I took a trip to visit both Harvard Divinity School and the University of Chicago Divinity School in the first week of April. I learned a lot about my situation when I visited the schools, and I gained a lot of insight into why I was so nervous.
The first of these concerns was that I wanted an applied degree. I had originally applied for an academic degree, arguing that I wanted to study Islam so that our public better understood it, and so that I could search out stories that had been untouched. As I looked at tuition bills, course schedules, and degree requirements, though, I really felt like I didn’t want to do all that. I did want to know more about the Qur’an, and I wanted to speak Arabic, and I wanted to study the history, but my biggest concern was that I wanted to do it in context, and I was deeply concerned that the degree I was pursuing would not allow me the time or the consideration to put my studies to use in our world today. The work that I do at the Women’s Center empowers me and is a huge part of what I believe is healthy community involvement. It isn’t the end-all-be-all, but it did teach me that academic inquiry is the gateway to becoming all of myself, not the final goal.
So the first thing that I learned about my trip was the most definitive: I want an applied degree, and I want a Master of Divinity.
At Harvard I felt really excited about all the amazing things that were happening there. It felt really amazing to be around other people who were passionate about the same things as me. But, what I gained from Harvard was a renewed passion and a sincere reality check: when I had my discussion with the financial aid director, it became very clear that taking on the necessary debt would be a very irresponsible thing to do. I left the school knowing that there was absolutely no way, but more importantly, I felt inspired in some ways, because I knew now more than ever what I wanted to do.
So I visited the University of Chicago, and the mood was extremely different. A much more academic school, its goal is really to prepare students to become professors. I struggled through some of the Master of Arts discussion, then went into the Dean of Students office, and said, point blank: “I think I want an MDiv instead.” Her response was: “YES! Of course! I knew that as soon as you asked that question in the forum…”
And in some ways, that was really want sealed the deal. I had a discussion with the Director of Ministry Studies, went to an MDiv dinner at her home with the other prospective and current students, and listened to a little bit of what they were doing. I wasn’t madly in love with the program or the school, but I had a much more realistic connection with Chicago than I had with Harvard: the program was close, sincere, and devoted to what they were doing. The faculty were close with the students, and field work was a major priority for MDiv students. Financially, the environment was more sound because I knew that I could earn my living expenses, partially because they were more reasonable, and because more students worked. I was also really inspired by Chicago itself and the neighborhood that the school was in. I did not feel as though I was in an elitist place, nor did I feel too ‘unrefined’ to exist in that world. It had a sense of authenticity that I really felt good about.
When I returned home, my major decision was not between schools. It was between taking the opportunity in front of me at Chicago, or staying another year in Minneapolis working for the community that is important to me here. It was between taking on new debt, or waiting before I incured more. It was about going through an open door, or waiting to see what other doors opened if I waited. It was between taking another year to learn from the community, or going into a place where I can be all of myself at the same time.
I had a lot of questions. Now that I knew I wanted an MDiv, could I find a school that would give me total financial aid? Would I become a disconnected academic who was disengaged from the community? Would I have time for my personal life, my art, and my writing? Could I handle postponing my dreams for another year?
In the end, I chose to attend the University of Chicago for a Master of Divinity. It was mostly for the community, the closeness of the cohort, and their willingness to help me do what I felt called to do. But most of all, it was about potential growth, and the amazing opportunities that I could pursue there. It was not as wide and diverse, perhaps as Harvard, but it also was less overwhelming. It has strength in its specialty, which for me can be a very valuable thing: a more succinct program can help reel me in. Although I was at first reluctant to choose a school I was less enthusiastic about, I thought about other experiences I had, and realized that in the end, I WAS more enthusiastic about my life in Chicago. From there, the decision was obvious.
I’m nervous now about how I will have to change to be a successful graduate student. I worry that I may not have time to engage with real people, or I may become too intellectually obsessed to be approachable by just a man on the street. But, I feel confident that I can navigate away from those things, and that I have what it takes to beat those things. The life of a university student is really who I am, and although I always want to expand myself, stretch my comfort zone, and have a tangible effect in my community, I know that in order to do it right, the core of who I am must be at home. Then I will truly have the strength I need to always become something more, and to really make an impact in my world.