaped the trajectory of my life, providing the foundation for exploring all of the interests mentioned above, which would later become the buddings of my career path. I was particularly interested in how Christians and Muslims talk about the person of Jesus both historically and in contemporary interfaith interactions. I still have my notes from Dr. Hoffman’s course on Muslims and Christians and have referenced her course materials on more than one occasion!
From Champaign-Urbana, I landed in Washington, DC, and spent time working for think tanks while pursuing a master’s degree in Middle East politics from American University. Because of the variety of courses I’d taken at Illinois—from women in Muslim society and mystics in Islam to the history of the 18th–20th century Middle East—I was well-equipped to digest and evaluate current issues in the region, their relationship to religion, and our shifting foreign policies against the recent backdrop of 9/11.
Although I enjoyed my time in the policy world, the questions that sparked my interest back in my Grandma’s living room weren’t being addressed in any meaningful way. I wanted to use my knowledge for service, ultimately for the common good. This was an aspect of learning I gleaned from professors at Illinois, that all scholarship has meaning and purpose beyond the acquisition of information. As I went on to earn a seminary degree, I discovered two key facts about myself: (1) studying Arabic at Illinois paid off, as I understood the structure of Semitic languages; Hebrew came far easier than Greek and (2) my vocational calling was in the academy, not in ministry. My seminary professors encouraged the PhD route and I have been working towards that at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures.
Along the way, I’ve worked on several cultural heritage projects, including the Iraqi Jewish Archive (IJA) (www.ija.archives.gov), a collaboration between the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and the Government of Iraq to preserve and digitize materials pertaining to the Iraqi Jewish community recovered during the Iraq War. I served as the Arabic cataloguer, recording everything from marriage certificates and school records to mundane receipts for goods. When our exhibit opened in 2013, I met some of the brave men and women who fled Iraq after 1948, when sentiments turned against the Jewish population there. They left with very little—and seeing their class rosters or copies of birth certificates meant everything to them.
I’ve had opportunities to work on a Qurʾān manuscript project in Berlin; record stories of immigrants and recent refugees from Syriac-speaking Christian communities in the U.S. and Germany for an oral history initiative; serve as a copyeditor for the newly-launched Journal of the International Qurʾānic Studies Association and the online Mizan Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations; and return to my seminary as an instructor of a course on Christian Encounters with Islam.
I’m currently taking a break from teaching and working in academic support to spend the year as a Doctoral Fellow at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. My dissertation has not strayed far from where I began: I am analyzing the use of the crucifixion account in the Qurʾān by Arabic and Syriac Christian authors in their polemics with Muslims. Being at Tantur, surrounded by people of all faith traditions, has brought back many happy memories from my cohort; I’m forever grateful for the training and encouragement I received at Illinois.
Ryann Craig graduated in 2001. She wrote a senior thesis titled Contemporary Islamic Christologies: Implications for the Emerging American Muslim Community, for which she was awarded high distinction. She was also James Honors Scholar.