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Student Spotlight

Taylor Thomas

Taylor ThomasLike many other university students, my academic interests took some fine-tuning. Cycling through majors in all areas of arts and sciences, I took my first Religious Studies class -- Introduction to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- as a general education requirement, and instantly knew that I had found a niche I was determined to inhabit. I immediately tacked on a religious studies minor, hoping to satiate my interests via that route while pursuing a degree in anthropology. Unsure of how religious studies could fit into my academic plan, I tried to place it on the backburner as merely a hobby with no hope of combining it with my career aspirations. This all changed during the fall semester of my junior year. I enrolled in a seminar entitled the Bible and Archaeology and found my interests colliding into one beautiful, chaotic discipline. I became enthralled by henotheistic religion in the Ancient Near East, the ways in which people have understood religion over time, the intersection between material culture and text, and the limits of scholarship.

That semester, I began a research project on the role of the Hebrew term asherah in ancient Israelite religion, drawing on linguistic evidence found in the Hebrew Bible and at the archaeological sites of Kuntillet 'Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom to determine the nature of asherah and its possible role invoking a Near Eastern goddess. Since then, I have gone on to present my research at multiple conferences including the upcoming Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion in the spring of 2016, and have submitted it for review for publication. This project has also blossomed into the base for my honors thesis which addresses the bearings of second millennium B.C.E. Ugaritic mythology upon first millennium B.C.E. Israelite religious reform.

I owe all of this to the Department of Religious Studies. I firmly believe that no other department on campus has such a dedicated, enthusiastic faculty base, all of whom (whether I've had them in class or not) show a concern for student education, aspiration, and well-being. It is because of the Religious Studies faculty that I have been able to harvest a passion for education and research. I was able to participate in the 'Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project in southern Jordan and uncover a possible ancient religious structure. I am able to represent the department on the Dean's Student Advisory Council, including sitting on the College Curriculum Committee to give my input on the future of the university's curriculum. I am able to be a part of the editorial board for Pursuit: the Journal of Undergraduate Research and the Undergraduate Research Advisory Council, promoting academic research to students with humanities majors who are less likely to have research targeted toward them. As president of the Religious Studies Association and vice president of the Student Linguistic Association, I have been able to share what I have learned with my fellow students and help to create and promote an environment of free-flowing ideas and scholarly pursuits, and I have gained the background and confidence to become the academic programs intern at the McClung Museum, where I can showcase my passion for combining material culture and our understanding of history by engaging with students and the community.

As I prepare to graduate in May of 2016 and head to graduate school, there are many things that I take with me. From my major, I have gained a solid theoretical foundation on which to build my scholarship, equipped with the necessary skills to succeed in academia but also to perceive the world in a new light.  My time on the 'Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project gave me my first taste of fieldwork, but also sparked a passion for a cause and inspired me to promote awareness and action to help Syrian refugees through organizing donations collections and fundraisers. From my advisors, I have learned that sometimes the only thing I can do (but also the best thing I can do) is promote education and understanding to make the world a little bit of a better place. From the religious studies faculty, I have learned to analyze texts, contextualize objects and events, remain informed in modern political discourse, maintain a healthy amount of skepticism, promote global awareness and understanding, and to be part of a community.

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