Detour in the Right Direction

May 19, 2014
Detour in the Right Direction

Having worked as a lawyer for 12 years before entering Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 2012, Sejal Patel knows the challenges of taking a detour mid-career.

"When you're at a certain tenure level and age, if you elect to not adopt that route anymore, switching to something else takes a lot of swallowing of pride," said Patel, who will graduate this May from HDS with a master of theological studies degree. "It's a hard decision to make to leave your professional identity behind."

Before coming to HDS, Patel worked primarily in criminal law as a public defender. She then joined the law firm of Carney and Bassil. While working for the firm, she was one of four lead counsel members in the U.S.A. vs Mehanna et al case, the second largest terrorism case to go through Boston.

"It was an experience that even now, two years later, I'm still processing," Patel said. "For me, it was a traumatic experience."

The stress of working on the landmark case prompted Patel to examine the trajectory of her work. She was at the beginning of the seniority stage of her career. Did she want to continue developing a reputation as someone who takes on difficult, high-profile cases—the ones that no one else wants?

To explore the answer to this question, Patel applied to both Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and HDS. After being accepted to both schools, Patel planned on attending HKS.

"It seemed like the most natural segue from my career," she said. But a week after declining her spot at HDS, Patel called the Office of Admissions "in a panicked tizzy," saying, "I think I may have made a mistake."

While at HDS, Patel has enjoyed the breadth of classes available in the interdisciplinary Religion, Ethics, and Politics Concentration. She notes that professors Michael Jackson, Healan Gaston, and Diane Moore have been especially influential in enriching both her studies and her life.

"They believe in their students in a way that's astonishing," Patel explained.

She has written under the guidance of Jackson and Gaston and made a short documentary film for Moore. Above all, she is grateful for the encouragement that she received from these professors to access the artistic, non-linear side of herself.

Her primary project is writing a book that was inspired by her father. After graduation, she plans to continue pursuing her interests in writing and film. After the completion of her first book, she plans to write a book that focuses on steps individuals take after exiting a period of trauma. She will also continue to use her legal expertise by volunteering for a gun control organization in San Francisco.

Reflecting upon her decision to come to HDS, Patel noted that it felt like where she needed to be.

"Maybe I had just reached a point in my life, between work and raising two wonderful children, that I needed to go to a place that was a little bit quieter and more meditative."

Patel is grateful to have found new interests while at HDS. As someone who has "never done anything that was even remotely off track," Patel feels like her HDS experience has given her a new lease on life. She attributes this feeling to the relationships she developed with Jackson, Gaston, and Moore.

"Graduating and knowing that there are people out there who believe that you’re going to do something great with yourself is nice to feel at this stage in your life."

What has Patel's time as part of the HDS community meant to her? "It's been the greatest and most healing two years of my life."

—by Coby Musselman