Ashmi Patel arrived from Texas, seeking to study Hinduism. Gabriella Percario is a yoga instructor in New Jersey looking to deepen her teaching and practice. Helen Castro, a single mom and staff employee at Rutgers, simply saw an opportunity to learn about a topic that has always fascinated her.
The three women, diverse in age, interests and background, are among the first wave of students entering Rutgers University’s new graduate program in religious studies.
Launched last fall by the Department of Religion in the School of Arts and Sciences, the Master of Arts program puts the university at the forefront of an increasingly hot field in the humanities.
“Religion is universal. It pervades so many different aspects of modern life,” says Patel, a Dallas native. “If you can understand religion, you can understand so many other things in this world.”
Generations ago, students wanting to do master’s level study of religion were probably more likely to check out seminaries and divinity schools than public universities.
But that is changing.
Religious studies programs are on the rise at secular colleges and universities nationwide, drawing students with highly diverse career goals and interests – everyone from budding scripture scholars to future school teachers, public policy experts, diplomats, human rights activists, and healthcare and social workers.
Indeed, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said recently that if he went back to college he would major in comparative religion. “That's how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today," Kerry said in a speech last year.
At Rutgers, where there has been an undergraduate religion program since the 1950s, faculty members say the new graduate program is the only one of its kind in New Jersey, and just one of three in the tri-state region. “This has been a long time coming,” said religion department chair Tao Jiang. “The department has been dreaming about a graduate program for years.”
James T. Johnson, a religion professor at Rutgers since 1969, said the program’s inception is well-timed for the post-9/11 world. “Over the last decade or so, the public has become increasingly aware of the importance of religious differences around the world,” Johnson said. “Part of the importance of this program is that it responds to this awareness and places Rutgers in the running among public universities that are specifically shedding light on these issues.”Students can study any of the major spiritual traditions and take thought-provoking thematic courses such as "Just War and Jihad" or "Apocalypse Now: Religious Movements and the End of Time." Another course pulls science into the mix, examining current neuroscience research into religious contemplative practices.
Students say the program is rigorous yet flexible enough to fit their own plans. Patel, who majored in religion as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University, was looking for an master's program where she could study Hinduism and lay the groundwork for getting into a doctoral program. “I ended up choosing Rutgers because of the faculty,” she said. “I saw it as a place where I could really grow.”
Percario, who earned her bachelors in psychology at Rutgers in 2013, saw the master's program as benefitting her as a yoga instructor and as a person interested in spirituality. “Once you start digging into this well of information, it becomes a completely compelling experience,” she said. “To understand, for example, how yoga developed and the way it was transplanted to the West is not only fascinating to learn about, but it also makes me a more serious student and practitioner of the tradition.”
For Castro, who earned her bachelor's degree in English in the 1980s and works as an editorial assistant in the university’s Center for Alcohol Studies, the program is adding a new dimension to her life. “I was looking for something that would stretch my mind, challenge my assumptions and spur my creativity,” she said. “And that is exactly what this program is doing.”
The religion department received support from the SAS Office of New Program Initiatives and Digital Learning to develop its new Master of Arts program.