Getting Out What You Put In

May 20, 2015
Cody Musselman
Cody Musselman / Photo: Kristie Welsh

Cody Musselman will graduate from HDS on May 28 with a master of theological studies degree. Originally from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, she has been an active member of the HDS student body during her two years at the School.

In a brief Q&A, Cody talks about what she's most proud of during her time at HDS, the importance of "self care," and how future students can get the most out of their time in Cambridge.

HDS: What were you doing before you arrived at the Divinity School? 

CM: I was living in Colorado, where I worked at a ski resort in the winter and as an outdoor sports instructor in the summer. (I taught rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, and mountain biking to 5–12 year olds.) This was right after college, and I needed a break from academics. It was great to spend time being active outdoors and to come into graduate school refreshed and excited to study.

HDS: Why did you choose to attend Harvard Divinity School, and what were your expectations before you started?

CM: I chose to come to HDS because I knew that I wanted to study American religious history. I also knew that I wanted an experience that was not purely academic, and I wanted to learn from peers who were practitioners as well as scholars.

Before I came to HDS, I knew that it was a multireligious institution, but I did not really understand what that would look like in person. Before I arrived, I was confused by how an institution could bring so many different faith backgrounds together and honor each—all while fostering an ethos of intellectual and spiritual curiosity.

HDS: Academically, what has been your focus?

CM: I have focused on American religious history, and my interests lie in twentieth and twenty-first century religious phenomena. It has been important for me to gain an understanding of the deeper religious history of the United States as well.

HDS: What was the classroom experience like for you?  

CM: Classroom experiences have been great. I have particularly benefited from seminar classes where conversations are a primary component of class. When the professors bring their own questions to the course materials, the conversations are particularly lively.

It is sometimes surreal to think about the discussions I have had with professors, who have literally written the book on a particular topic, and to have them be just as open to learning from me as I am to learning from them. In most classes, I have experienced the positive effects of the mutual respect that exists between students and professors.

HDS: What have been the biggest surprises you have discovered about HDS since you've been here?

CM: One of the biggest surprises is the emphasis on "self care." At times the refrain "self care" is repeated to an extent that can invite mockery, but it is nonetheless an important part of the HDS ethos.

I knew I was entering a rigorous academic environment when I accepted the offer of admission to HDS. I did not know, however, that I would have help in making my experience here sustainable. More so than at other institutions, HDS realizes that academics is just one component of a student's life.

Mental health, fitness, sleep, friends, family, and hobbies are other major components of life that students need to maintain to be successful while at HDS. Learning how to take care of myself while pursuing my ambitions has been a huge and beneficial lesson I've learned here. HDS encourages students to think about their lives holistically and to seriously consider the costs and benefits of scholarship.

The curriculum at HDS is flexible to the degree that students can make the experience be what it needs to be to fit into the trajectory of their personal and professional lives. As a result, professors, faculty, and students are very accepting of when "life gets in the way" of a paper, or when a deadline simply isn't the most important thing at the moment.

Self care puts our work here into perspective. Self care allows us to bring our best selves to our work. I am convinced that without this ethos in place, HDS would not be the vibrant and joyful community I have come to know.

HDS: Is there something you accomplished while at HDS that you're especially proud of? To that end, what has been the biggest challenge you faced at HDS, and how did you overcome it?

CM: I am proud of the podcasts that I have produced for the Pluralism Project. I have worked there for two years, first as an intern and then as a research associate. During my time at the Pluralism Project I have been fortunate to be involved in projects that engage the public with the religious diversity of the United States.

Producing the podcasts has been a fun and creative approach to exploring the ways religion manifests in the United States (like humanism in the interfaith movement and Buddhist meditation in prisons). Religious literacy is a huge part of what drives my work. It was gratifying to create resources for the public so that people may better understand the myriad of beliefs, practices, and commitments that exist throughout our country.

My biggest challenge here has been confronting the imposter syndrome. Sometimes it is hard to know the extent to which my work here matters in the grand scheme of things, or how it has contributed to society. While I trust that it has—or someday will—Harvard is a big pond with many amazing fish in it. It can often be intimidating to think of whether or not I measure up to the University's standards.

I've learned to combat the imposter syndrome with frequent self-reflection and by focusing on personal relationships. Some of our most brilliant moments arise when we are in the company of caring friends, not when we are in the classroom or on a panel. I have discovered that learning is a constant process and that reading for fun or having coffee with a friend is all a part of that process.

I have also learned that active listening is just as participatory—and sometimes even more beneficial—as vocal contributions. One of the benefits of being in a big pond is that there are many fish to learn from.

HDS: As a student at HDS, were you able to take advantage of the opportunity to enroll in courses at other Harvard Schools?

CM: I have taken courses cross-listed with Harvard College. It has been a fun experience to take classes with Harvard's undergraduate students. At times, it has made me realize how my graduate experience resembles a job more than it does my own undergraduate experience.

HDS: People use the word "community" a lot around HDS. Does this hold any particular meaning for you and, if so, what?

CM: When I was an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College, I spent a semester being a community organizer. From this experience I know that community is intentional and is something you have to create.

The HDS experience needs to be many different things for the many different students it accommodates: from single parents, to folks with part-time jobs, to young adults who come here right after college. That is all to say that the administration at HDS does a wonderful job providing the tools to build community, but it is up to the students to take hammer to nail. For those who do, it is incredibly rewarding because HDS welcomes students who have such diverse backgrounds and experiences. You can travel the world in one conversation here.

HDS: How have you been impacted by your experience at HDS? What, if anything, has changed about you as a result of your time here?

CM: While at HDS I have come to identify more strongly with my Mennonite faith. I was raised as a Mennonite, and I had not done much to reflect on how this upbringing impacted my worldview until I arrived at HDS. Through conversations and visits to other religious services, I began to see how my conceptions of the sacred and morality were informed by Mennonitism. The comparative perspective available at HDS allowed me to identify my place within a larger history and community of Mennonites.

In terms of academics, I have developed the practical skills of critiquing, forming an argument, and finding primary sources. Beyond the nuts and bolts of scholarship, perhaps the best way to describe HDS's impact on my life is that it has forever changed my thinking.

I have come to more fully understand the dynamics of power I confront or am implicit in every day. I may never know the full extent of HDS's influence on my life, because the ideas I have been exposed to here, the compassion and heartbreak I have experienced here, and the people I have come to know, have all become a part of me—inseparable from my whole.

HDS: Do you have any advice for incoming students that you wish someone would have given you during your first week in Cambridge?

CM: My advice is somewhat unoriginal, but it is certainly applicable: You get out what you put in.

HDS and the greater University have many resources for students to access, if they want. From independent studies, to new student groups, to cross-registering for classes at the Law School, HDS can be what you need it to be. If you're unsure what you need it to be, talk to one of the many caring faculty and staff members here. People at HDS want to help you help yourself. And all the while, remember to take care of yourself—whether that means a daily nap, attending weekly religious services, or taking fewer classes—you will thank yourself for it later.

HDS: Could you describe what's next for you after graduation?

CM: After graduation I will be pursuing a doctoral degree in American religious history at Yale University. I am excited and grateful for this opportunity to continue pursuing my passion of studying religion in the United States. I hope to one day be a professor of religious studies, so that I can engage students in the same kinds of dialogues that have expanded my mind and shifted my paradigms.

As I mentioned, I am a big proponent of religious literacy, and I hope my future work (either on the pages or in the classroom) can help foster understanding and disintegrate conceptual barriers. Religious studies touches upon the deepest and most inexplicable components of human life, and I enjoy the connections it creates and the challenges it presents.

—by Jonathan Beasley