Take two: the joint degree programs at YDS

By Luanne Panarotti ’13 M.Div.

Luke the Evangelist started out a physician.  John Calvin trained in the law.  Gregor Mendel had his pea plants.  The idea of combining theological pursuits with other disciplines is not a new one.  Yet, YDS students engaged in joint degree programs are bringing a contemporary flair and sense of mission to cross-disciplinary study.  Dean of Admissions Anna Ramirez commends “the richness that joint degree students add to the mix of this place,” as well as the broad skill sets with which they leave Yale, better equipped for their individual vocations.

Michelle LewisTake Michelle Lewis.  She arrived at Yale with an already lengthy resume.  Having served for 12 years in the United States Park Service and produced two related award-winning documentaries, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies was a natural destination.  But it was her most recent post at the Park Service that compelled her to combine these studies with theological education.

 “When I was doing law enforcement work, I clearly saw that people were hurting, and were looking for something – and I think that something is God,” said Lewis.  With the vision of homelessness, substance abuse, and the hopelessness of so many young people clear in her mind, she is now formulating a plan to create a private program for juvenile offenders that will use the connection to the natural environment as a tool in their rehabilitation.  She looks forward to a future career involving “running the program, doing a film here and there, teaching a course on the side,” hoping to connect people to God, and “giving people enough so that they want to start asking the important questions themselves.”

YDS offers joint degree programs with a half-dozen other schools at Yale, including Forestry & Environmental Studies, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health.  Historically, the most popular programs have been with Forestry, Law, and Management. In 2011-12, there are nine joint-degree students—four with Law, four with Forestry, and one with SOM.

BrooksMike Brooks came to YDS with a significant amount of leadership experience in the non-profit sector.  As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, Brooks started a nonprofit called The James Gang—named after pragmatist philosopher William James—that “fostered community programs combining creativity and service: a free public art gallery and performance space in downtown Iowa City, an outdoor music festival benefitting local nonprofits, free wireless Internet in public spaces” and more.  The music festival caught the eye of United Way Worldwide, which acquired it—and Brooks—in the process.

Brooks oversaw the piloting of Student United Way programs on dozens of college campuses, a labor of great significance, yet the “presence of God” he felt early on in life seemed to be calling him to more.  “There was an organizational string, and a faith string, and part of my process is realizing they’re not two different strings.”  Now interweaving work at YDS and the School of Management, Brooks hopes to continue working in the non-profit and public sectors, “excited about moral development in individuals and civic health in communities.”

FoxFor Margaret Fox, the path to religious studies began in the law—twice.  As an undergraduate, she went to France to research a legal topic.  There she “fell in love” with 13th century stained glass windows.   “They were like comic books; it was fun to figure out who was who, what story they were showing, and so on.” She began reading the Bible in order to decipher the windows, and soon it became, says Fox, an “obsession I couldn’t shake.”  After receiving an M.T.S from Harvard Divinity School, she turned her attention once more to the order and practicality of the law and enrolled at Yale Law School, but soon began to consider “the ways in which integrating the two fields would be helpful.”  Having spent last summer working in the Legal Services Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, KY, Fox is now discerning a call to ministry as an inquirer in the Presbyterian Church.  Her interest lies at “the nexus where law and religion come together,” and she hopes to spend some of her remaining time at Yale exploring First Amendment questions and community building. 

KurtzMelissa Kurtz was fully entrenched in a medical career when she felt called to decrease her time at the bedside and take on graduate studies.  A neonatal intensive care nurse, she found herself constantly facing bioethical issues regarding life-sustaining treatment and judgments of medical futility.  Entering the joint MAR (Ethics) and MSN (Nursing Management, Policy & Leadership) program at Yale, she was able to focus her studies on both the “relationships among children's health care issues, policy advocacy, and the ethical delivery of quality health care” at Yale School of Nursing, and, at YDS, “the way in which various individuals apply concepts of spirituality or religion to their understanding of notions like human dignity, human rights, and ethical decision-making in the health care context.”

 Through the joint degree, she experienced wonderful internship opportunities; one led to a full-time job as a bioethics consultant, meeting with patients, families and health care personnel trying to make difficult health care decisions, where, Kurtz says, she  “can’t imagine a better transition from my rich experience as a joint degree student.”  Kurtz will be the first to admit that “juggling both programs was definitely a challenge at times” but “worth it.”

 Pursuing degrees jointly allows students to complete their requirements in less time than if the degrees were approached separately; consequently, this creates a more intensive learning experience.  Students credit the generosity and guidance of key faculty and deans such as Ramirez with making their experience workable. But in the end, it is the drive, and perhaps the calling of the students that enable them to tackle their rigorous combination of studies.  “God is good to me,” says Lewis. “I want to give back.”

Date Posted: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 2:38pm