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by Mike Zimmerman MTS’10
Program Coordinator, Office of University Chaplain and Religious Life
Where one starts in a career path or vocational training can truly be different than where one ends. Through my experiences in life, and more that would come while at the Divinity School, I would come to see that allyship was quickly becoming a flagstone to which I was drawn in the academic world. While I, as a Catholic, was a minority at the Divinity School, I became acutely aware of the limited experiences that people have with faith traditions other than their own. While they may have heard of these faiths or practices, they oftentimes did not know anyone personally of that faith tradition. As I became more aware of the differences in attending a school in the South, I began to see the similarities in the challenges for students of other faith traditions that are often in the minority among students. My time at VDS helped me not only deepen my own faith but gave rise to learning more about others’ faith and supporting them.
Upon having the opportunity to come back to Vanderbilt and work in student affairs through the chaplain’s office, I was able to engage with students—undergraduate and graduate—of every faith tradition. I saw the opportunity to speak for the students who did not have a voice on campus. Although being a religious minority often isolates students to practice their faith in what has been offered and not expect more, being able to speak for these groups has enabled me to make great strides for them. Creating a space on our campus for Buddhist students with a Zen Rock Garden, advocating for Halal food on campus for our Muslim students, programming to ensure that the holy day festivals of our Hindu students are not celebrated and viewed only as cultural festivities, and helping organize university-wide sponsored Advent and Chanukah services are all opportunities that have given the wider University and all its students, staff, and faculty the ability to see the rich diversity that our campus holds inside.
The plurality of voices and differences among us does not divide us but rather brings us together when we embrace the diversity of beliefs in the natural world. Encouraging the recognition of something greater than the self (which can bog down academics that overly strive to break new ground and change the world) is the common thread that can build a community out of a pool of aspirations. VDS helped me to see others and take up their cause as my own as an expression of my own faith. A plurality of voices, viewpoints, and practices is what continues to make Vanderbilt continue forward.