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An Unconventional Start


Ashley Cornell grew up in Washington state, finished an associate’s degree while in high school through the state’s Running Start program, and joined the US Navy.

“My story as a student begins a bit unconventionally,” Cornell said. “I wanted travel experience, work experience, and to generally see what there was to see going on in the world beyond my home state.”

She spent eight years working as an Information Systems Technician (IT) in various capacities before beginning her studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, majoring in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. During her first semester at UT, she took three courses for a connections package, one of which was a seminar in religious studies with Professor Tina Shepardson.

“A month and a half into the course, I changed my major!” Cornell said. “I was thrilled to find a course that went beyond dry dissection of only a few texts, or that only allowed for narrow discussion, or that felt 'preachy' or heavily theological. My experience with the religious studies department at UT has introduced me to a rich, ongoing discussion of the present and past through the lens of a dramatically diverse and interdisciplinary field.”

The work in that course led Cornell to a research project she ultimately presented at the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature’s Southeastern Conference on Religion (SECSOR).

Cornell continued taking more courses in religious studies program. One of her favorite experiences with the department was going to Jordan with Professor Erin Darby, which was possible through a religious studies department student travel award.

“Going to Jordan as a student member of UT Dig Jordan in 2019 was an absolutely amazing experience,” Cornell said. “Being a part of an actual, ongoing archaeological dig and being able to produce original undergraduate research was a once in a lifetime experience! All of the hard work is definitely worth it when you learn so much in a short period of time, and actually get to see how the data is made – really, how history is made! I loved being able to see and understand how the material culture that we as people base our understandings of the past upon is found, documented, and preserved!”

Cornell has been recognized for her work in religious studies with several awards, including Outstanding Professional Promise and Outstanding Academic Achievement. She also received the Joan Nicoll Riedl Book Award.

“I am excited to continue pursuing my current career in information technology, as well as looking forward to continuing my studies and digging into the intersections between modern culture, data infrastructures, religion, and religious expressions.”

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