ARIYANNE COLSTON ('17) FIRST YEAR OF GRADUATE SCHOOL

Now that you’ve completed your first year of graduate school, we want to know more about your experience! First things first: are you still happy with your decision?

I’m extremely happy with my decision! If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose the same program and the same university. For context, I’m in the five-year JD/MDiv program at Emory University, which moves between Emory School of Law and Emory’s Candler School of Theology. The first two years of the program alternate. I just finished up my first year at Candler and this fall I start my first year at the law school.

Has it been what you expected?

For the most part, my experience so far has exceeded my expectations. But there are some ongoing learning experiences and things that took some adjustment, namely the process of realizing/learning the difference(s) between Religious Studies and Theology and discerning which arena fits me more. That’s watering down a very complex discussion into one sentence, but it’s been a huge part of the journey.

At Miami, I got an amazing Religious Studies education where, even though I took a lot of classes related to Christianity and often read biblical texts, we were being trained to approach the material from an interdisciplinary perspective that for the most part didn’t center ‘belief.’ You could approach the coursework from the perspective of your faith if you wanted to, but that was more of a personal decision and less embedded in the actual pedagogy. And the classes were diverse, with non-Christians heavily represented.

But now I’m pursuing a Master of Divinity (as opposed to a Master of Theological Studies or a Master of Arts in Religion) at Candler, which is a more traditional seminary experience. The majority of students in my program are Christian and are pursuing pastoral ministry, so in a lot of classes we talk openly about faith and are encouraged to take theological positions. And even in more academic classes, we’re studying theologians and issues dealing with interpretation. I’m looking at some of the same texts through a completely different analytical lens, asking a different set of questions. That took some getting used to.

Having both experiences—‘Religious Studies’ and ‘Theology’—opens up a new rabbit hole: Which lens attracts me more? Are they even separate? If they are, should they be?

And a major disclaimer to the above is that one isn’t ‘better’ than the other, it just depends on your personal preference. And how/whether you experience that tension also has to do with the particular context of your graduate study. I chose the MDiv experience at Candler over other programs knowing very well that it would be more Christian and ministry-oriented. And while I like that in some respects, I’ve learned that I’m probably more comfortable with the other side. Now I pick my classes very strategically to fit my interests and preferences.

Did UM prepare you well for the work you’ve been doing?

Absolutely! Coming from a Religious Studies background at UM has been a huge help. Even though I just said the atmospheres are different, they’re complementary. And part of the reason why I’m even able to process and agonize over the ‘dilemma’ above is because UM gave me the foundation to do so. Even though Candler is preparing a lot of students for ministry, it’s still very academic. A lot of people coming from an explicitly faith perspective or from different areas of undergraduate study find the transition difficult because they have to gain new vocabulary, learn how to write a good paper in Religion, develop different reading skills—essentially, they have to learn the basics of studying Religion while they’re in grad school. But Miami gave me the basics, so the transition to graduate study felt less like a total shock and more like a ‘leveling up’ and building on the groundwork I already had. Graduate study is a lot more work and the standards are higher, but I haven’t felt lost or confused so far, just challenged.

Also, I’m always reminded of how respected UM’s Religion department is. I see UM professors on syllabi as assigned reading, and it’s weird but also really cool. It makes me proud and nostalgic.

Tell us more about your course of study and what you are working on now. How has your research developed?

First semester was composed of mostly required courses. I took Old Testament, History of Early Christianity, and MDiv students at Candler are also required to do a contextual education experience where we serve as chaplains in a setting such as a prison, hospital, shelter, etc. (That’s an example of something that’s very program specific and shows the emphasis on ministerial training.)

Second semester, I had more room to choose what I wanted to take. My favorite was a historical course on American Christianity where we engaged a lot primary sources ranging from witch trials and Native American conversion narratives to the 2016 Republican National Convention speeches. I also took a great systematic theology class on political theology and community where we read the ‘traditional’ theologians like Aquinas, Augustine, and Luther alongside contemporary theologians and theorists like Kelly Browne Douglas and Judith Butler.

I also started an internship in the spring with a nonprofit that works to document and preserve historic rural churches. In the midst of all of this, I’ve become really interested in the role of place and space in African-American religion in the South. In the History of American Christianity course, our professor pushed us to interrogate ‘the black church’ as a concept and whether it really exists. That and the work I do with abandoned churches has me considering the difference between the institutional church, or fixed ‘place,’ and lived religion or folk religion that’s enacted everywhere, even in spaces that aren’t normally deemed sacred or religious.

Any stories come to mind to illustrate what the transition from undergraduate to graduate work has been like?

I don’t know if I’m proud or ashamed to say that I pulled the first true all-nighter of my academic career finishing up two long final papers due on the same day. I spent the night in the library. But that’s kind of a depressing story. A more positive representation of graduate work is that the relationship with professors gets even better, at least at Emory. Professors were super approachable at UM, but moving into grad school also makes a difference I think? Professors offer to work with you to get your work published and they do a lot to link you to different opportunities. Like they aren’t just really cool professors, but also mentors and friends.

Any (new) advice you’d give to those considering graduate work?

I guess in keeping with my big blurb, my advice would be to carefully research and consider the differences between programs and what they look like depending on the university. Have an idea of your personal priorities in graduate study and make sure you choose the school that’s going to work for them. Look at the curriculum requirements, the faculty, the city etc. Also, know that there may not be a ‘perfect’ program/school that has it all in a neat package. Don’t be afraid of having to accommodate or make things work for you. Finally, this may be bad advice (?), but go with your gut.

 

ARIYANNE COLSTON GRADUATING CLASS '17

What made you decide to pursue graduate work?

I knew going into undergrad at UM that I would go to grad school after; the question was more a matter of what I would actually study. I decided to pursue graduate work in theology because my studies in that major led me to questions and topics I wanted to research further beyond undergrad. It also best tied together all my areas of study. I realized that almost all of my interests in history and international studies and language were rooted in a deeper passion for Religious Studies.

What will you be studying?

I am entering a joint degree program in Law and Religion, meaning that I will be pursuing both a Master of Divinity and Juris Doctor simultaneously within a five year program instead of spending three years per program separately.

What are you career goals?

My goal right now is to enter a PhD program in Religious Studies and teach at the collegiate level after I’ve completed the law degree and MDiv. At the same time, I’m also very interested in public interest law and community justice. A dream of mine is to make academia more accessible. There’s a dichotomy between academia and ‘the streets’ that I want to challenge, but I’m still not completely sure of what that will look like career-wise. That is something that I want to explore for the next five years.

Where will you be going to graduate school? (If you haven’t decided, feel free to talk about the places where you’ve been accepted so far)

I just committed to Emory’s Candler School of Theology and Emory School of Law. I was also accepted to the law and divinity schools at Vanderbilt University and Wake Forest University. The decision process was extremely difficult because they are all amazing schools with warm faculty! I would recommend all of them to anyone interested in pursuing graduate work in theology.

How did your work in the Religious Studies department contribute to your decision to go to grad school?

This is where I get to gush about the Religious Studies department at UM! This department facilitated a passion for Religious Studies by showing me just how relevant religion is to all disciplines and arenas of life. It discovered the ways religion pervades our cultural values, social norms, politics—things we don’t commonly consider as having any religious significance or foundation. I think the Religious Studies department here at UM fully reflects how expansive and interdisciplinary Religious Studies is. I have another major and two minors, and the work I do in my Religious Studies major always connects to my other areas of study because in studying religion, I’ve also acquainted myself with anthropology, sociology, and political theory. The department influenced my decision pursue graduate work because it showed me that Religious Studies is one of the most diverse and well-rounded fields, and there are so many directions in which you can go. It made me fall in love with the use of religion as a lens through which to view and ask questions about history, society, and human experience.

What skills (e.g., critical thinking) did you learn from the study of religion that might help you in your studies/work as you move forward?

UM’s Religious Studies department definitely prepared me for grad school by challenging me academically and building critical thinking skills. I do feel like the study of religion changed the way I think and expanded the way I look at the world. I guess you might say I’ve started “thinking like a scholar” in my daily life. I constantly come up with research topics I want to explore just from watching movies or keeping up with pop culture. And not only are the ideas there, but I mentally plan out how I would organize and argue the paper as well, because working in the Religious Studies department has taught me how to analyze and express ideas in light of the things I’ve read and learned.

What advice can you give to other students who might be thinking about applying to graduate school

Take advantage of the great faculty here at UM. They have a lot of great advice to give because they’re in the field and they’ve done this before. They’re more than willing to help you if you’re unsure about what schools to apply to or how to craft your personal statement. And our faculty is well known and highly respected in the academic community! At every school I visited, someone knew at least one professor in our department. Definitely keep them involved in the process.

What advice can you give to students who might be considering a Religious Studies major/minor?

Just declare it! You won’t regret it. Out of the four departments in which I study, the Religious Studies department is without a doubt my favorite. I’ve enjoyed every class and professor. And as I said before, Religious Studies is always relevant. It will do nothing but help you and strengthen your understanding of other majors and minors if you have them.

What is the one thing you will never forget about studying religion at UM? (a favorite memory, topic, reading, project)

I think the personal highlight of my career as a Religious Studies major was giving a presentation on Kanye West and Amber Rose twitter wars in Dr. Walsh’s ‘Religion and Gender’ class. I connected Kanye’s tweets about Amber Rose and Kim Kardashian to ancient Greco-Roman ideas of the female anatomy and sexual power dynamics. Now I keep a steady eye on Kanye, Jay-Z, and Beyonce for all the ancient religious imagery and content in their art (and social media activity).