In a short Q&A, recent HDS graduate Lucia Ruth Hulsether, MDiv '14, discusses the impact of her experiences at HDS, her work on interfaith engagement, and the meaning of "community" at HDS.
What were you doing before you came to HDS?
I came directly to HDS from college. In 2011, I graduated from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, with a BA in religious studies and sociology/anthropology. There, I was active in our Living Wage Campaign and spent summers working at the Emory University Candler School of Theology's Youth Theological Initiative—a vocational exploration, theology, and social justice summer program for high school students.
Why did you choose to attend the School, and what were your initial expectations before you started?
I usually say that HDS represented an ideal kind of environment for me—everything from the plethora of curricular offerings at HDS and at the Boston Theological Institute, the number of possibilities for field education, the commitment to imagining ministry as a capacious concept, and the overall enthusiasm of the student body.
In retrospect, probably the main deciding factor in attending HDS was that, in college, I had crossed paths with HDS alumni who were PhD students at a nearby university. I thought they were completely brilliant, so cool, and also very patient with a star-struck younger student. I wanted to be like them. Or, barring that, I hoped I could access a similar experience of formation. I applied to HDS with them in mind, and, when the actual decision came, thinking of them tipped the scales.
Is there something you accomplished while at HDS that you're especially proud of?
I don't know if it's something I've "accomplished," per say, but I'm really proud of and grateful for the friendships I cultivated. They are what animate, inspire, and challenge me each day. I wake up each morning feeling lucky for these colleagues and friends.
Academically, what was your focus?
Master of Divinity degree students declare a concentration in a designated religious tradition, and mine is Christianity. I've focused my coursework on the cultural politics of religion in United States history. I'm curious about how positive visions of religious multiculturalism—say, appeals to interfaith engagement and pluralism—might come to enact and justify physical violence. I've done projects about the ways that appeals to interfaith engagement have also justified the War on Terror and how multinational corporations like Coca-Cola, TOMS Shoes, and Google deploy "diversity" as an advertising strategy. My thesis investigated the circumstances under which an institutional discourse of pluralism developed at HDS, especially in light of student radicalism during the late 1960s.
What was the classroom experience like for you?
It can feel like a lot of pressure to take classes with well-known faculty and such brilliant students. It takes a minute to get your sea legs, but once that happens the classrooms are the most exciting places on campus. I always looked forward to going to class—the intensity of the exchanges, the brilliance of my colleagues, and the way discussions would continue after we left made it impossible not to be pushed to an intellectual edge every day. I love that!
One of the best decisions I made was to take half of my classes pass/fail. It was like a spiritual discipline for me to renounce grade-chasing and focus entirely on learning and taking risks in my work. I am certain that I learned the most and worked the hardest—and probably would have had the best letter grades on my transcript—in classes I took pass/fail. I recommend this practice to everyone.
As a student at HDS, were you able to take advantage of the opportunity to enroll in courses at other Harvard schools or at the BTI?
Yes! I spent a lot of time in the Harvard American Studies, History, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS) programs. I served on the WGS Tutorial Board, which meant that I advised a senior thesis and a junior paper for a concentrator in that field. Cross-registration is one of the best opportunities of studying here, not only because it presents so many academic possibilities, but also because it offers access to a network of people across Schools.
People use the word "community" a lot around HDS. Does this hold any particular meaning for you and, if so, what?
I'll answer this question with a story from my thesis research.
In 1968, HDS students, staff, and faculty created a decision-making body called "The Community." It dealt with the School's collective response to the Vietnam War, the School's investment decisions, institutional racism at the School, and changes to a curriculum that was dominated by white, mainline Protestant theology and church history. The group survived for about one year before imploding due, in part, to infighting and lack of power to enforce its decisions, especially as immediately as students wanted. The dean told the president of the University that the Community was an important forum for HDS, but it never usurped the decision-making power of the faculty. Meanwhile, disillusioned students started declaring, "There is no Community at HDS."
This is a good example of how terms like "community," which sound so straightforward and positive, can be highly contested beneath their surface. I avoid using this term to describe HDS, not necessarily because it's inaccurate, but because it's imprecise. Instead, I try to describe specific textures of life here. I would highlight the impromptu gatherings over lunch in Rockefeller Hall, the Frisbees and soccer balls made publicly-available on our quad, the daily opportunities to gather for a meal or time of reflection, and the justice-seeking work that students do in field education and beyond.
But, in the next breath, I would also stress our ongoing obligation to address institutional racism, sexism, class elitism, and Christian-centrism, as they manifest at HDS and beyond. When we use words like "community," or talk about life at HDS at all, it is imperative that, even as we highlight the life-giving parts of it, we also remain accountable for the urgent work that remains. HDS is up for this challenge.
Can you describe a bit more about what's next for you?
In fall 2014 I'll begin doctoral work, where I hope to continue exploring the complex and intersecting valences of neoliberalism, multiculturalism, and religion in U.S. history.
—by Jonathan Beasley