The First Year Experience: An Extended Introduction

By Amy E. Steele, MDiv, PhD
Assistant Dean for Student Life

schola prophetarum

The First Year experience at Vanderbilt Divinity School is an extension of the New Student Orientation. It is comprised of six sessions that focus on spiritual formation, stewardship, and vocation—or in other words, matters of spiritual grounding, money, and jobs. Perhaps these ideas seem tangential to formal theological education. Perhaps, we think that there is a certain amount of detachment required of students dedicated to the study of theology.  This perception is not false. Divinity School is a deep immersion in Biblical studies, ethics, theology, homiletics, and liturgics, but the idea of “detachment” is challenged by student realities.

Many of our students work, have family obligations, and organize rallies and protests. Other students secure internships, work in field education placements, pastor churches, or volunteer for nonprofits. They understand that immersion in study does not always afford the luxury of detachment (nor should it), but rather this kind of study is a springboard for a deeper plunge in the totality of experience: their own lives, the life of the community, the life to which they are called. The First Year experience communicates support for this kind of totality of experience. It understands that religious leadership demands the discovery, cultivation, and nurturing of a spiritual core whereby persons can examine the deeper inner connections they have to this field of study and the work they will pursue.

The First Year experience offers new students an intensive exploration of the spiritual and financial cost of a theological education. It provides new students exposure not only to various spiritual disciplines that we hope will grow organically or manifest naturally from theological study and reflection—Lectio Divina, embodied prayer, contemplative writing as spiritual formation, and yoga—but we hope also that it will inspire new students to become smarter financially by taking out fewer loans and living more simply and cooperatively with others. These and other sessions aim to assists students in adapting to the ethos, culture, purpose, and commitments of the School—one step at a time.

Much of what we offer in terms of student support services recognizes that our renown faculty, committed staff, competitive university, bustling city, engaged citizenry, opportunity for nonprofit, pastoral, and academic vocational development, make Vanderbilt Divinity School a one-of-a-kind-experience. The First Year experience not only enhances student opportunity for engaging one-another but also develops strong peer communities of support and offers the benefit of understanding the enterprise and blessing of theological education as preparation for living a life concerned with a just world. It is not a perfect place, but as our dean frequently reminds us, “It’s never dull.” For students taking their first steps in theological education, they often help create the most interesting aspects of the journey, every year.