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From Obieland to Boston: Harvard Divinity's DivEx Program

November 30, 2016

I have known that I want to pursue Unitarian Universalist ministry since I was a very involved UU highschooler. But then I came to college and my world exploded and my interests revolved around new galaxies and I wanted time to figure out a lot of things. I thought, hey, maybe I'll get ordained when I'm 50 after an entire career as a queer domestic violence healing practitioner.

But then my friend Neal Graves OC '14 told me about Harvard Divinity School's Diversity & Explorations program. You can read about the program on its website here, but basically Harvard Divinity School brings fifty or so students from marginalized backgrounds (people of color, lower income, disabled, and queer) together for a week to visit the school and learn to see ourselves at Harvard. Oh, and they pay for everything. Obviously, I was incredibly honored and grateful to be selected to participate in this program. My co-DivExers were some of the most brilliant people I've ever met, doing some of the most important and innovative work I have ever heard of.

As for the program itself, the things we got to go to were incredible. There is no doubt in my mind that Harvard opens doors with resources and access to all types of efforts. However, I felt at times that comes at a cost. Harvard is, quite literally, the academic Ivory Tower, and that permeated the culture and feeling on campus. I was never quite sure how much room (even among those wide wooden doors) there was to bring in challenges and to fill the spaces with our collective experiences, struggles, and triumphs. This sounds very intangible, but in quite concrete ways like the clothing people represented themselves in, and the academic jargon they utilized to discuss, their scholar-activism was often antithetical to what I have been trained at Oberlin to consider "radical" or disruptive. I struggled with how un-Oberlin the environment was. I am accustomed and comfortable in settings where we refute traditional norms and structures; this was not status quo at HarvardDiv. One thing a Muslim student pursuing a Masters in Theological Studies said that really stuck with me was this:

I came from UC Berkeley, where we were so good at critique. We could break everything down and that's what I was used to. But when I came here it was totally different. I had to move from an orientation of learning deconstruction to an orientation of reflection and construction. I had to learn to be less dismissive, to engage meaningfully with the texts you seek to criticize, to have patience.


And when she said this, I felt very shaken. On a scholarly as well as spiritual level. Her statement helped me reconcile the opportunities of this place with the representation of this place. I have reached the understanding that although this place--any school of higher education, really--would bring me great discomfort, it might be a necessary part of my education, a lesson in patience and difference. (Emphasis on might. I'm still not 100% sure this is the place for me.)

And there were people, like that Muslim student and others--

the undocumented student documenting how Mexicans use their faith to give them courage along the migration journey,

the Black Buddhist, Lama Rod Owens, who wants to explore his personal connection to ancestral indigenous faith practices prior to enslavement,

the Reverend who from the pulpit exclaimed that she exists to affirm Blackness because she loves her people,

or the professor who makes room for his students to rely on faith when the institution fails to support them--

who have taken their time at HDS and beyond to do the spiritually-driven justice work I am drawn towards. So, the potential for boundary pushing and bringing in of others is present at Harvard Divinity School. I bore witness to that work and to the people doing it during my week at Harvard.

I hold no illusions about the work that needs to be done within the Unitarian Universalist church, nor about what it means to study at Harvard Divinity School. As Professor Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesus said in her keynote speech to my DivEx cohort, some of you will be here to have your ambition legitimized, we'll get you your degree, and then you'll go out and get things done. Which is a lesson that I learned at Oberlin: how to utilize the institution, attempt to disrupt it from the inside, and ultimately take the resources you gained, on to the work that fulfills you. And though I would certainly not be comfortable at HarvardDiv by any stretch, its wide wooden doors would grant me an incredible degree so that I could get my paper and do something with it.

A postscript:
If you are considering grad school but aren't sure you or your goals fit in there, I would encourage you to seek out programs like DivEx or find institutional funding, and give it a shot. You never know what places you'll find you can make your own. And if you want to see the shenanigans my incredible cohort got into during our time in Boston, search #destinationHDS across all social media platforms.

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