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Memorial Hall. Photo by Chris Alburger

Memorial Hall. Photo by Chris Alburger

“Dear Ms. Goehring, Congratulations!…”

Memories crash over me.

I am 2 years old, toddling toward my Poppop, who is saying, “You’re going to go to Harvard someday!” despite that no one in the family has completed a bachelor’s degree before and I’m still not quite getting the hang of the whole walking thing. I am 10 years old, and the teacher’s pet for knowing everything in the CCD book back to front. I am 13 years old, winning the religion award at my Catholic grade school, proud that I know about my faith, having just been confirmed and taking Joan of Arc as my confirmation saint. I am 14 years old, serving Mass for the Bishop and wondering if religion is all just nonsense for all the harm it causes. I am 16 years old, arguing with my religion teacher about Catholic social doctrine regarding the status of women and homosexuality in the Church. I am 18 years old, and I stumble into my first theology class at my Jesuit college, and I fall in love. I am 19 years old, and I take my first theology class in a non-Christian tradition—Islam, specifically—and I fall even more in love. I declare a major in theology, and I am asked if I am joining the convent. I am 21 years old, sitting in my advisor’s office, terrified and exhilarated at the prospect of graduate school.

In my childhood, Harvard was always construed as a magical academic wonderland, populated by the most elite Renaissance people who had access to unlimited resources to change the world. Certainly, I was never discouraged from attempting to go, but seeing as how I was to be the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, Harvard seemed to be a little far out of reach. However, this never stopped my Poppop, a mechanic who never finished his degree from Loyola Baltimore, from telling me that I was going to go there.

Shortly before I left for college, Poppop was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and while we would let him know that I was going to Fordham University, he would often get confused and think that I was going to Harvard. As I pursued my degree, trying to discern the winding pathway of academia, Poppop got sicker, and was ultimately moved to an assisted living facility.

My research interests became increasingly focused on comparative work between Christianity and Islam, especially with regard to studies of gender, sexuality, and social justice, and (stubborn as I am) I did not want to let any of my interests go, or do any job that would make me give up my studies. I had always known that I was called to academia on some level, but I never took the profession of a professor truly seriously until I came to college. With all of this in mind, I needed a program that would allow me to explore as widely and as deeply as I could, and HDS fit that bill to a T. When talking with my advisor (himself a PhD in Religion graduate from Harvard), I nervously mentioned that I was looking at HDS, but was looking for recommendations for other schools. He asked “Why? Because it’s Harvard?” I replied, “No, because it’s Harvard and I’m me.”

Moving beyond the idea of Harvard as an elite institution, I was incredibly doubtful as to whether or not I would get in to any graduate program. My grades, although good, were not a 4.0. My GRE scores were mediocre, at best. By the time I finished the umpteenth rewrite of my personal statement, I was thoroughly convinced that I would not be accepted anywhere. However, I knew that I would regret it forever if I didn’t at least try. It was too ideal of a program for me—and it was an institution built up by too many hours of daydreaming by Poppop, and me.

Fast forward to March 13, 2013. I was at home over spring break, watching the livestream of the papal elections at the Vatican. (Doesn’t everyone do that over spring break?) White smoke appeared at around 2:00 PM, and I watched with joy and gratitude as Pope Francis was installed as the first Jesuit and the first Latin American pope.

An hour later, my phone buzzed, and an email stated that my HDS admissions profile had been updated. I began to mentally prepare myself for the ensuing rejection letter. Who gets into Harvard, anyway?

Well, for the life of me, I could not tell you why or how, but somehow that letter stated I was accepted into HDS. After running around my house like a madwoman, screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs in sheer disbelief, I began the process of alerting my family to the good news, which led to similar reactions from them.

However, throughout all of this celebration, I still wondered if HDS was the right place for me. I wondered if it would be a cutthroat, competitive environment. I wondered if I would make any friends there. I wondered if the faculty were truly as great as they seemed on paper.

So, I made the trek to the Open House for Admitted Students.  Almost immediately, all of my fears were put to rest. I sat in on a class and found the experience to be academically exhilarating, but still manageable. Every student I talked to was beyond friendly and went out of their way to make me feel welcome. Even the food at Community Tea was delicious!

I traveled back home, confident that I belonged, somehow, at HDS. I visited my Poppop, rendered incapable of speaking from Alzheimer’s, and shared that he was right, all those years ago. I choose to believe that he understood.