Meet Our Majors

Meet some of our religious studies majors.

Stella Ramos ’21

Hometown: Seattle, WA
Major: religious studies with an environmental emphasis

Stella won the 2020 Marianne Ruuth Award, which acknowledges the best senior comps paper, college-wide. Her paper was titled “Why Salmon Matter: Subverting Settler Colonialism in Environmental Justice Scholarship Through a Study of the Seattle Salmon Homecoming Celebration.”

What was your motivation to major in religious studies?

I was very curious to study the fundamental ways we make meaning in the world, and the huge role both religious and spiritual experiences have on marking us as individuals, communities, and societies. I did not grow up within any specific religious practice, but always had access to spaces to speak openly about spirituality. For this reason, I felt largely confused by and almost fearful of institutional religious or theological practices. Initially, I wanted to study religion to reduce this fear personally. As I began taking religious studies courses, I found a rich way to subvert academia’s reliance on objectivity and gain a deeper understanding of all religions’ important role globally, all through careful, critical, and open-minded acknowledgment and interaction with spiritual/religious practices.

Can you describe your working relationships with RELS professors? Any standout classes you’ve taken?

I love the RELS faculty very deeply. They are all thoughtful, caring, and inspiring people to engage with and learn alongside. Very early on, I realized that the faculty within religious studies were unlike any others I had engaged with. They were unflinchingly supportive of my shifting needs, emotional states, interests, and considerations. I was pushed in their courses, always with the understanding that I could find them on the fourth floor of Fowler Hall to talk about anything at all. My favorite religious studies course was “Environmental Ethics,” a class with Professor Naylor which shaped my entire area of study and thesis project.

Have you taken part in any religious studies-centered research opportunities at Oxy? 

I did summer research in the Undergraduate Research Center in the summer of 2019, pursuing the research question "What do Environmental Justice scholars have to say about Native American spiritualities?" From my findings, I developed my thesis, which centered on how environmental scholarship at large, and more specifically the environmental justice movement, can better incorporate an understanding of settler colonialism in their relationships and projects with Native American communities.

What do you like most about studying RELS?

I really appreciate that subjectivity is an interwoven acknowledgment of the discipline. As opposed to other academic areas, objectivity is not a central pursuit or goal of most religious studies ventures. There's a practice of moving toward, but owing to the material largely being transcendental, immaterial, and based on personal experiences of spirituality and religion, there is (in my experience) a more concrete understanding that objectivity as a pursuit is unavailable. I think this allows religious studies scholars to have a healthier relationship to their projects and area of study. I also appreciate how many different kinds of religious studies scholars there are (sociologists, economists, scientists, historians, etc.).

What are your ambitions post-Oxy? 

My post-Oxy plans are still in the works, but I am interested in a variety of working environments related to birth work, environmental justice, art community organizing, and potentially eventually finding my way back to grad school! For now, I am working as the Programming and Press Intern at the Women's Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in RELS?

Take a class and go talk to the professors in the department. They will be interested in speaking with you no matter your relation to the department. You can really make the major your own, and they provide lots of flexibility in order to allow you to find your path and pursue your interests. Rely on the invaluable resource of the community!

Jona Yadidi ’21

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Majors: religious studies, theater

What was your motivation to major in religious studies?

I grew up with a religious background and an education that was grounded in studying religion. It wasn't until I took Professor Moazzam-Doulat’s class, “Islam and the West” that I realized the foundation that I had learned about through my own religion could be a platform for learning other religions. From that class, I developed a passion for understanding why people are religious, especially in monotheistic Abrahamic religions.

Can you describe your working relationships with RELS professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

One of the best things about the RELS department is that it is one of the smaller departments on campus so you get really close with the professors. Right now I'm in the middle of research for my senior comps project, and for the past few months have been working with Prof. Upson-Saia on the whole process. She's been there for me every step of the way, which I appreciate and value so much.

Have you taken part in any religious studies-centered research opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere? 

I had the opportunity to participate in a study abroad program during Summer 2019. I spent a month and a half in Varna, Bulgaria, participating in an archaeological dig at a Byzantine monastery. I participated in 100 hours of archaeological fieldwork, 20 hours of processing and documenting of finds, and 30 hours of lectures and instructions on early Christianity, archaeology, and architecture—all while gaining credit to go towards my major. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had during my time at Oxy. Go abroad!!

What do you like most about studying RELS?

What I love most is how customizable and flexible the major is. You have the opportunity to either take an interdisciplinary focus or just focus on religion, which is such an incredible opportunity. For those who choose to focus on religion, like me, there are still so many different directions you can take your focus in. The department is there to support you through your journey of studying religion.

What are your plans or ambitions post-Oxy? How has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

After I graduate, I plan to hopefully move on to graduate school in pursuit of a degree in museum studies with an emphasis on conservation. For this degree, it is really beneficial that I've received a liberal arts education because in order to study museum conservation you need to know about an array of topics, including chemistry, history, and the arts, in order to understand the methods used in the practice.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in RELS?

I'd say take it one step at a time. Sign up for one or two classes for a semester to get a feel of the department and take it from there. Your professors are there for you not only as professors but also as guides and mentors through your time at Oxy. The RELS department is so multifaceted that you will learn about every single topic that you're interested in. But remember, don't be afraid to go out of your comfort zone and learn something new!

Carol Beckett ’20

Hometown: Herndon, Virginia
Majors: religious studies, group language; minors: CSLC, linguistics

What inspired you to major in religious studies?

My first year at Oxy, I took a course with Professor [Kristi] Upson-Saia called “History of Early Christianity.” I really enjoyed the way that religion provided a different way to engage with history, and it really spoke to me. So, I signed up for more classes out of curiosity and ended up really enjoying all the different aspects that the religious studies department had to offer.

Can you describe your working relationships with RELS professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

All of the professors in the department are wonderful to work with, and they are always willing to talk about ideas or readings during office hours. Personally, I’ve really enjoyed the discussion-based courses that I’ve taken with Professor [Keith] Naylor, and the way in which he is able to engage all of us and spark a discourse surrounding the readings and other ideas relevant to the course.

What do you like most about the discipline of religious studies?

I enjoy the variety of methods and concentrations that you can choose from. I think that the department has created a place where—no matter what interests you about religion—there is a professor that knows something about it, or has done research about it, or may even be teaching a class that relates to it. This also allows you to explore different aspects of religion that you may not have given much consideration to.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in RELS?

Take classes from many different professors. All of them are really interesting and you might find something that sparks your interest in religious studies beyond just one class.

Sophia Vallas ’19

Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Majors: religious studies, mathematics

How did you choose to major in religious studies? 

I would say I found religious studies (RELS) completely unintentionally. When I decided to major in religious studies I was already set on my mathematics major, but I loved the classes in the RELS department so much I wasn’t able to keep myself away. My sophomore year I took two amazing classes with Professor [Kristi] Upson-Saia, “History of Early Christianity” and “Death, Dying and the Afterlife in the Ancient Mediterranean World.” After that I was convinced I needed to major in religious studies as well. The history and information that I was exposed to in these classes gave me a different perspective of religion, but were also so applicable to understanding conflicts and beliefs in today’s world.

Can you describe your working relationship with RELS professors?

One of my favorite things about the RELS department is that all of the professors teach wonderful classes and are so engaged with their students. I felt incredibly supported by every RELS professor and was always able to talk with them about ideas and papers. When I was working on my senior comprehensives project, I felt so lucky that the two professors I was working closely with, Professor Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa and Professor Upson-Saia, were so willing to talk with me about ideas and provide me with much-needed feedback. I also loved that the professors who weren’t helping me on my senior comps would always check in when I saw them and ask how everything was going!

What do you like most about studying religion?

Religious studies is an amazing field to me because it is so vast: so many religions, so many parts of the world, so many different time periods to study! The ability to be exposed to so much is one thing I loved about the discipline, and I cherish my exposure to religions that I may have missed out on had it not been for my major. Part of what drove me to the major was the application that RELS provides to today’s society, and that has remained one of my favorite aspects. Additionally, for me, it was incredibly different from the coursework I was doing with the math department, and it was refreshing to me as a way to use a different part of my brain.

What are your plans or ambitions post-Oxy? How did the liberal arts approach shape your ambitions or professional goals?

I will be working as an analytics engineer with a tech company in the Bay Area, a job that will largely require coding, data analysis and turning data into information that can be acted upon. Many of those things draw upon work and skills I learned in my mathematics coursework at Oxy, but I am incredibly focused on applying the skills I learned from RELS to my job as well in order to communicate the numerical findings in a way that takes away the complexity of the data. Having a liberal arts background is giving me a way to look beyond the numbers and focus on how the communication and sense-making of the data is equally important. I like to look at my job as a translation of the liberal arts education that I received at Oxy.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in RELS?

Expose yourself to as many different RELS subjects and professors as you can! There is so much information within every class and so much detail in each religion that you will always have something new to learn. Every professor is passionate and inspiring, and also incredibly knowledgeable about their specialty, so don’t be afraid to talk with them about your interests and/or questions about a topic.

Franny Hutchins ’19

Hometown: Needham, Mass.
Major: religious studies; minor: sociology

What inspired you to major in religious studies?

I decided to major in religious studies the beginning of my sophomore year. I had taken three classes in the department and really enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the major. The topics we studied in class were not limited to a historical or sociological method approach, but rather, the professors encouraged us to engage with concepts and theories at all angles.

Can you describe your working relationships with RELS professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

The professors in the department are brilliant. They are all so passionate about the classes they teach, which makes the material all the more appealing as a student. I loved the classes “‘Good’ Sex: History of Christian Sexual Ethics,” “Environmental Ethics and Religion” and “Critical Approaches to the Study of Religion.”

What are your plans or ambitions post-Oxy? How has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

Throughout my academic career as a religious studies major at Oxy, I have developed a passion for archival research and education. I look forward to applying and refining the skills that I have cultivated over the past four years by pursuing a career as an information professional. My major has allowed me to cultivate a deep understanding of the complex nature of religion in human societies. But more generally, my liberal arts experience has furthered my ability to contextualize primary and secondary sources for research purposes.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in RELS?

I would take as many classes across as many religious traditions as possible. You never know what topics or what content will resonate with you. I didn’t realize I wanted to be a RELS major until after my third class. I also would advise that students who enroll in these classes should participate in class discussion as much as possible. I was a rather timid underclassmen, and wish I had spent more time contributing to conversations with my professors and peers because I think I would have been even more engaged with the material.

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