Brett Hains Harris – 2006

What are you doing today (professionally) and how did studying Religion prepare you for this?

I’ve done a number of things since graduating from Wake Forest in 2006, and right now I’m the Manager of Grants and Special Projects for Teach For America in Mississippi. I’m responsible for the research, writing, and reporting for all grant funding as well as the more grassroots aspects of our work across the state which includes small gift fundraising campaigns, working with a cohort of teachers who have an interest in community development and organizing, and connecting with the media to share the possibilities and potential of the students in Mississippi. On weekends, I have also occasionally filled the pulpit in several small congregations across the Mississippi Delta.

Studying Religion at Wake Forest prepared me for this work by encouraging me to explore the varieties of lived experiences beyond my own and instilling in me the importance narrative plays in our lives and work – we each have our own stories to tell and our traditions weave stories of who are communities are, how we got here, and where we’re heading. At the end of the day, I’m a professional storyteller whose stories try to share the compelling truth and hope inherent to Mississippi and her people.

I also learned the invaluable skills of research and rhetoric. I’ll take these with me to my grave, and am forever indebted to Drs. Foskett, Boyd, Ford, and Jensen for imparting their knowledge in these areas to me.

In your opinion, what are the benefits of studying Religion?

Studying Religion is inherently an interdisciplinary and practical endeavor. One cannot study Religion without engaging other disciplines including Anthropology, History, Biology, Literature, Economics, and so on. Religion stands at the root of much of contemporary society however veiled it may be at this point. It also stands directly in our midst on a daily basis whether we decide to engage with it or not. Billions of people are adherents to some religious tradition and the tenets or requirements of these traditions drive countless actions every day. If we can better understand what we believe, what our neighbors believe, and why we all believe what we believe, I think we can better address why we choose to do what we do on the local and global levels.

What advice do you have for current Religion students?

I assure you I’m not being paid to offer you this advice though it may sound like someone in the department speaking through me. Soak it up. Even if you go on to graduate school for religious studies or in some other field, you’ll never be in this position again. Take full advantage of the opportunities at your fingertips. Ask questions. Read what you’ve been assigned and then read some more. Ask more questions. Ask for recommendations from your professors of works to read, films to see, and people in Winston-Salem to meet and then go read them, see them, or meet them. Sit in the balcony of Wait Chapel by yourself one afternoon. Take classes that others say are too hard – whether they are in the Religion department or not. You’ll thank me and your professor later. Look for places and spaces where your Religious studies connect to your other coursework. And perhaps most importantly, listen to your advisor. He or she got that title for a reason. The insight and advice I received from Dr. Foskett has carried me well beyond the Reynolda campus.

Oh, and if Dr. Boyd is still coaching youth basketball try to become his assistant. Don’t coach against him. You won’t win. I learned that the hard way.

How have other areas of your life been shaped by studying Religion?

Much of why I am where I am today is because of the relationships I built and experiences I had while studying Religion at Wake Forest. Two of my dearest friends – Matt Imboden and Kyle Layman – decided to take Dr. Jensen’s course on the religious development of the individual and we ultimately ended up studying in Scotland together for a semester. Our friendship was strengthened by the bonds we built in that and other courses in addition to the fun we had beyond the classroom. During my senior year I took a course in religion and public life from Dr. Boyd. This course introduced me to the intersection of these two institutions as well as the role of community organizing and the necessity for community engagement on the part people of faith. As a student of Religion and a person of faith, I regularly draw on this course, my internship, and other readings and people it led me to in my day to day life.

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